This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Math.

In this week’s astronomy lab, my students needed to make some simple calculations, mostly involving some arithmetic and a little bit of algebra to convert  hours and minutes into decimal hours (for example, 1hr 30min = 1.5 hrs) and some arithmetic. Nothing too complex, but it was nevertheless a major challenge for many of my students, eliciting groans of “I suck at math”, “I’m not a math person”, etc.

I’m sympathetic, to a point. I struggled with math quite a bit as a wee lad, and even as an undergraduate astronomy major in college (don’t tell anyone). But looking back, I realize that the reason I “sucked” at math was because I told myself I sucked at math. Once I decided I no longer sucked at math, I suddenly got better at it.

I watched this happen to a student when faced with the problem of calculating the difference in time.  He was struggling with some time calculations and asked me for help. It went something like this (and yes, I’m paraphrasing):

blackjackMe: Ok, so you need to figure out the time difference between 1:16 and 1:21. What is it?
Student (tired, frustrated): Oh man, I’m just not sure right now.
Me: No problem. Let’s imagine you and I are playing blackjack together in Atlantic City—
Student: Now you’re talking my language!
Me: Cool. So you’re dealt a 7 and a 9. What do you have?
Student: 16, a really sucky hand.
Me: And the dealer is showing an 8, what do you need to do?
Student: This sucks, I have to hit.
Me: Yeah, you do, but what do you have to pull in order to make 21 and guarantee you won’t get beat?
Student: A 5.
Me: Right, so what’s the difference between 1:16 and 1:21 again?
Student: Oh geez, of course. Duh!

I got a little lucky here – I didn’t know that the student played blackjack, I just guessed. But mathematically, the problem was the same.  The context of the problem seemed to make all the difference. At the blackjack table, he no longer seemed to think he sucked at math and suddenly the problem was a piece of cake.

A lot of math phobia gets swept away when you are presented with problems in a more familiar setting. That’s why I know my students don’t suck at math, or at least not nearly to the degree they think they do. After all, math is hard, but it’s a skill you can learn.

I’ll wrap this up with a video that caught my eye this morning that dispels a lot of the myths, fears, and misconceptions about math. I’m not a genius at math by any means, and I might have to stop and think a little bit more when solving a problem than others. But I don’t suck at it, and neither do you.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 4: 3…2…1…

With two solid days of briefings and tours under our belt, it suddenly began to feel very real. There was going to be a launch tonight, and we were going to see it. After dinner, we returned to the NASA Visitors Center at Wallops. It was early in the evening and VIP guests were starting to come in. With four hours to go before launch, it felt like the calm before a storm.

Monitor at the Visitors Center
LADEE on the launch pad at L-4 hours, 37 minutes

What might have seemed like an eternal wait was pleasantly shortened for me when I ran into Dana Berry, an old friend from the Space Telescope Science Institute days. If you don’t know who Dana is, I can guarantee you’ve seen his work. Dana is a highly sought-after digital artist whose work has been used to visualize many of NASA’s missions, including Hubble, Chandra, and now LADEE.

Admiring some of Dana’s handiwork. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

At 7:45, we returned to the press room to get ready to head out to the viewing area. By this time, it was becoming less of a calm and more of a storm.

NASA Social is GO for launch.

But we had one more briefing to go, by none other than the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden!

NASA Administrator (and former Shuttle astronaut) Charles Bolen. DUDE!

Bolen thanked us for coming to the launch and for spreading the word. He told us that for all of NASA’s public outreach assets, they still don’t communicate with the public very well. But NASA Social allows NASA to enlist the public as citizen journalists to spread the word in a personal way that no amount of media power can do.

You all are now part of the NASA team, whether you like it or not.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (we liked)

Then he did something that was incredibly amazing. He asked for Kim Alix, a K-5th-grade science lab teacher from North Carolina. After her selection to come to the NASA launch, she sent Bolen an email thanking him for the opportunity. He was so moved by her message that he wanted to thank her personally in the only way he knew how:

Bolden leads from the top, and does what we need to do more of as a country.

Bolden told us that as the son of two teachers, he laments the lack of respect (and compensation) teachers get from the public. As luck would have it, there were several teachers in our group who were particularly appreciative of his comments. As the son of a teacher myself, I thanked him in return.

Bragging rights: I was sitting right in the front for this bit. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our final pre-launch briefing out of the way, it was time to board the bus and head out to the viewing area. Escorted by police, we were taken to a location just 2 miles from the launch pad, adjacent to the VIP viewing area. There in the distance, but plain as day, stood the Minotaur V rocket. My iPhone’s camera hardly does the view justice, but you might be able to get an idea just of how close we were to the launch pad:

My binoculars are set up!
See that white blob just above my binoculars? That’s it, baby!

The next 2 hours may as well have seemed like two minutes. The excitement, and nervousness, were palpable. But there was one more surprise left. Jessica from NASA Ames asked me if I would like to appear on NASA Edge’s coverage of the launch. Um, okay…

Jessica took Kimberly Knight and myself to the VIP viewing area. There we met up with fellow NASA Social members Kim Alix and iVy Deliz who themselves were getting ready to be interviewed on NASA Edge.

NASA Edge is an unscripted video podcast that has all of the production values of a proper TV show. Best of all, these guys get paid to cover launches!

Good work if you can get it.

In between interviews, they’d cut to a pre-recorded segment, or the live feed of the launch pad, giving the next interview a chance to set up. Kim and iVy went next, and they knocked right out of the park:

Chris from NASA Edge interviews Kim and iVy.

Now, by this point, we were in the final 1/2 hour before launch. My excitement and nervous energy were already pretty high, and this is what I saw next:

As if I wasn’t nervous enough.

In 5…4…3…

Blair from NASA Edge interviews Kimberly and myself.

With just a few minutes to go before launch, we were quickly driven back to the viewing area. And then this happened:

Richard Drumm‘s brilliant video of the launch. Set this to high definition and go full screen. You’ll be glad you did.

I mean, how cool is that? The cheers following the initial launch were for the successful ignitions of the Minotaur’s second and third stages. The vehicle was right on the money!

Afterward, we got back on the bus to return to the visitors center for the last time. The bus was filled with the glow of cell phones showing their pictures, the sounds of videos, and shouts of “My friend saw it from New Jersey!”, “My buddy posted an amazing picture from Brooklyn!“, and so-on.

It was a party bus.

We got back to the Visitors center and by this point, most of our group had gone home. But a few of us die-hards stuck around for the post-launch briefing at 2:30 am.

Post launch briefing about to begin

The briefing ended, we said our goodbyes, and headed back to our hotels.

LADEE was on its way to the Moon.


The two days of our NASA Social flew by in a blink. I met some really great people there, and if I have one regret it’s not getting a chance to meet every single one of them.

I did get to meet several of the hard working people behind the scenes at NASA Social. It takes a lot of work to organize and run these events, and their professionalism was exceeded only by their enthusiasm.

I’m extremely grateful for those whose videos and images I used, especially to Tom Wolf who makes my camera phone images look like, well, camera phone images. Thanks man.

LADEE is on its way to the Moon to study the lunar atmosphere, for no other reason than because we are curious. A lot of brilliant people worked together to pull off this launch, and will continue to do so to make this mission a success. Yes, there was a big ol’ American flag and a NASA meatball on the side of the rocket, and I’m certainly proud of that. But this doesn’t just represent what NASA can do, or what the United States can do, but what we as human beings can do when we really want to explore our universe.

This is Humanity at its best.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 3: Touring Wallops Flight Facility

Day two of our NASA Social Meetup began with lunch at the cafeteria, which was a good thing since that meant we didn’t have to begin until 11:30 on Friday. Afterward, we began a tour of Wallops Flight Facility which was super cool. Wallops does a lot more than launch rockets and all of them are cool in their own unique way.

At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wof
At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf, a professional photographer and a fantastic guy. See his full photo set at SmugMug. When you’re done, be sure to hire him.

Our first stop was to the Scientific Balloon Shop. The balloons made here can stay aloft from days to months at a time at altitudes of 100,000+ feet – right at the edge of space itself. And these things are huge, sometimes inflating to be the size of the Superdome!

Best of all, balloon teams launch all over the world, including Antarctica. Good work if you can get it!

Balloons will take you all the way up to the top of Earth’s atmosphere, but if your science requires you to be in space, you may need to fit your payload into one of these babies:

Bristol Aerospace Sounding Rocket

Suffice to say, this bit was pretty cool, and we had a lot of fun taking pictures of this particular rocket.

Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ulysses looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ariel looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Here I am doing my best impression of a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

#RocketsF&*kYeah #AmericaF&*kYeah

Our tour continued to the shop where science payloads are assembled, integrated, and tested. Following that, we went into what at first looks like a machine shop, except it’s one where they turn stuff like this:

Boring aluminum tubing

…into stuff like this!

Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

The whole time people were taking selfies, and Jim Way decided to go all meta on me:

#MetaRocketShopSelfie Photo by Jim Way

By this point, we were starting to run a little late so we made a quick stop at the Launch Control Center

People who launch rockets sit here.

Our final stop on today’s tour was to a hangar that were housing both of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft. If you’re not familiar with NASA uses these two vehicles for their Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel missions.

One of NASA's two Global Hawk UAVs
One of NASA’s two Global Hawk UAVs

Unlike traditional manned Hurricane Hunters, these aircraft are capable of flying well above the storm and can take data of the entire atmospheric column all the way through to the ground.

It takes two crews to fly the Hawks, one stationed at wherever they are based from (in this case, Wallops) to handle takeoff and landing. Once aloft, control is transferred to the science team in Ohio who fly the mission from there. Very impressive stuff!

That’s a friggen Global Hawk behind me. You’re damn right I’m impressed! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our tour complete, it was time to head back to the Visitor’s Center for a series of briefings from the instrument scientists, engineers, range safety officers, and all sort of people we would have loved to have heard from if it wasn’t so late in the day and we were getting hungry.

One highlight though was a team of engineers from Navajo Technical University who 3-D printed an amazing model of LADEE:

Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Even better, the model came apart into segments, which really showed off the Common Spacecraft Bus design!

After the briefings, we broke for dinner. But we had to hurry back because the parking lot was going to be packed with VIPs.

It turns out there was a rocket launch happening that night.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 2: Out to the Launch Pad!

After our morning briefing, we took a break for lunch. When we came back, we went in for the Pre-Launch briefing:

Afterward, we were treated to a presentation on our understanding of the Moon by LADEE Project Scientist Dr. Sarah Noble.  The presentation was conducted at the NASA Visitors’ Center at Wallops Flight Facility in a Science on a Sphere exhibit. This was my first experience with one of these devices and it is really quite amazing. Essentially, a sphere is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a room. A projector in each corner displays 1/4 of the image onto the sphere, combining to create a full “3D” image of whatever sphere-shaped object you’re looking at, in our case, the Moon:

I want one of these

Even better, the system was able to demonstrate LRO topography data:

LRO topography data

We then took a break and I did a little shopping in the gift shop. As it turned out, they were giving away free LADEE-branded Moon Pies:

Of course it’s vegan: It doesn’t contain any actual food of any kind

And during the break, I got to say hello once again to well-known Hubble Hugger John Grunsfeld:

Me and John Grunsfeld
Meeting one of my heroes

Then it was back to the briefing room, this time for the science briefing:

Mom alert: At the 18:00 mark, I ask a question about the predicted count rate.

With the briefings concluded, it was time for a trip to the launch pad itself. The team from Orbital Sciences were finishing up some Hazardous Operations (HazOps) when we arrived. All rockets have explosives on board to blow up the vehicle in case something goes wrong. However, the crews install inhibitors to prevent an accidental detonation of the vehicle while they’re working on it. At L-1 days, these inhibitors are removed and the vehicle is fully armed. The crew were completing this process just as we arrived. As a result, we had to keep our cell phones in Airplane mode so we wouldn’t set the thing off and incinerate the vehicle (and ourselves along with it.)

Holy Mackrel! Photo by Tom Wolf

And that was just the first day.

PS: You can find my entire set of LADEE launc photos on Flickr