Fifty Years Ago

David Black by Saturn V-JSC

David Black standing by the Saturn V rocket on display at Johnson Space Center, Houston. This photo was taken in 2004.

It was a Sunday afternoon in July and I was nine years old. In my hometown of Deseret, Utah we attended our normal church meetings, going to Sunday School in the morning. Everyone was more excited and restless than usual. We wanted to get home as soon as possible, you see, because this was the day when Apollo 11 was going to land on the Moon. I don’t remember what we ate for Sunday dinner, but I can guess we were glued to the old Zenith black and white TV set we had in the living room. We watched Walter Cronkite’s coverage as the Lunar Module descended to the surface. He used models of the spacecraft to show how the LM had separated from the CSM and was now firing retrorockets to slow down to the surface on a pre-programmed descent.

Cronkite with CSM model

Walter Cronkite with a model of the Command and Service Modules during CBS News coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, 1969.

I remember hearing the CAPCOM’s voice, Charlie Duke, in Houston and Neil Armstrong’s voice in the Lunar Module. I thought the astronauts were trained to be very careful about what they said, because they always deliberated a few seconds before answering. I didn’t know it was because of the 1.5-second light speed delay from here to the Moon. The suspense was palpable as the seconds ticked away, but Neil’s voice remained calm. No one listening would have guessed, except the white-knuckled engineers in Houston Mission Control, that they had overshot their intended landing sight, had computer overload problems, had to hop over a crater to find a smooth spot to land, and were down to 15 seconds of fuel remaining when the contact light finally announced they had arrived. Buzz had his hand on the abort switch the whole time.

At 2:17 pm Utah time, the Eagle settled onto the Sea of Tranquility in a cloud of dust. It was hard to see anything through the gritty lens of the television camera on the Eagle, but we all heard the words, “Houston. Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.” We jumped up and down in excitement. Humans were on the Moon! The engineers in Mission Control slapped each other on the back as Flight Director Gene Kranz went around the room to determine stay or no stay: “GUIDO – stay! FiDO – stay! TELMU – stay!” Cronkite wiped a tear from his eye, grinned, and exclaimed, “Wow! Oh boy!” This from a news journalist that flew in a glider with paratroopers during Operation Overlord who remained calm during his announcement of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination.

Walter Cronkite oh boy

Walter Cronkite gets a bit excited upon the landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module at the Sea of Tranquility, July 20, 1969.

The bishop of our LDS congregation had scheduled Sacrament Meeting at an earlier time than usual so that we could get back to our homes to watch the astronauts walk on the Moon. It was a hot afternoon in our chapel, which did not have air conditioning, and we were all stifling. Instead of the usual 90-minute meeting it only lasted one hour. As the closing prayer ended, I ran out of the chapel’s side door and sprinted for home. Our house was across the river from the church, and I remember running across the old white wooden bridge hoping that I hadn’t missed anything too exciting. I slammed open the front door and immediately turned on the old TV. It took a minute or so for the vacuum tubes to warm up and the TV view to expand on, and then I had to fiddle with the horizontal hold knob to keep the screen from scrolling up continuously. As the rest of my family walked in the front door, I was already watching and listening to Walter Cronkite again.

Apollo 11 landing site from Lunar Recon

The Apollo 11 landing site today as seen from the high resolution camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can make out the foot paths of the astronauts on the surface, including one side trip to a local crater to collect moon rocks.

He reported that the astronauts were taking a mandatory rest break and everything was fine in the Eagle, as Michael Collins orbited above in the Command Module. He confirmed that the moonwalk had been moved up five hours earlier than originally scheduled at the request of Buzz and Neil. This was great news because it meant we would see it happen that evening and not have to wait up until early in the morning Utah time.

At 8:39 pm our time, after taking some time to don their EVA suits, the hatch to the Eagle was opened and Neil Armstrong crawled backwards onto the front porch, then slowly descended the ladder rungs. When he got to the bottom, he jumped down onto the large landing pad and reported back to Houston that the LM was only depressed a few inches into the lunar regolith. We hadn’t really known until the landing how deep the powdery stuff was or how far the LM legs would penetrate. Before stepping off, Neil jumped back up to the lowest rung of the ladder to make sure it could be done, then back down to the pad again.


David Black sitting in Gene Kranz’s chair in the Apollo era control room at Johnson Space Center. He was the Flight Director during the Apollo 11 mission. This photo was taken in 2004, when I had the chance for a VIP tour of JSC.

This was all hard to see. The TV camera that Neil had pulled out of the side of the LM as he crawled onto the porch was partially obscured by dust from the landing and the ladder was in the stark darkness of the LM’s shadow, so I couldn’t make out much more that a few vague movements. Our old, grainy TV set didn’t help much.

Then we heard the famous words, “Okay, I’m going to step off the LEM now. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil’s microphone dropped out the “a” before man, but we filled it in inside our own minds anyway. A man was now standing on the Moon!

Buzz soon followed, and in some ways his words are more profound: “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation!” The view of the first world besides Earth ever walked on by humans was a desolate view; a lifeless view of barren dust and gray craters while the enticing blue marble of Earth hung in the sky, the only source of life known. Yet it was a magnificent view and starkly beautiful.

Gene Kranz at director consol

Gene Kranz sitting at the Flight Director’s console in Mission Control at Johnson Space Center. His wife made him a custom white vest for every mission. The one for the Apollo 11 mission is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

They planted the flag, collected samples, conducted a few simple science experiments (the ALSEP package wasn’t sent until the next mission), and took photos. They stayed on the lunar surface for about two hours before climbing back up the ladder.

I watched them the whole time with utter absorption. This was the culmination of a space program that I had been hearing about all my life. This was the biggest event I had ever seen in my young life, and had been led into by the Mercury and Gemini missions I had heard so much about in the preceding years. This was shared by 100s of millions of people and became part of our collective consciousness and national pride. This is still a symbol of what humanity can do when it aspires and collaborates on a common goal. This is a moment I hope to see happen again, first with a return to the Moon, then on to Mars. It has helped to shape a great part of my life and career as a science teacher.

After resting in their hammocks that night (although it was still day on the Moon), the astronauts blasted off the surface in the Ascent stage the next day, docked with Mike Collins in the CSM, and headed back to Earth for a splashdown three days later.

This is what Walter Cronkite had to say about the mission in his news editorial after the splashdown:

Apollo ll photo

A man on the Moon.

“Well, man’s dream and a nation’s pledge have now been fulfilled. The lunar age has begun. And with it, mankind’s march outward into that endless sky from this small planet circling an insignificant star in a minor solar system on the fringe of a seemingly infinite universe. The path ahead will be long; it’s going to be arduous; it’s going to be pretty doggone costly. We may hope, but we should not believe, in the excitement of today, that the next trip or the ones to follow are going to be particularly easy. But we have begun with ‘a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,’ in Armstrong’s unforgettable words.

“In these eight days of the Apollo 11 mission the world was witness to not only the triumph of technology, but to the strength of man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination. Through all times the moon has endured out there, pale and distant, determining the tides and tugging at the heart, a symbol, a beacon, a goal. Now man has prevailed. He’s landed on the moon, he’s stabbed into its crust; he’s stolen some of its soil to bring back in a tiny treasure ship to perhaps unlock some of its secrets.

“The date’s now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives — July 20, 1969 — the day a man reached and walked on the moon. The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the best of us, and they’ve led us further and higher than we ever imagined we were likely to go.”

And that’s the way it was, July 20, 1969.

Fifty Years Later

I was a total Space Cadet even before the Apollo 11 landing and continued to follow all of the missions. I was on the edge of my seat during the Apollo 13 crisis and wondered with the rest of the world if the astronauts would make it back safe. I was in the hospital healing from a terrible accident when Apollo 15 landed and drove the Lunar Rover around for the first time, and I followed that mission on TV in detail as I recuperated. I was terribly disappointed when the missions beyond Apollo 17 were cancelled, but excited for the next steps of the Skylab space station and the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1976. But even as a teenager I could see that we had lost our momentum in space exploration and the glory days of Apollo were behind us.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race exhibit of the Air and Space Museum.

Yet I continued to hope. Because of my poor eyesight and the accident that left my right leg shorter and weaker than my left, I knew that I would never by chosen as an astronaut despite my great desire to be one. I studied science in part because I wanted to work for NASA, but there wasn’t any real space science or Earth science taught at my small high school beyond our excellent physics class. I moved toward chemistry and engineering instead.

But I still followed all of the missions of the robotic space probes. I traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a senior in high school on a field trip while exhibiting my methanol-air fuel cell system at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim. We toured the Von Karman Auditorium and got to learn about the Viking missions two years before and the Voyager missions launched the year before and on their way to Jupiter. A mockup of the Viking lander was on display, and the auditorium was dominated by a mockup of Voyager, which at that time sat right in the middle of the space (now it is on the left side). The scientists at JPL told us about the upcoming Galileo mission that would follow up on Voyager and would go into orbit, not just fly past Jupiter.

Saturn V top view

The Saturn V rocket at Johnson Space Center. The only part that returned was the conical Command Module under the emergency escape tower. It was barely big enough for three people and a crude computer. Now, the Orion capsule will soon be launched which can hold up to five astronauts with much greater comfort on top of the even more powerful Space Launch System. It will take us back to the Moon.

Years went by. I became a science teacher in 1990. I was chosen for the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program in 1998 and spent two weeks at JPL touring the labs, meeting the scientists, and learning about space probe missions. I traveled to Mt. Wilson Observatory and did astrophotography. I applied to return as an Educator Facilitator over four years, and in the meantime returned again to JPL every summer as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator. I visited Cape Canaveral in 2001 to attend an educators’ conference and see the launch of the 2001 Mars Odyssey probe. We visited the site of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.

In 2002 I was finally chosen as the facilitator for NEWMAST at JPL and its successor, the NASA Explorer Schools program. I returned for three more years to help plan and lead the workshops for 25 other educators each year. JPL became like a second home to me, and the education and public outreach personnel there are friends.

Saturn V business end

The business end of the Saturn V rocket at Johnson Space Center. This rocket would have been Apollo 18 or 19, but the funds were cut by congress. Now the most powerful machine ever built lies rusting on a lawn in Houston. This rocket is kept maintained because it is technically flight rated hardware, but it will never soar as it was meant to.

I took a few years off of active space opportunities to remarry and raise a second family, then returned in force and expanded my efforts from planetary science into astrophysics, flying on SOFIA, participating with my students in the NITARP program to study the universe using Spitzer and WISE infrared data at Caltech, fulfilling a Research Experience for Teachers program in astrophysics at Brigham Young University, studying Mercury using data from the MESSENGER probe, acting as a MAVEN Educator Ambassador at Goddard Space Flight Center, and winning awards as a science educator.

Now I am at the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and it is fifty years since I saw Neil and Buzz walk on the moon. Today is Saturday, July 20, 2019. I don’t recount all of this to brag – at least not much – but to show how that event half a century ago shaped my life. I have earned the right to be here and to join the celebration.

Air and Space 50th

The party commences to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., July 20, 2019.

The Biggest Party of Them All

I knew we would be at the museum until quite late, so I slept in a little and took it easy all morning, eating a microwaved breakfast I had shopped for at Target and catching up on my blog entries and photo uploads. My summer classes ended on Friday and I did some grading to clear the decks. Most of the TIIs were either helping out with the celebration tonight as I was or they were going to be there, so we were all kicking back a bit. Some had friends or relatives in town and were showing them around D.C.

Rover rollover

The rover rollover challenge.

A few days before leaving Utah for Washington, I read a request for memories of that landing 50 years ago for a Deseret News special report. I submitted a shorter version of the story I wrote above. Today, reading through the electronic version of the paper, I saw the article and was pleasantly surprise that they included a truncated version of my story. Then I read the others. One was from a man who had been a bomber pilot in Vietnam and had flown a bombing run the night of July 20, 1969. He told of listening to the landing on the Armed Forces Radio as they returned through a cloudless sky. Another man was a sailor on the U.S.S. Hornet, which recovered the astronauts after their splashdown and carried the Lunar Receiving Lab, which the three astronauts had to stay in for several weeks before ascertaining that they did not carry any Moon germs. They practiced recovery operations all during the mission, and he got to see the astronauts climb out of the helicopter and enter the lab, then had to keep the ship in perfect order as President Nixon came aboard to personally congratulate the astronauts.

LEGO astro wall

A mural of an astronaut on Mars made entirely of LEGO bricks, part of the celebration on the National Mall.

About 11:00 I got my stuff together and headed for the National Mall via the Metro system as we had been doing all week. I wanted to visit all the tents along the mall and see what the next steps will be, so I got off at the L’ Enfant Plaza and walked to the Mall in the blistering 100 ° F and 80% humidity weather. It was the hottest, muggiest day yet and I was soon sweating buckets and glad to have a water bottle.

JWST Explained

Explaining the James Webb Space Telescope at a booth on the National Mall.

As I was crossing Independence at the corner of the Air and Space building, I ran into another TII teacher, Amy, with her mother who was visiting for the big party. After a photo op, I continued on to the displays and tents along the mall. It was crowded and I longed for the least bit of shade, but it was fun. There were LEGO statues of Neil Armstrong (complete with a reflection of Buzz in his visor), a LEGO mural of an astronaut on Mars, painters painting, puzzles of planets being made, 3D printed models of the Moon, two giant Moon maps (one for each side) and even a part of the old mission control room from Houston. In 2004, I got to visit Johnson Space Center and took a VIP tour with Ota Lutz. She took me to the neutral buoyancy pool and we got to go into the old green control room itself. I sat in Gene Kranz’s chair, and took photos with one of the two remaining Saturn V rockets.

Giant Moon map

A giant moon map on display on the National Mall next to the Air and Space Museum.

One booth had a display from JPL on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, and a person from NASA HQ showed me how the sample sequestration device will work. They had a rover rollover contest for people to lie still while a test rover with six wheels rolled over them. Another booth talked about the upcoming Space Launch System and the planned Artemis Missions to return us to the Moon. It was all very fun. I had to cool down with treats from an ice cream truck.

Lego astronaut with girl

A LEGO astronaut with Moon Maiden. This is a re-creation of the same photograph posted above, complete with a reflection of Buzz in the visor.

We were to report by about 3:00 at the Air and Space Museum’s south door, where I showed my visiting staff badge. It was still closed until the main party started at 4:17, and would continue until 1:11 corresponding to the time from the landing to the astronauts returning to the LM. Since only a few volunteers and staff were there, it was unusually quiet. I took a few photos including one with Neil Armstrong’s space suit before the lines started. Here I was next to the actual suit he wore as he descended the ladder, and on this day of all days. I might not be an astronaut, but I have worked for and with NASA as an education consultant. I’ve visited six of the ten NASA field centers. And that nine-year old space geek is still inside of me, just thrilled to be here and find a photo op with a piece of history.

Me with Neil suit

David Black with Neil Armstrong’s space suit from the Apollo 11 mission. I was fortunate to have this taken before the crowds were allowed into the museum.


We were taken up the staff elevator to the third floor offices, where we were told what we were to do. I was already wearing my NASM Crew T-shirt, which they had given us yesterday during our Focus Group activity. There was quite a group of us, and they would provide pizza, snacks, and drinks for the evening. My job was to help judge and monitor the Goose Chase competitions. There would be three, each lasting one hour, with hundreds of teams already signed up. The participants were to be given a series of questions and challenges involving museum artifacts. They had to find the display, take a photo of themselves by it or a video of themselves doing some activity near it, or answer a question about it. The program scored them automatically, but we were to judge to make sure they were really answering the questions correctly and to award extra points for creative answers and deduct points for non-completion. Each of the ten or so teachers who had volunteered for this was assigned 3-4 questions for each contest.


Some of the NASM Crew that helped out with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing at the National Air and Space Museum.

The doors opened and the crowds flocked in. Our first contest was about the Mercury Program and the teams first received instructions at 8:30, then spread out to start answering the challenges in no particular order. Their objective was to answer as many questions as possible and gain the most points in one hour; not all of the questions had to be answered nor was there time to do so. I had an iPod signed in to the contest and I could see the answers as they started to come in, some highly creative, some showing less care. Everyone was having fun, and I had fun with them vicariously as they navigated the crowds. We sent messages to them saying to try again or good work, and it was an intense hour. When we saw a funny response, we shared it amongst ourselves and laughed together.

NASM hallway

On the top floor of the National Air and Space Museum. I was part of the NASM Crew for this 50th anniversary celebration and helped to judge the Goose Chase event. There were many activities going on in the museum, and this way I got to participate and help out.

In the meantime, other TIIs and volunteers were helping at the information desks, herding people into the IMAX theater or managing the long lines to Neil’s spacesuit. Everyone wanted a photo with it, so I was glad I had already taken one. At 9:30 the second contest began about the Gemini program. Each hour a winner was announced and prizes given out downstairs. When we had breaks (for the first few minutes of each game) we walked the halls and got snacks and chatted with the other NASM Crew volunteers.

At the end of the Gemini contest, we all went downstairs to watch the boot drop. They had created a giant balloon statue of Neil Armstrong’s boot and suspended it from the ceiling next to the Spirit of St. Louis. At 10:39, exactly 50 years since Neil first started down the ladder of the Lunar Module, the boot began to drop. At 10:56 precisely it touched the floor, and of course someone yelled out, “That’s one giant step for a balloon, one small step for mankind!”

Big Boot about to drop

A big balloon boot about to drop. It was timed to start descending exactly 50 years to the minute from when Neil Armstrong started to descend the ladder of the Lunar Module and touched down at the same time as his famous boot print on the Moon.

We headed back upstairs and resumed our duties for the final Apollo contest. A few minutes in, I heard a teacher next to me remark about a team titled the Einstein Fellows. I asked to look at her iPod to see photos this team had posted and recognized several of them, including Andi Webb, whom I had gotten to know when I interviewed for the Fellowship in 2018. I wasn’t chosen, but these people had interviewed with me. I had been wondering if I would run into them anywhere during these two weeks in Washington. They are on their last few weeks of the year-long fellowship. When their answers came on my screen, I gave them a shout out.

The contest came to a close about 12:15 as we wrapped up our final tallies. I grabbed my stuff and headed downstairs along with Trevor Macduff, who is in his second year of the TII program. When we got to the information desk by the Star Trek display, I saw Andi there with the others and said hello to them all. Andi remembered me, at least. Come to find out, Trevor knows her as well. She has interned for a congressperson this year and thoroughly enjoyed it, but is not returning to her school in North Carolina as the principal there has changed. She is deciding where to go next.

Where the unicorn lives

For a number of years, NASA’s space probe policy followed the mantra of “Faster, better, cheaper” but this led to several lost space probes, because you can only get two of these at a time – if it is fast and good, it cannot be cheap. If it is fast and cheap , it cannot be good. If it is cheap and good, it cannot be fast. The combination is where the unicorn lives . . . This sign was on the wall on the third floor of the Air and Space Museum.

The winners were a family team that had really gone all out and showed great originality. We congratulated them and called an Uber to head back to the dorms as the Metro isn’t running this late.

It had been an incredible day and my inner Space Cadet was very satisfied. I might not have gotten to meet any Apollo astronauts after all, but I always knew that was unlikely. I got to participate and even help out and felt a part of Apollo, fifty years later.

Vision of future

This display was in one of the booths on the National Mall, and made we wonder what we will see in another 50 years. The last 50 years have been stunning even if we had only a brief time on the Moon. I can only hope that by then, we will have permanent bases on the Moon and Mars and a strong human presence throughout the solar system. The dreams of that nine-year-old boy will never die.

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Launching the Washington Monument

Day Five of the Teacher Innovator Institute; Friday, July 19, 2019

Saturn V on the monument

It took a Joint Resolution of Congress to do this, but during the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the National Air and Space Museum presented a multimedia extravaganza projected onto the Washington Monument. I got a VIP pass to see the celebration.

Our day today was a bit lighter than the previous days because our evening would be busy. The big celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing had arrived, and we were to be part of it!

World tent and Capitol

Tents and displays from various aerospace companies lined the National Mall as the celebration kicked into high gear

The Myth of Average

We started later than usual, at 10:00, so we had an almost leisurely time riding the Metro to Metro Central and from there to the Archives stop. It was already a record-breaking hot day but the humidity was a bit better than it had been the day before so it was bearable.

Gateway near STarbucks

A gateway between Starbucks at the Trump Plaza and the National History Museum on the Mall.

The 2018 cohort walked to the Air and Space Museum to help prepare for the activities going on there over the next two days, such as laying out lunar footprints representing the paths that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. A group of us walked to the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Trump Hotel, then our cohort convened in the conference room on the third floor of the Natural History Museum.

Hirschorn gourd

A giant sculpture gourd at the Hirschorn on my way to the Natural History Museum.

Mike Speidel led a discussion on the book we had been given to read for this Institute, which is The End of Average of Todd Rose. In this book, the author argues that the idea of an average person is really a statistical myth. There is no such thing as an average person. If you were to measure any set of metrics on personal size, achievement, etc. for a large representative group of people, you could add up all the measurements, divide by the number of people, and come up with a mean, a measure of central tendency. The distribution of scores would fit into a range and look like the all-too-familiar and misleading bell shaped curve.

One would think that this standard distribution actually measures a population of people. But if you tried to find any one person who was exactly average on all the measurements, no one would be found. There is no Average Man. One person might be tall but have smaller shoulders or chest while a second might be shorter but have a large chest, hips, and arms. So who is bigger? Neither. Todd Rose describes this as the “Jaggedness Principle” – any attributes in a population are distributed non-uniformly or jaggedly.

NASM staff badge

We were given visitor badges good for the whole week that allowed us to come in the staff entrance to the Air and Space Museum.

Yet we still insist that averages have some physical reality. This was shown to be untrue with a contest in the 1950s to find the average woman, based on a set of measurements of many women. The organizers had a statue commissioned of this average woman, whom they called Norma, then set out to find the person who was most like her, the normal woman. No one fitted all the averages. They finally found a lady that met the average of three of the seven measurements, but that was the best they could do. The Air Force learned this the hard way. They discovered that an alarming rate of crashes could be traced to the pilot’s seat, designed to fit the average pilot, but not actually fitting anyone. The seat was too small for one pilot, too large for another, too far from the controls for a third, and so on. After years of study and millions of dollars, they finally realized that the seat had to be made adjustable, so that any pilot could make the seat fit her or him. Accidents went down.

Das Boot

A huge astronaut boot was built out of balloons in preparation of big event the next night.

The implications for education are obvious. We have created a one-size-fits-all type of education designed to fit the non-existent average student and measure all of our students against averages and norms, trying to make them fit into a system that actually fits no one. If the Air Force can make an adjustable pilot’s seat, why can’t we make an adjustable educational system that actually fits all individuals’ needs and learning styles? People complain that our education system doesn’t work when in fact it works exactly as it was designed to do. It was designed in the early 1900s to take the children of immigrants living in large cities and the children of farmers and teach them the basic skills needed for blue-collar factory jobs working on an assembly line. So education was designed to work the same way – a large assembly line of individuals coming in and cookie-cutter clones of “educated” graduates coming out the other end with exactly the same set of standardized skills and knowledge. If students weren’t average to begin with, they certainly would be by the time they graduated. Average as in mediocre.

Red shirts

As part of our duties today in the Air and Space Museum, we were asked to wear our red TII shirt. I hope the color is not indicative of some ominous event . . .

But we are now in a post-industrial society where innovation, flexibility, and individual excellence are required. Yet our schools are still trying to churn out Model T Ford students when what we need are Tesla Roadsters and Prius Hybrids.

Mike pointed out that during the Mercury space program, each helmet was designed to fit the individual astronaut. But only a month or so ago, the first all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station had to be cancelled because they didn’t have two spacesuits up there that could fit the two female astronauts. The suits have become standardized, just as education has become. It is all based on the notion that we all have to be the same, only better. So parents spend countless dollars hiring tutors to get their children’s test scores up on the SAT and ACT so that they will be better than average. Yet you can’t capture the essence of a student in a single standardized test score.

Trevor and Machin by LM-2

Machin Norris and Trevor Macduff in front of Lunar Module 2 in the National Air and Space Museum.

We played a game called Google Feud where we divided up into teams and tried to guess the top ten searched terms in Google in different categories, such as: “Why does everyone say ____” and we got them wrong. The top search for this prompt was: “Why does everyone say ‘subscribe to Pewdiepie?’ ” We found that we couldn’t guess what the average person would ask. We all have variations from the norm, and no one fits the average.

Grading students with simple scores on assignments leads to the types of Point Pirates I see every day at my school. In fact, as we were having this discussion, since it was the last day of the term, I was having a back-and-forth series of texts with my substitute over whether there was extra credit available for the class, asked by anxious students who already had 100%.

Bell X-1

The iconic Bell X-1 supersonic jet that Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier.

We talked about using competencies, mastery, and individual growth as ways to grade students and talk to parents. One example of a competency would be one’s mastery of baking and cooking. Here is how the scale would work:
0 = You have to always eat out because you can’t boil water without burning it.
1 = You can cook if you follow a recipe exactly.
2 = You can successfully make simple modifications to a cookbook recipe.
3 = You can make your own recipes.

4 = You don’ need no stinkin’ recipes. You can pull random stuff from the cupboard and make a delicious meal form scratch.
5 = You’re on the Great British Baking Show.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race exhibit of the Air and Space Museum.

Now a competency rating of 5 would be highly unusual. We would like students to become independent learners and to master a skill, so a rating of 3 or 4 would indicate mastery in cooking, indicating students internalize the skill to the extent that it becomes second nature to them.

Tents in twilight by Capitol

Tents like this ringed the National Mall at the eastern end near the Capitol Building, with displays on the future of space exploration by Raytheon, Boeing, NASA, and other groups. I looked forward to checking them out the next day.

We ended our discussion with ideas on how to disrupt the education systems around us, how to talk to administrators about these ideas, and how to set up pilot programs and build social equity in our schools, so that administrators can’t say no to us when they see it work for our students. It has given me some fodder to chew on as I plan my next semester science classes.

Learning Through Objects

After a break, Shannon led a discussion and activity on how to use objects as learning tools – or what we would call an object lesson. She had a box full of unusual objects she had picked up at an antique/thrift store and passed them out to small groups for us to determine what they are and how they are used. Ours was a small wooden shoe with a leather sole and a metal heal. We though that it might be the shoe of a doll or a marionette (given the metal heal). It wound up being a shoe form for making children’s shoes – the leather and metal bottom allowed for nails to be tacked through the leather of the shoe being formed.

Capitol at night

As twilight fell, I walked to the eastern end of the Mall, where I took this photo of the Capitol Building then back toward the Washington Monument.

When we think of informal education in a museum setting, museums are full of artifacts or objects that have stories attached to them. How do we let the objects tell their own stories? How do we use them in education, both in formal and in informal settings? Many objects are not intrinsically valuable but have value because of their association with history or a historic figure. The spacesuit that went on display earlier this week at the main Air and Space Museum was no different than the space suit worn by Jim Irwin on display out at the Udvar-Hazy Center; in fact, Jim Irwin’s space suit was probably more sophisticated. But this one was worn by Neil Armstrong on the Moon, and it is anticipated that thousands will want to stand in line to see it over the next few days. How can this object be used to teach and inspire? How can it best be displayed, described, and made part of a greater lesson plan or learning objective? Why would conservationists spend years and thousands of dollars carefully preserving this suit, down to keeping the lunar dust embedded in the fabric? What meaning does this suit have to the people who see it? How is its worth far greater than its intrinsic value?

Washington Monument at twilight

Washington Monument at twilight. Shortly after this, the Saturn V rocket was projected on the monument and crowds began to gather for the show.

We ate lunch where we could find it. I ate a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at a vendor truck outside the Natural History Museum and watched squirrels and starlings and pigeons vying for scraps on the lawn beneath a tree by the trucks and souvenir stands. I walked across the mall, seeing the many tents and kiosks set up along both side sof the mall by aerospace companies including Raytheon, Boeing, and NASA itself. It was too crowded and too hot to consider looking around, so I walked over to south side of the Air and Space Museum where we had red staff badges waiting for us as we entered through the south doors.

Focus Group

We met Mike Speidel near the video wall and the Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise exhibit. Those of us who had volunteered to be in the focus group were wearing our red TII shirts, and Mike took us up to the third floor and administrative offices, which requires a staff key. We met in a conference room and we were given our assignments.

Waiting for the show

Crowds gathered to prepare for the show. I sat among them for the 9:30 show to catch the vibe and hear their reactions. It was a real party!

The Air and Space Museum is beginning a four-year renovation, the first complete overhaul since it opened in 1975. The west end military aircraft display is already closed off. Our job was to visit various displays and analyze them from an education perspective then meet back in the conference room in an hour and discuss ways that the exhibits can be redesigned for better effectiveness.

One of the exhibits we were to visit (far northeast corner of the museum) was closed off for TV interviews, so we went on to the Space Race exhibit which houses the Apollo-Soyuz display. The museum itself was quite busy but this exhibit was mostly deserted, with mostly adults looking at the artifacts or reading the text. The displays were mostly static, with only one video on display on a continuous loop on a video monitor. The video was mostly talking-head interviews of experts discussing the space race with some archival footage, but it was hard to see because of glare coming from the skylights. There was one QR code and a URL to hear an audio recording of John Grunsfeld repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, but otherwise there was no interactivity or multimedia beyond text, photos, and artifacts. It was very static, and the only teens or children who entered the exhibit quickly left again.


T minus 10 minutes and counting.

Which is too bad, because this is really an intrinsically interesting exhibit detailing the competition between the Soviets and the Americans in the 1960s and the increasing cooperation that came from Kissinger’s détente efforts in the 1970s culminating in the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I lived through these times and remember them well, and they were interesting to me. But the display did not engage me or the other visitors. There were elements that seemed out of place, just stuck in here to find some place to put them rather than part of an integrated design.

We were brought back up to the conference room and spent about 45 minutes talking with museum officials and sharing our opinions. We brought up that the exhibits needed more engagement and interactivity; perhaps something like the Spy museum with encoded badges and a space mission to fulfill might engage school children and adults more. When we mentioned the use of video walls, they said that each wall was $50,000 and they wondered if having actors portray historic figures would be accepted by patrons.

Launching the monument

The Washington Monument gets launched. With the large speaker stacks and video screens, it felt like I was actually there in Cape Canaveral for the launch of a Saturn V rocket. I was too young (nine years old) when the real Apollo 11 mission launched, but this was the next best thing.

I wonder if some sort of gamification of the experience might be effective – perhaps using augmented reality and VR goggles to tell a story that allows for a deeper dive and more choices by participants. This may be a topic for further research once I begin my doctoral program this fall.

It was 3:00 by the time we finished, and I had intended to stay downtown and walk over to George Washington University to see a presentation by Michael Collins of Apollo 11, John Logsdon of the National Research Council, and Ellen Stofan of the Smithsonian as I had already gotten a free ticket online. I was exhausted, and decided to skip the event. I found out later that Buzz Aldrin also showed up and joined the conversation, and I rather wish I had attended. But at the time I was too tired to consider it and I needed to rest my leg, get some supper, and lie down a while before I could approach the evening’s events. I headed back to the dorms at American University with other TII members.

It felt good to take off my red TII shirt (which is nylon and not good to wear on a highly humid D.C. summer afternoon) and put my feet up. I took a shower to cool off.

Go for the moon end

At the end of the show – a view back to the Moon as we look toward the future and a return there.

At about 7:00 I made my way via the shuttle and metro trains back to the Mall at the Smithsonian Stop. The displays were now shut up, so I walked toward the Capitol Building and got an ice cream cone at a truck. The sun had set and the hot air was finally cooling off. I took photos of the Capitol and the Washington Monument with magenta clouds behind.

As twilight came on people began to gather on the mall with blankets and picnic baskets. It reminded me of my first trip to Washington on the 4th of July, 1982 when I was starting my Washington Seminar program. I rode in with my roommates, having just arrived in town a day before. We sat on the steps of the Capitol facing toward the Lincoln Memorial and listened to a free concern by the National Orchestra and had a picnic of crackers and cheese. The Mall was covered with about a million people doing the same. When twilight came on, the orchestra struck up Stars and Stripes Forever and fireworks exploded over the reflecting pool. It was amazing.

Now I was back again for another amazing show, but this time everyone was facing toward the Washington Monument. As darkness fell, a shout went up as an image was projected onto the monument. It was the Saturn V rocket, ready to launch. Over the last few months, preparations had been made and a Joint Resolution of Congress passed allowing a national monument to be used for this purpose. Large speaker stacks had been erected along the mall and giant projection screens set up in front of the Smithsonian Castle, along with bleachers for a VIP section.

TIIs waiting for Moon show

TIIs and various VIPs waiting for the 10:30 show of Go For the Moon. We got tickets to the VIP bleachers and a great view of the program.

I walked up to the video walls and took photos of the countdown with 9:30 being set for the first show. I walked back to where I could have a good view and moved into the sea of people and sat down among them, hoping to catch the vibe and hear the reactions. The logo of Apollo 11 was displayed on the screens – the Eagle with an olive branch landing on the Moon without any names on it. A large clock counted down toward T-0, and with a few minutes to go the video program started: Kennedy giving his speech at Rice University; the building and testing of the rocket and spaceships; the technical challenges. Then, at T-0, the engines ignited and the projection showed the Saturn V rising slowly above the ground. It looked as if the entire monument was being launched, and the huge speakers thundered and shook the ground. It was the closest I could ever come to watching a Saturn V launch in person.

The program continued to show the detachment of the first and second stages, the third stage blasting the astronauts out of Earth orbit and on toward the Moon. It showed the CSM pull out, thrusters rotating it 180 degrees as it thrusted back to the third stage, docked with the Lunar Module, and pulled it free. It showed the long coast to the Moon, the firing of the CSM main retrorocket to slow down into orbit. Then the LM separated and fired its descent stage rocket to head down to the Moon and Tranquility Base. It showed the 12:01 and 12:02 overflow alarms, running low on fuel, and the landing. Neil and Buzz descended to the surface, and man was on the Moon.

TIIs waiting for show

Getting hyped up for the show.

After Neil and Buzz climbed back aboard, the Ascent stage blasting off and the remainder of the LM redocked with the CSM. Then we saw the return to Earth and the splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean and recovery by the U.S.S. Hornet.

The entire show was 17 minutes long, but it was stirring. All the people around me watched with bated breath even though it had been 50 years. They cheered at the landing as if they had lived then. I was nine years old, and I remember. The Deseret News published a series of stories today selected from submissions by people who were alive to see the original landing. I submitted my story of running home from Sacrament Meeting to tune in the old Zenith black and white TV with vacuum tubes to watch the astronauts climb down to the surface of the Moon. My story was published today, alongside stories by a man who listened to the landing as he returned from a bombing run over Vietnam and a man aboard the Hornet who saw the astronauts recovered and return, walking into the Receiving Lab. He saw Pres. Nixon get a photo opp.

As the crowd dispersed I walked down to the bleacher section and pulled out my printed pass for the VIP section. Now I would get to sit in the bleachers and see the show again from a better vantage point. I sat with other TIIs from both cohorts for the 10:30 show and we were all jazzed up. Some had seen the 9:30 show, some not. Other VIPs filled in around us. To my side were a bank of cameras recording the show. One VIP that showed up was Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who was here in the closed off exhibit building a replica of the Apollo escape hatch. He was wearing a tuxedo for the show, and I did see him and wonder who the poor person was wearing the tux in this punishing heat. I wouldn’t have survived the day without the metal water bottle Shannon has given us.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.55.52 PM

Our return to the Moon will be through one of two systems. This is an artist’s concept of the Space Launch System with Orion capsule, being built by NASA to build first the Gateway platform in cis-Lunar space, then send astronauts back to the moon through the Artemis program.

As the T-0 time again approached I readied my camera and set it for video. This time I recorded most of the presentation. So did all the people standing before us – all I could see was a sea of glowing electronic screens.

It was even better the second time with this clearer view. We cheered and shouted. My water bottle fell off the bleachers, along with some others, and one of the museum staff was kind enough to crawl under and pull it out after the program was over and we began to disperse.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.54.50 PM

The Space Launch System on its way into space. The first test launch will be in 2021 – hopefully.

I walked with some other TIIs to the Smithsonian Metro station and rode back to Tenleytown. We found a bus back to the dorms from there and got to sleep late. It had been a long but fulfilling day, and tomorrow will be even more memorable.

I hope that the excitement and cheers and celebration I saw from hundreds of thousands of people tonight can be harnessed for our return to the Moon in the next few years. We are finally getting close again. I have waited a long time since we last visited the Moon or even sent men into deep space, last done in 1972. With recent tests of the SpaceX Starhopper prototype and pending tests of the full Spaceship system and NASA’s Space Launch System, we will finally have two rocket systems capable of sending humans back to the Moon. It will happen within the next five years, if the Artemis program can stay on track, or less if Elon Musk has his way. I hope to see it – to be alive through both the first and second (and continuing) set of missions to the Moon. I hope to see the first humans set foot on Mars. Tonight, for the first time in 50 years, I felt that it was possible.

Screen shot 2019-10-06 at 6.43.37 PM

Artist’s drawing of the Starship spacecraft detaching from the Super Heavy booster, a launch system being built and tested by SpaceX. It seems to me to be even odds as to which system makes it to the Moon first, and I expect Starship to make it to Mars first because Space X has the momentum that NASA lost in the 1970s and is still trying to recapture.

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Dropping the Moon

Teacher Innovator Institute Day 4: Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cari points out dust bunnies

Dr. Cari Corrigan points out a pre-solar grain in a fragment of the Allende Meteorite which fell in Mexico in 1969. It is the oldest object on Earth and formed in the early solar system 4.65 billion years ago.

On Thursday, July 18, 2019 we were in two locations on the National Mall for our Teacher Innovator Institute. We started in the Museum of Natural History and ended in the American History Museum.

Big guy

Not something you want to meet while out surfing . . . this thing is nearly 50 feet long.

The Meteorite Collection

We took the Metro System to Metro Central and then to the Archive stop and walked to the Natural History museum. It was already turning out to be a stiflingly hot day, with a record setting heat wave in Washington, D.C. and 70% humidity. I was glad to sit inside the atrium waiting for the museum to open, because at least the air conditioning inside was blowing through the doors into the atrium. Separated in cohorts, then the 2019 cohort walked into the museum to the meteorite collection where we further split into two groups. My group was asked to hang out for about an hour and to look for something in the museum that represented us. I had already done that on Tuesday when I found the trilobites from western Utah, so I went in search of something to eat as I hadn’t had much breakfast. My supplies from the Target run on Saturday we getting depleted. I found the museum’s café and had some overpriced food just to keep myself together for the rest of the morning. I also took photos of a model of a megalodon, the largest shark ever to grace the planet.

Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond, the most infamous of all diamonds on Earth. It started as the Blue Mogul and probably came from the Golconda mine, but was recut into its current form.

We met back upstairs in the meteorite collection, where Dr. Cari Corrigan led us through an almost hidden set of doors and through security systems to the meteorite vault. It had a long table in the center with storage cabinets and lockers along the walls. A poster at one end advertized a “cool” vacation trip to collect meteorites in Antarctica. We donned gloves as Dr. Corrigan explained the meteorites she was showing us. With each one, she handed it around so that we could pick it up in our own hands and photograph it. Each one was more interesting than the last, and she told stories of how they were found and identified.

Ann Hodges and her meteorite

A photo of Ann Hodges and her doctor, Moody Jacobs along with a fragment of the meteorite that hit her in 1954.

We began with a piece of a meteorite that had crashed through the roof of a house in Sylacauga, Alabama in 1954. It bounced off a radio and smacked Ann Hodges in the hip as she was napping. This is the only known meteorite to have actually hit a human being, and odds of this are astronomical (sorry about the pun). You have a better chance of being sucked up by a tornado, blown across the state by a hurricane, and hit by lightning all at the same time. The result was a nasty bruise and instant celebrity that Ann wasn’t ready for and didn’t welcome.

Red Malibu with dent

A 1980 red Chevy Mailbu that was smashed by a 26.5 pound meteorite in Peekskill, NY in 1992. Thousands of people saw the green fireball streak across the sky during football games on that Friday night in October.

The next meteorite smashed into the back end of a red Chevy Malibu parked in Peekskill, New York in 1992. The bright, greenish fireball was witnessed by thousands across the Eastern United States. It was a Friday evening in October, so many people who were filming local football games caught the fireball on camera. It broke up over Kentucky, passed over West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and hit the ground in Peekskill. One piece of it brought a bit of fame and fortune to the 18-year-old owner of the car, Michelle Knapp. She had recently bought the car for $400 and sold it to a meteorite collector for $25,000. The meteorite itself was sold by her family for $50,000.

Peekskill meteorite

In the plastic case is a thin section of the Peekskill meteorite and photos of the family holding the 26.5 pound chunk.

The next meteorite was the largest piece we got to see. Dr. Corrigan showed us the largely gray fragment with white inclusions and said it was a piece of a meteorite that landed near Allende, Mexico in 1969. Planetary scientists descended (sorry, more puns) on the town and recovered hundreds of pieces. Using radiometric dating, they found it was the oldest meteorite yet recovered and its gray areas dated to 4.65 billion years ago. The white areas were “dust bunnies” that formed from pre-solar grains, parts of which have been dated to over 5 billion years old. That makes this the oldest known object on Earth that has remained substantially unaltered. Technically, all of the atoms in our bodies are much older than the solar system, but they have been recombined so many times that we can’t know their origin. The Allende meteorite, except for a brief burning crash through Earth’s atmosphere, has remained unchanged since our solar system started to form. And I got to hold a piece of it – the oldest object on Earth!

Me with Allende meteorite

David Black holding a section of the Allende Meteorite, the oldest object on Earth at 4.65 billion years.

Dr. Corrigan also passed around a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in 2013. It was the most documented of all meteorites, with dashboard cameras from cars all over that part of Siberia recording the event, as well as videos of the shockwave as it blasted out windows all over the city. I asked her if any fragments of the Tunguska event of 1908 were ever recovered, and she said no. That air burst was the most violent meteor event in recorded history. The glow from that explosion was seen as far as Paris and London.

Me with Chelyabinsk piece

A fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite which exploded over Siberia in 2013.

She then passed out several meteorites that came from the moon, blasted off by impacts and traveling through space to land on Antarctica. Some of the pieces were enclosed in domes or in plastic boxes, but one was a small piece she handed around by itself. As I was holding it in my right hand and trying to photograph it with my left, I didn’t have the tactile sense I needed because of the gloves. It slipped from my hand and dropped to the floor.

I dropped the Moon.

Lunar meteorite I dropped

This is a piece of the Moon. Right before I dropped it . . .

Fortunately Dr. Corrigan didn’t see this happen as I was on the other side of the table from her, but several of the other teachers around me were aghast. So was I. Even more fortunately, it did not break and appeared undamaged. Later, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that this small rock had been through quite a bit already – it was blasted off the Moon by a violent impact, traveled through the vacuum of space for 250,000 miles before burning through Earth’s atmosphere to smash into a glacier in Antarctica, then get ground by glacial forces over thousands of years until it was inexorably pushed up onto the side of a mountain range, collected by planetologists, and brought back to the U.S. for storage and analysis. A drop from my hand three feet to the floor was unlikely to damage it, but I was still terribly embarrassed to have added insult to injury for this poor little rock.

Lunar meteorite in dome

Another lunar meteorite protected in a plexiglas dome.

This incident has now been added to my all-time most embarrassing moments. It ranks number six. Number five was having a major Halloween costume malfunction in front of a class of 8th graders three years ago. Number four was the “How to Handle a Woman” debacle when a group of us tried out for a solo and ensemble competition in high school. The try out did not go well. The choir director was trying so hard not to laugh that his face turned purple. Number three was the time I got neodymium magnets stuck up my nose while presenting a lesson activity on gravity assist maneuvers to a group of 25 high school teachers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002. I don’t talk about numbers two and one.

Me holding Mars

Me holding a piece of Mars. Notice the extra hand under mine – Marc wanted to be certain I didn’t drop this, too.

A Chunk of Mars

I did my best to recover, but the other teachers were a lot more cautious about letting me handle the meteorites on my own. Dr. Corrigan then explained a meteorite that had puzzled all the experts. It had definitely not come from an asteroid or other conventional source. Finally, a scientist got the idea to analyze small pockets of gas trapped inside the meteorite and discovered they matched the isotopes of air on Mars. A large asteroid impact had blasted this rock off of the surface of Mars, then it had traveled through the solar system for untold millions of years before landing on Earth. It joins a handful of known pieces of Mars on Earth, and certainly lends credence to the theories of panspermia, that if life started on Mars or on Earth, it could have spread throughout the solar system by meteorite impacts.

Meteorite group

Part of the 2019 TII cohort with Dr. Cari Corrigan in the meteorite collection at the American Museum of Natural History.

We took a group photo and thanked Dr. Corrigan, then returned to the main meteorite collection. We broke for lunch, and I ate a Philly cheesesteak sandwich from a vendor truck outside the museum.

AMerican history inside sign

An interior sign for the National Museum of American History, where we spent the afternoon. It has changed a great deal since the last time I was here.

American History Museum

We met after lunch in the National Museum of American History in a back conference room behind the Scratch Lab. We had several presentations on such subjects as free online graphing calculator simulators and some Mars science activities, although the presenters were again going way too fast. Betty Jo spoke briefly about how her students successfully grew potatoes in Mars soil simulant, but they had to do quite a bit of pH neutralization before the plants would grow well. We built a water filtration system using plastic bottles and common materials such as activated charcoal and pasta.

Filtering activity

A water filtration system using common materials to filter the sludge in the bottle at right.

We also had a presentation on the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab system, which allows a user to search through tens of thousands of artifacts and put together customized online tours and scavenger hunts, add notes and quizzes, and make user experiences for students to follow. I can see this being useful as part of my lunar lessons and other lesson plans to explore objects in the Smithsonian collection. Here is the website:

While we were making the filtration system, my roommate, Jay Hentzen, collapsed onto the floor. He had not been feeling well that morning, and suddenly had been hit by extreme pain. He had to go to an emergency room, where they found he was suffering from a kidney stone. Having had one myself ten years ago, I can relate to the pain he is going through.

Happy hour group

Part of our group at the restaurant on Thursday, July 18

We walked from the American History Museum up to Gallery Place where we were scheduled for a group dinner and happy hour at a restaurant and bar in Chinatown. On our way we passed by the Chinese-Chilean fusion restaurant and the Mongolian barbeque place I had eaten at three years before on my first Einstein interview trip, and we passed through the area I had stayed in two years ago on my Research Data Teacher Conference trip. I’ve gotten to know this part of D.C. pretty well.

Chinatown gate

Gate to Chinatown. Sorry it is washed out – my camera was still set for low light conditions. I am fairly familiar with this area, and there are some great restaurants.

The restaurant had pasta and pizza bars and a Coke Freestyle machine. My pizza was good and I talked with Seth, Scott, Beth, and some of the other 2018 cohort. After the dinner, others wanted to continue on to other bars, but I needed to get back to the dorms to do laundry; I’m not into the bar scene. I got on the Metro next door at Gallery Place and headed back to Cleveland Park, where I got off and walked to the Target store to buy laundry detergent and more food. Back at the dorms I dropped off my stuff, then walked over into campus to the student union building and put some money on my key card. I went back to the dorms and used the card to do a load of laundry while I called my family at home, as I have done each evening.


The Batmobile in the American History Museum.

I finished the evening grading papers that had been shared with me via Google Docs from my students and the substitute teacher and wrote up my final lesson plans for tomorrow. I had printed out all the worksheets prior to leaving last week, so all I had to do was write up final instructions for the sub. Jay made it back to the dorm late and was still in some pain, but was on pain relievers and thought he might have passed the stone already.

Countdown clock

Counting down to the launch of the Washington Monument on Friday night.


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At the Udvar-Hazy Center

Teacher Innovator Institute Day 3: Wed., July 17, 2019

Group inside dome-s

Teacher Innovator Institute 2019 cohort inside the geodesic dome we built

On our third full day of the Teacher Innovator Institute we were at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center again near Dulles International Airport. We spent the morning completing two team building design challenges and the afternoon in breakout sessions including one on STEAM activities and another on coding resources. We also heard a panel discussion by two World War II veteran airmen, including one of the Tuskegee airmen.

Straw design

Shay, Elizabeth, and Darbie constructing a tetrahedron from StrawBees.

Launching a Project with a Driving Question

A 13-year CTE teacher from Loudoun County Schools led a discussion on how to kick off a PBL experience with a driving question. The question, properly formulated and driven by the students, forms the structure around which learning occurs in a project. He pitched the driving question for us: How can we, as aerospace engineers, construct a structure that is portable, strong, easy to assemble in a short amount of time, and that can withstand the environment of Mars?

Straw building

Megan and Jay working on a StrawBees structural design.

This driving question should be broad enough and deep enough to lead to other, more detailed questions, such as: What kind of structure (size, shape, etc.)? What do we mean by portable? How strong does it have to be? What kinds of materials do we have to work with? How easy to assemble does it need to be, and in what amount of time? And, of course, what is the environment of Mars like?

Each of these sub-questions can be further divided, and more details added. Do we want the structure to be above or below ground? What is its purpose? Do we only have the materials available on Mars to work with, or do we bring the parts with use? How light does it have to be, and does it need to be something one person can carry, or can it be transported by a rover or other vehicle? How do we enter and exit it without letting air out (or Mars atmosphere or dust in), and do our spacesuits have to come inside or stay outside? Under the environmental conditions on Mars, what is the temperature range it will have to withstand, and the wind conditions, and the radiation environment? The answers to these questions provide the constraints, or specifications, of the engineering project.

Testing straw design

Testing the StrawBees structure by inflating a balloon inside.

Josh made a point that as teachers, we should NOT tell our students what the questions are or the answers. As they formulate both the questions and look up information to answer them, they will be doing the learning on their own in a student-centered fashion without us doing more than acting as guides on the side. The point is to let the students figure out what they need to know to be successful. We need to stand back and let them learn. Too often as teachers we get in the way of student learning.

Mike tests straw design

Mike Spiedel tests a StrawBee structure while Colleen holds her breath

Often to help students formulate questions, it can be important to have them construct a simple initial prototype to get a feel for the problems they face. To this end, Josh was joined by Mike Speidel, also with Loudon County Schools assigned to teach at the Udvar-Hazy Center, to show us a construction system called StrawBees. They are a series of vinyl plastic connectors that can be cut using a Cricut machine or 3D printed and which attach drinking straws together to make structures. He handed out kits to each table of teachers and asked us to create a prototype habitat that would be tested by sticking a balloon inside, then blowing it up until something broke.

I suggested an octahedral shape, which we tried, but it failed. We eventually succeeded with a more flexible structure that would give when the balloon inflated. Other teams got there first, but we did get there before the time was up.

Flak Bait restoration

Panoramic photo of Flak Bait, a World War II B-24 bomber being restored at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Geodesic Dome Emergency Shelter on Mars

Now it was time to build the larger structure, which would be a geodesic dome made from large PVC pieces and custom connectors from a Do-It-Yourself furniture company. While the team leader volunteers planned, I took some stairs up to the second floor where I could overlook the Discovery shuttle. Through a back window I saw the restoration area of the Center, where they are refurbishing and repairing a World War II bomber called Flack Bait. I took a panoramic shot of this and the shuttle, and a model of the Pathfinder mission.

Pathfinder from above

Engineering test model of the Pathfinder mission and Sojourner Rover

As the entire 30-person 2019 group began to assemble the dome, I found myself volunteering for the role of observer and photographer. This is partly because I had a good camera, but also because of my training in organizational behavior and management, which is my masters degree. I am used to running team-building activities as an observer and it is hard to break myself out of that role. So as the assembly started, I took many photos and video clips as the structure rose from the concrete floor behind the shuttle. It progressed well, but I could see a coming problem – the dome was too big to easily reach the top for construction and there were no ladders to stand on. One of the teachers was a cheerleader coach and suggested building a human pyramid, but that wouldn’t fly (not with a concrete floor). Eventually a solution was found: Build the top of the dome on the side, then move it in place and flip it over onto the top and bolt it down. We managed to build the whole dome and get everyone inside with 20 seconds to spare on the hour time limit.

Planning dome

The 2019 cohort planning how to build the geodesic dome Mars emergency shelter

We returned to the classroom and debriefed. Josh spoke of how to effectively journal an experience so that optimum student learning can occur. As I reflected, I had to think of why I tend to take the observer role. What do I fear about getting into the thick of things in a group activity? I fear not being listened to, which tends to happen when I am forced into a group situation. I don’t advocate for myself very well. Or I go too far and come off as the know-it-all (like when I play Trivial Pursuit with friends), then wind up being wrong. I hate being wrong in front of a group, so I stand aside and let others make decisions or I disengage and become the observer to avoid being put in that position.

Megan directing

Organizing materials for the dome

Well, enough self-assessment and pop psychology.

Top goes on

Fastening on the top of the dome, which had to be built on the side and lifted by the entire group into place.

Breakout Sessions

After lunch we broke in to sessions and I choose to stay in the main classroom to hear Tina, Betty Joe, Jen (from Utah), and Brinley of the 2018 cohort present on STEAM activities. I tried to take notes, but it was a fire hose of information and my notes are fragmentary at best. Hopefully I will have time to go through the online group folder where all of these lesson plans are located. I do see how a Cricut machine could come in handy. Jen talked about taking plain colored T-shirts and laying out vinyl shapes, then spraying the shirt with bleach to make a white area around the shapes. This is the opposite of using shapes to block the light for a blueprint T-shirt like we did last week in my STEAM class. We did do one activity as a group to take a clear plastic plate and paint it with Sharpie markets, then use heat guns to make Shrinky Dinks out of them. I’ve done this before using plastic cups melted in a toaster oven, but I like the larger size of the plates.

Shrinky dink before

A colored plastic plate before heating and shrinking with a hot air gun, along with a Moon themed Oreo cookie.

During the second breakout session I went to the other room to hear Scott, Beth, and Christina talk about video editing tools and coding resources. I wrote down a lot of sites for teaching beginning coding, even to lower elementary students. They also talked about using Minecraft, Arduinos, and Raspberry Pis. Again, I took as many notes as I could and hope to have time to check everything out before school starts up again.

Completed shrinky dink

Colored plastic plate after heating and shrinking

A Tuskegee Airman

We walked out into the main hangar area to hear two World War II veteran aviators speak of their experiences. One was Colonel Charles McGee, who was trained as a pilot at Tuskegee, Alabama and is the only known pilot to fly over 100 combat missions in each of three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam for over 500 total missions. It was inspiring to hear him speak – he is going to be 100 years old this year.

WWII airmen

Two veteran aviators from World War II, including Col. Charles McGee, one of the Tuskegee Airmen and the only pilot to have flown over 100 combat missions in each of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The other speaker, whose name I did not write down, was a pilot of a B-24 bomber shot down over Germany. He survived when the rest of his crewmates did not. He had been wearing a parachute because he was too short to reach the airplane control pedals and the chute helped push him forward in his seat. When is plane was shot down and broke in two, he was the only one wearing a chute.

Group at Georgetown restaurant

A group of us at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown

Upon returning to American University, we rested for an hour or so and then a group of us ordered several Ubers and we ate at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. It was a fun group and I enjoyed getting to know the other teachers better. I never did finish my leftovers.

Manned Maneuvering Unit

Manned Maneuvering Unit on display at the Air and Space Museum

Building bottom ring

Building the bottom ring

First crosspiece 2

The first level takes shape

Final parts go together

Beginning to shape up

The geodesic dome begins to take shape

Group inside finished dome

2019 Cohort of the Teacher Innovator Institute inside the finished Mars shelter

Hazy with Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Discovery pano

A panoramic photograph of Space Shuttle Discovery

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I Spy With My Little Eye

Day Two of the Teacher Innovator Institute; July 16, 2019

Bond car 2

This car comes with a few extra features . . . the famous Aston Martin that was driven by James Bond in the International Spy Museum.

On this, the second full day of our Institute, we were in and around the National Mall in the new International Spy Museum and the National Museum of Natural History. I learned about the newest practices for informal science education, some of the weird espionage moments in history, and various types of robotics. I found some connections to my local geology and family history, and explored the rock and mineral collections of the Smithsonian.

Spy museum entrance

Entrance to the International Spy Museum.

No Cone of Silence

We rode the shuttle bus to Tenleytown and took the Metro system to L’Enfant Plaza, where the new International Spy Museum is located. After a stop at Starbucks at the top of the escalators, we walked to the museum. This exit from L’Enfant was the same that I took mistakenly the last time I was here for the Einstein Fellowship interviews. I hope to get this station figured out finally so that I can always take the right exit depending on where I want to go. Several of them have astronaut dogs pointing, but the one without the astronaut is the Washington and 7th St. exit, which leads to the Air and Space Museum.

I spy Monic

Monic, one of the teachers from Riverside, CA posing in the Spy sculpture outside the International Spy Museum.

We took some photos outside with the 3D SPY sculpture then were ushered into the lobby past the James Bond Austin Martin car to a classroom on the second floor. This museum has only been opened for a few months, and the classroom space is brand new. We got badges and went up to the fifth floor to begin our missions. Based on input about your personality, an actual spy persona is loaded into your badge and you are required to travel through the museum from station to station, picking up equipment, traveling to locations, collecting intelligence, sending it to headquarters, and analyzing the information to draw conclusions. This process is very much like the scientific method; intelligence operations must gather and analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions about possible threats. My persona was an art dealer, and I picked the wrong type of equipment for my mission at the first station. Q would have been frustrated with me. All of the choices are loaded onto the card at interactive computer stations based on the content of each room of the museum as you spiral down through the floors.

US Intelligence agencies

Different intelligence agencies of the U.S government.

It started with real-life spy biographies on video panels on the walls, done by actors except for a real spy who had infiltrated Al Qaeda and is now in hiding. Mata Hari was one of the examples, and when I mentioned to a docent that Mata Hari means “the Sun” in Bahasa Indonesia, she said that she already knew that. I guess I should let the experts do their job and stop going into teacher mode.

MAta Hari exhibit

An exhibit on Mata Hari, the famous femme fatale. I learned while I was in Indonesia that her name actually means “the sun” in Bahasa Indonesia.

We progressed through the rooms and levels, and there was so much to see and do that I didn’t get through the entire mission, but it was fascinating and interactive and engaging, just what a museum experience should be for a visitor. There was a display on the infamous Enigma machine and how it was decoded at Bletchley Park as part of the Ultra Secret. There was a section of the Berlin tunnel, dug from Western Berlin under the wall to pick up electronic transmissions and signals from the Soviet side in East Berlin. There was a display on the U2 spy plane and the Gary Powers incident, and so much more. Examples ranged from ancient espionage to modern examples, with stories from across history and many nations. I wish I had the time to go back.

Enigma machines

The Enigma machines with code wheels that could produce trillions upon trillions of possible combinations.

As I progressed through the levels, the music that kept playing in my mind was a combination of the James Bond theme and the opening theme from “Get Smart.” They do have some examples of fictional espionage in the museum, such as Emma Peale and James Bond, but I was a bit disappointed not to find a series of slamming walls, a shoe phone, and a functioning Cone of Silence.

Berlin tunnel

A section of a tunnel dug under East Berlin to tap into the Soviet communication systems.

After our two hours to explore was up, I bought myself a T-shirt in the gift shop. We then re-convened in the classroom on the second floor and the museum’s historian, Vince Houghton, author of the new book Nuking the Moon, spoke to us about some of the crazy espionage schemes thought up (but not successfully developed) through history. There was the infamous Glomar Explorer of the 1970s, which was built by Howard Hughes’ companies to supposedly pick up manganese nodules from the ocean floor but was really built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, attempts at mind-control devices, and using cats implanted with microphones as mobile listening devices to sneak into foreign embassies.

Nuking the Moon

Nuking the Moon, a book on bizarre spy schemes by historian Vince Houghton.

I have been through many museums and have worked with informal science educators. I’ve even applied to be one. I wish that all museum experiences could be as engaging and engrossing as the Spy museum was for me. It left me wanting more. Two hours was not nearly enough time. I could go through several times and since I would have a different persona, the experience would be different each time. It was interactive, well thought through, and educated me without seeming like I was in school or in a classroom. This is what state-of-the-art informal science education should be like.

Nuking Moon author

Historian Vince Houghton spoke to us about some of the more bizarre espionage attempts, including turing a cat into a mobile listening device.

My Original Project Idea

As I was writing this, I referred to my notes about the Institute taken in a black notebook. I had to switch to this notebook part way through the Institute because I filled up my red notebook. As I searched for the entry for this day, I went back a bit too far and came across something written on March 25, 2018 where I had described my interview for the Einstein Fellowship in Washington, D.C. a few weeks before. I thought things went well, but of the 4-5 people interviewing for the Noyce Scholarship position, I was not the one selected. As I waited for my phone to ring with an offer of a position, day after day passed and I started giving up hope. Then I had an interesting dream that led me to realize that all would be well and that what I sought was coming soon and would not require me to move to Washington, D.C. or uproot my family. The next day I received an e-mail from Nathan Smith, a Utah State University CTE coordinator who sends out a monthly newsletter of opportunities. The e-mail informed us about the Teacher Innovator Institute and that the deadline was coming up soon. I thought this must be the answer to my dream, and I applied for the Institute last year.

David von Wollanstein

David Black as Sir Francis Walsingham, master spy for Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve always secretly desired to be a swaggering rascal . . .

My notes in the notebook went into some detail on the project I wanted to develop, and it was certainly ambitious. Too ambitious to be successful, which is probably why I wasn’t selected. My last note in the notebook was a kind of “Now what?” analysis. I had been so certain this was the answer for me, but was disappointed. Then my son got sick and had to be hospitalized right during the time of the Institute, so it was a good thing I wasn’t selected. Now, a year later, without reading the section above it, I drew a line through the notebook and began writing notes from the Institute. I got selected this time because I pared down my project to something manageable and focused on my middle school experience. The other Utahns selected last year must have read Nathan Smith’s e-mail, too – at least John Teuscher said that’s why he applied. Now the answer from my dream has come, just a year later than expected – and here I am.

U2 flight suit

Flight suit for the U2 spy plane.

The need for my original project idea has not gone away. It was to develop more interactivity for the Air and Space Museum similar to what I just saw at the Spy Museum. I find out now that the Air and Space Museum at the Mall is being renovated – the western half is already closed down, and all the exhibits will be redone, renamed, and redesigned for greater visitor engagement just as I had envisioned last year. We will even do some focus groups later this week to analyze various exhibits to provide feedback for improvements. In about four years, the place will be much different. I see opportunities for doing similar things with museums in Utah, perhaps incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality through the Black Box Innovation Group concept I have been developing. Stay tuned . . .

Group outside Spy

Teacher group outside of the Spy Museum before breaking for lunch.

Robotics Systems

We separated for lunch, which I ate at Popeye’s Chicken at the food court leading in to L’Enfant Plaza. A group of us rode the Blue Line two stops up National Archives and walked from there to the Museum of Natural History through the blisteringly hot and humid weather. We waited outside until the entire group could go through the entrance metal detectors, get our badges, and go up several flights of stairs to a conference room.

My right leg is still hurting and swollen from overdoing things on Sunday, so climbing the stairs was a bit challenging.

Group outside Natural history

Waiting outside the Natural History Museum

The conference room was a bit small for all of us, but we managed. We started with a session of 2018ers demonstrating various types of robotics systems that we can choose to use in our classes, ranging from Ozobots to Spheros to LEGO EV3 and Wedo. Steve and Keith demonstrated the Parrot Drone quadcopters and how to program them. For Ozobots, we looked at using the color codes to teach mathematics equations among other ideas. We saw ideas for using Spheros to do art – having them roll through puddles of colored paint while protected with waterproof skins. We could use their sensors to turn into Mars probes on simulated terrains.

Quad copter

Demonstrating how to use a Parrot Drone quadcopter.

Our final session of the day was a breakout, and I stayed in the room to learn about design challenges from Shaoni and John and we brainstormed a list of possible ideas – there are so many and I was writing fast, so it is a bit hard to make out my notes.

Exploring the Natural History Museum

We finished a bit early, around 3:00, so that the GooseChase teams could go out to gather their points. I was not about to run around D.C. in the high heat and humidity with my gimpy leg, so I decided to stay in the Natural History Museum and explore.

Millard County trilobite

A trilobite fossil in the Natural History Museum that comes from the House Range in Western Utah, near where I grew up. My grandfather used to take me to dig up trilobites in the area near Antelope Springs.

I have been here before, including ten years ago when I came here with my daughter and two youngest sons. I took many photos in the meteorite, mineral, and gemstone galleries that I used in my beryllium videos and elsewhere, so I wasn’t as focused on photographing everything. I wanted to focus on my TII project and to look around through some other galleries. I was also killing time because we were meeting with one of the observatory directors at the Air and Space Museum at 7:00, so I took my time.

Banded iron deposits

Banded iron oxide deposits from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When cyanobacteria flooded the Earth’s atmosphere with free oxygen in the Great Oxygenation Event (which may be the greatest environmental catastrophe of all time), it oxidized vast amounts of iron in the oceans which precipitated out as these deposits.

I started in a gallery talking about the origin and evolution of life, which I thought would be useful for my biology classes. I found exhibits of different types of life through geologic time, and came across an exhibit of trilobites. Coming from Millard County, Utah, I am familiar with the trilobite fossils in the House Range. My grandfather even had a mining claim for trilobites and used to take me out to the Antelope Springs area collect them. I tried to find his claim site on two occasions a few years ago but got a flat tire on the sharp slate rocks each time. I was happy to see several specimens from the House Range in the Smithsonian Collection. I also took photos of some banded iron deposits from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I hope to get up there some time – my grant application for the National Mining Association’s conference in Marquette, MI this year was denied. These bands are associated with the Great Oxygenation Event when the first cyanobacteria pumped free oxygen into the atmosphere and caused iron dissolved in the oceans to oxidize and precipitate.

Shergotty 2

This is a piece of the famous Shergotty meteorite, which has been identified as coming from Mars.

I then walked upstairs and took photos of meteorites and lunar samples. It was about 4:30, so I found a quiet stairway and sat down to rest, as I was quite tired. There are days when I certainly feel like I am pushing 60, and this was one of them. When the museum closed at 5:00, I walked across the mall and sat in the gardens next to the Smithsonian headquarters building, got a water ice from a vending stand, and ate supper of chili cheese fries at the food court at L’Enfant Plaza again. It was overcast but still quite hot and humid, so I took my time walking and enjoyed not being rushed.

Moon rock lit up

A piece of lunar brecchia brought back from the Apollo missions.

Sun Scopes

Just before 7:00 I walked over to the Air and Space Museum and met up with about 15 other TII teachers who had come to hear about the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory. This is a small white dome built onto the patio to the east of the main museum, and is used mostly for sun watching and occasional night sky viewing and star shows. Since it was overcast, we couldn’t see the sun but we were shown the various telescopes and sun screens used.


Emeralds on display in the Natural History Museum

After the brief tour, we rode the Metro system back to the American University dorms. I spent the remaining time that evening uploading photos and writing notes for my substitutes. I was pretty tired after being in the heat all day, and it was nice to take a second shower and cool off a little.

NASM observator tour

Tour of the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory at the Air and Space Museum

Mineral spectrum

A spectrum of minerals, showing the wide variety of colors that can come from various minerals, ranging from purple amethyst on the left to red rhodochrosite on the right.



Sapphires on display at the Natural History Museum

Easter Island statue

A Moai statue from Easter Island, carved by the Rapa Nui people.

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Teacher Innovator Institute

Monday, July 15, 2019

Me in spacesuit

David Black posing inside a mockup of a spacesuit outside the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum

This was our first official day of the Teacher Innovator Institute in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum. It was held at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, which is an extension of the main museum on the National Mall. I had never been to this annex before; it was one of those bucket list items that I finally got to check off.

I applied last year but was not accepted. In some ways I am glad to be part of the second cohort because last year would have been impossible, what with my son being in the hospital for a serious infection and remodeling our kitchen during the same time as the Institute. As a 2019 cohort, we also benefit from lessons learned last year. Between both cohorts there are 59 of us here.

Group waiting for bus 2

A group of TII teachers waiting for the bus to start the first official day of the Institute.

We walked from the dorms at American University across campus to where our bus would pick us up. It was a bit late, and we talked and got to know each other better. We are from around the country, some in small teams from the same schools, some like me are here as individuals. The Institute is funded by an anonymous private donation from a family foundation, and we have speculated which family this might be, but they remain anonymous. It is a generous donation and allows us to attend this Institute for three years and receive a substantial grant in addition to fund travel to conferences and to purchase supplies and equipment for the projects we will develop. For me, one of the best parts will be to attend and help out with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Group waiting for bus

A group of teachers, mostly from the 2018 cohort, waiting for the bus.

When the bus arrived I sat and talked with Toni, who told me of some of the creative projects she has done in her classroom including having students create working arcade games out of cardboard. I think this will be a great alternative to my Rube Goldberg project and will teach simple machines in a more structured way.

Hazy Center entrance

Entrance to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

It took about an hour to drive out to the annex, which is near Dulles International Airport. We had to drive down through Georgetown, cross the Potomac to Crystal City, then drive out into Virginia amid slow traffic this time of morning. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a huge hangar shaped building that is even larger than the National Mall building and houses an incredible array of air and spacecraft and other artifacts. We unloaded our bus and walked in, depositing our backpacks and personal items in a classroom on the ground floor near the stairs before walking across the hangar floor past the SR-71 Blackbird to the Space Shuttle Discovery in the back hangar area.

Ellen Stofan keynote at TII

Dr. Ellen Stofan welcomes us to the Teacher Innovator Institute. She is speaking under the nose of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Dr. Ellen Stofan, Director of the Air and Space Museum, was waiting for us and spoke to us, welcoming us to Washington, D.C. and outlining some of the activities going on this week. I asked her about the panel discussion she will be having with Michael Collins on Friday, and she told us more about what the astronauts will be doing this week. After her remarks we had an excellent breakfast while sitting under the nose of the Space Shuttle. After eating I took a few photos before we returned to our classroom.

TII breakfast by shuttle

Teachers for the Institute eating breakfast under the nose of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

We participated in an engineering design contest with our mentors (Shaori took me on as an additional mentee) to build a safe Lunar Lander for two eggs dropped off the second floor balcony. There were some very creative approaches, and this is definitely a group of highly competitive and innovative teachers. We did well with our airbag and parachute concept – similar to Mars rover landers. Neither of our eggs broke, but we did not win the hang time part of the challenge.

Me by Discovery

David Black by the Space Shuttle Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum; July 2019.

We separated by cohorts so that the 2019 group could prepare presentations while we made introductions for ourselves. We ate lunches that we had brought with us in our nice TII backpacks then listened to presentations from the 2018 cohort. I chose to stay and hear Ben and others talk about experiential learning through outdoor science programs. Ben lives in western Virginia and does several large field study projects with his students to gather data on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including stream and bay environmental studies. Another teacher, Leann, spoke on a new outdoor science park created in the center of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is designed for students to conduct open-ended field studies and gather data on native plants and animals.

SR 71

The SR-71 Blackbird on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA.

Shannon Baldioli, the organizer and leader of the Institute, introduced us to a group GooseChase challenge. This is an app that allows organizers to post questions and challenges concerning a geographical area (or a museum) and teams then post photos or videos, answer questions, or otherwise prove they have completed the challenges. The questions are auto scored, but they can be overridden by the game organizers to add or subtract points or disallow entries. We were supposed to join into teams of six, but after trying to join three different teams and being told they were full, I finally joined a team that was a little less gung-ho about the whole thing. We called ourselves the Slackers and decided to post responses only if we happened to run across them. The other teams were expending a great deal of time and effort trying to win, and I didn’t feel like chasing all over D.C. with my swollen leg. I definitely overdid it yesterday, and am paying the price today. I’ve had to keep it elevated most of the time.

Lunar REceiving lab

The Lunar Receiving Lab, which was on the USS Hornet when they recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts. They had to live inside in isolation for two weeks just to make sure they didn’t bring any Moon bugs back with them. There is a famous photo of Pres. Nixon talking to them through the window at the end to my right.

A NASA van had pulled up outside and we went out to get posters and other bling and to pose inside of a spacesuit mock up. At 4:00 we boarded the bus and returned to American University. For supper a group of us walked a short distance to a restaurant called Wagshals, where I ordered a Reuben sandwich with sourdough bread.

Close Encounters ship

Recognize this? It is the original model for the Mother Ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Now imagine it with a lot of colored LED lights and that classic John Williams sound track: “Bom bom bom BAH DAH!” Somewhere on here is supposed to be a small model of R2-D2 but I didn’t find it.

I spent the evening talking to other teachers and working on lesson plans. My classes are still going this first week and I have to send in plans to substitutes and grade papers while I am here. I continue to be greatly impressed by the wide range of creativity and experience of the teachers in both cohorts, and I feel privileged to be here with them. This is already shaping up to be one of the best professional development programs I have participated in.

Jim Irwin suit 3

Jim Irwin’s spacesuit from the Apollo 15 mission, complete with helmet, gloves, and lunar dust.

Milestones of flight mural

This mural is called Milestones of Flight and it is hanging up on the wall on the ground floor of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. I have a copy of this hanging on my wall at school.


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A Cruise of Cohorts

Lincoln with Washington from river

The Lincoln and Washington Memorials at sunset as seen from the Potomac River. This grand staircase was designed so that visitors, coming in from the sea and Chesapeake Bay, would dock here and climb the stairs for their first glimpse at our Capital.

Our second day of the Teacher Innovator Institute (TII) in Washington, D.C was a Sunday and a chance to get acclimated and become acquainted with each other before the actual workshop begins. I walked to the National Cathedral and attended services. As a group of both cohorts, we took a cruise on the Potomac River to Old Town Alexandria.

Flame of fire windo

A stained glass window representing fire (the burning bush, perhaps?) in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

I had visited the National Cathedral once before in 1982 when I lived in Alexandria and worked as a Congressional Intern for Senator Hatch of Utah (who only just retired this last year). Back then I only had a mid-range Ricoh camera without SLR or many focusing or lighting options. Now I have a full SLR digital still and video camera and Adobe Photoshop at my command, so I can do many more things under poor lighting than I could then. I didn’t dress up as I wasn’t planning on attending services but mostly wanted to get some photos of the stained glass windows for when I can complete the Stained Glass Elements Unearthed video started ten years ago.

Mass Ave stroll

My walk down Massachusetts Ave. to the National Cathedral.

National Cathedral was only just over a mile from our dorms at American University. I grabbed my camera and water bottle and headed out after breakfast, walking down Massachusetts Ave. staying as much in the shade as possible. There were quite a few trees until I got to the top of the hill and cut across to the cathedral. I took photos outside and then walked in through the main doors into the nave. Services were going on and I was told not to take photos until after, so I decided to stay and attend after all. The National Cathedral is an Episcopalian Church and services were done in English, with a set structure to the liturgy and a printed program. Chairs were set up all along the nave and across the transept and most were filled. A visiting choir from Ireland provided some hymns, and others were sung by the congregation while standing. Some parts of the liturgy were recited by the Dean, others repeated by the congregation. There were two short sermons, baptisms of about eight babies, and the presentation of the eucharist. Even though this was not a Catholic Mass, I gained some points to add to my Golden Apple book about the structure of the services and the cathedral itself.

Stain glass-blues-Natl Cathedral

Beautiful stained glass windows in the National Cathedral.

Just this last week, as I write this, the leaders of the National Cathedral issued a call for more civility in our discourse and courtesy in everyday life. The text of the sermons given during the service was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and out need to help each other. I find these messages resonate with me, personally, not just because I am a religious person but because of the great need I see for our nation to come together, not be further divided. How can we ever accomplish something as grand as the Apollo program again unless we put aside our differences and come together. It took a national commitment to get us to the Moon. It will take another commitment to take us back and on to Mars. If we cannot agree to do this and get our hopes and energies behind it, then what hope can we have as a people? A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Cathedral through trees

The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. as I approached it through the trees.

With services over, the congregation was served coffee and donuts while I wandered around and took photos of various parts of the interior, including the stained glass windows with the Space Window that contains a moon rock donated by Michael Collins, as this was the school he attended. I also took photos outside before walking back to the dorms.

Cathecral west facade

Rose window on the west facade of the National Cathedral.

It was a quiet afternoon and I tried to get to know more people in my cohort. I had not been able to open the five locks on the small breakout lockbox that contains our ticket for tomorrow’s breakfast, so I spent some time asking people for hints about how to proceed. My mentor teacher from the 2018 cohort only contacted me once, then I didn’t hear anything more and I found out that she is not here this summer because of a family problem. But other teachers in my cohort were able to give me a starting point for the directional lock, which was the photo of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. I had opened three of the five locks by the time we left for supper.

Space window 2-better

The Space Window in the National Cathedral. In the center of the red circle at the top is a moon rock donated by Michael Collins from the Apollo 11 mission.

About 5:00 a group of us ordered two Ubers to take us to Georgetown to a restaurant, where some of the 2018 cohort were already eating. It is an underground speakeasy kind of place where I ordered some excellent buffalo wings for supper. We then had a short walk as a group down to the waterfront and the docks just upriver from the Watergate complex, where we were to board our cruise. There was a silver Rolls Royce and a black Ferrari parked there while we waited, and I finally met Shannon for the first time. She gave us our ticket vouchers and we boarded the ferry about 7:00.

Bell tower

Bell tower of the National Cathedral. I almost expected Quasimodo to peer from the windows.

It was a pleasant ride down the Potomac. I had never seen Washington, D.C. from this vantage point before. We floated past the Watergate buildings and the Kennedy Center, then under some bridges past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. We crossed the river just above the bridge leading from Alexandria to National Harbor, which I crossed back in 2014 when I attended AAS at the Gaylord Resort, which I could see just beyond the bridge. It was a lot colder then, with one of those polar vortexes and bitter wind in January. Now is was a hot and humid July day.

Cohorts mixing

Teacher Innovator Institute cohorts walking to the ferry at Georgetown.

We unloaded at the Old Town docks and had about an hour to explore before heading back. I walked with Jay, my roommate, and Colleen up to the city hall, but it was a Sunday and not much was open. I would like to come back and see the apothecary shop. We did stop for ice cream at a little shop, and I got a double scoop cone with a wonderful chocolate with sprinkles on the bottom and a mango ice cream on top.

Rolls and Ferrari

One thing about being in D.C., you see a better class of cars. Here are a Rolls-Royce and a Ferrari in the same photo.

We boarded the return ferry and pulled away from the dock. The sun was near setting as we headed back up the river, passing the old radar installation at the Naval Research Station. The Capitol building was glowing in the late afternoon sun, and by the time we pulled even with the Jefferson Memorial (which is under repair) the light was turning magenta. I took some great photos of the Washington Monument lining up with the Lincoln Memorial and a set of grand marble stairs leading from the Potomac up to the National Mall, originally designed to give visitors (who would have come by sea vessel back then) a grand first impression of our capital.

Ferryboat docks

Ferryboats at the docks at Georgetown. The Watergate Complex and Kennedy Center lie downriver.

We returned to the Georgetown docks just as the sun was setting. A group of us, mostly 2018 cohort who knew this part of the city better, walked up a few blocks and caught a Metro bus back to Tenleytown. I got to know Amy, an art teacher from Utah who is at Freedom Academy and who had visited Walden School back when Josh Graham was on sabbatical. The university shuttle bus wasn’t running, so we walked from Tenleytown back to the dorms, a little over a mile.

Alexandria City Hall

Old Town Alexandria city hall and fountain.

The 2018 cohort has already been here for a week and have renewed their tight association from last year; as the original experimental group they bonded closely and many of them have gone to conferences and presented together throughout this year. I’m trying to learn everyone’s names as soon as I can and talk to as many as possible. Some of the 2018 group, such as Trevor and Leann, have been very welcoming and helpful for us newbies.

Plane cloud and fountain

Fountain, cloud, and airplane over Old Town Alexandria.

I’ve done a lot of walking today and have pushed my gimpy right leg a bit too much. It is trying to swell up on me. I tried to keep it elevated while talking to people in my cohort in the lounge area on the 5th floor once we got back. I can tell it will be a strenuous two weeks. I was able to solve the other two locks and got the final lockbox open. It was quite the feeling of accomplishment.

Capitol from Potomac

The Capitol Building at sunset from the Potomac River.

Washington and Jefferson

Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial at sunset from the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial is being rennovated.

Watergate at sunset

The Watergate Complex at sunset. An infamous event occurred here in 1972 that eventually brought down a president.

Cruise pano small

A panorama of the teachers on board our return ferryboat on the Potomac River.

Locks open

All locks open. The small black lockbox with my ticket to the breakfast in the morning is open at last, with a little help from my friends and cohort.


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On a New Adventure

SLC airplane arrives

Our flight arrives at the Salt Lake International Airport. I flew to Washington, D.C. for the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum.

I have been extremely fortunate as a STEAM teacher to experience a number of fun adventures despite being a rather ordinary person. This hasn’t been because of any remarkable talent or skill unless you count dogged persistence as a talent. I just keep on applying to different programs, hoping some of them will come through. Overall, my success rate has been about 25%, which means I fail ¾ of the time. You have to learn to shrug off the failures and be grateful for the occasional successes.

This year I have applied for nine programs or opportunities and was successful on four of them, but had to turn two of them down (one to present at a chemistry teachers conference, another to present at a STEM Forum) because they conflicted with the other two and I would have needed to pay my own way. The ones I accepted were admittance to a doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado, which I will write about in two weeks, and the second a two-week Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum. I began that adventure today.

While waiting for my flight I ran into Wendi Lawrence, who is now our regional representative for the National Science Teaching Association. She was on my same flight, going to the National Congress on Science Education, which I attended in Omaha four years ago (and will report on eventually). I have known and worked with Wendi several times over the last several years and it was good to see her again.

We took the direct Delta Flight 832 from Salt Lake City to Washington National Airport which takes off about 9:48 am and arrives at 4:00 pm. There were no delays or problems and the flight was uneventful on a nice, new airplane. I had the left aisle seat so that I could stretch out my gimpy right leg and wore compression socks so that I could handle the long flight.

Airplane and Capitol Bldg

An airplane taxis on the runway at Reagan National Airport with the Potomac River and the Capital Building in the background.

The Institute began last year with an inaugural group of 30 teachers who have returned to D.C. this last week. Now the 2019 cohort are arriving and we will be going behind the scenes at the National Air and Space Museum, both at the National Mall museum and the Udvar-Hazy extension in Chantilly, VA, which I have never visited before. We will learn about the curating process, visit other museums, take a Potomac River cruise, and develop our own space science lesson plans and projects. Best of all, we will be here during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. For this reason, my project is to develop better lesson plans to teach about the Apollo program and the Moon. What I have now are a hodge podge of different materials that need to be collated, condensed, improved, and have standards and objectives added. We will participate and even help out with the museum’s activities during the celebrations.

DCA tower

Air Traffic Control tower at Reagan National Airport.

I have been to Washington, D.C. many times before and even lived here after my sophomore year of college and worked as a Congressional Intern for Senator Hatch of Utah. We lived in apartments in Alexandria and commuting in every day as my roommate had his car and was a staff member for an Idaho senator. On Saturdays I would take the Metro in to town and visit a museum or two, so I got to know the system well. That was in 1982 and more lines have been added, but not much has changed.

So instead of waiting for other teachers to arrive and taking an Uber or a shuttle van, I rolled my luggage up to the Metro station and rode the yellow line to the Gallery Place – Chinatown Station, then transferred to the Red Line heading toward Shady Grove. We had been mailed Metro cards with $108 pre-loaded, so why pay for another ride? My only trouble was that the upper escalator at the Tenleytown-AU station was under repair, so I had to lug my luggage up the escalator by hand, stopping to let people get by. This was challenging in the hot, humid D.C. summer weather. Outside the station was a bus stop with a shuttle bus taking us to American University, where we will be staying in the dorms at Federal Hall.

DC Metro interior

I took the Yellow Line Metro line from the airport to Gallery Place, then switched to the Red Line and got off at the Tenleytown-AU station.

It took a bit to find the hall after finally asking for directions. I am in room 501, sharing with a teacher named Jay from Omaha, Nebraska. He hadn’t arrived yet, so I unpacked, turned down the thermostat as far as it would go, plugged in the minifridge, and went outside. Some other teachers were congregating in the hall, so we introduced ourselves all around and decided to go as a group to the nearest Target to buy food and supplies.

We walked across campus to the far shuttle bus stop and took it back to the Tenleytown Station, then rode the Red Line to Cleveland Park and walked across the street to the Target, which was in the basement of a strip mall. I bought enough food to last the weekend. Then we took the Metro back to Tenleytown and stopped at the Whole Foods store. The entrance was hard to find, as it was actually in a parking garage (D.C. is like that – older buildings adapted for new uses but with unexpected entrances). I got some natural peanut butter, raspberry jam, and a 12-grain bread for sandwiches. We were all pretty tired of the heat and humidity by the time we got back to the dorms.

TII teachers in Tenleytown Station

Some of the teachers in the 2019 cohort for the Teacher Innovator Institute. They are, left to right, Paula, Monica, Monic, Hunter, Michelle, and Ruth.

After putting my food away and eating some of it for supper, I ventured out and met some of the 2018 cohort. They had gotten to know each other well the preceding year and the week before and were decompressing by watching Stranger Things on a Roku that someone had brought while others were playing Magic. I can see that we newbies will need to do some deliberate team building activities over the next few days to bond with this very cohesive group.

By the time I got back Jay arrived and we talked about our respective teaching experiences until midnight. I have brought along some questionnaires so that I can collect the experiences of these teachers as a kind of pre-dissertation research project. I want to know what kinds of experiences they have had with Project-Based Learning, using authentic data and student-centered research, global citizenship, STEAM, and other subjects that will help direct me toward the most fruitful topics during my doctoral program. I want to hit the ground running.

Cleveland Park Target

Sign in the Target at Cleveland Park.

I called my family to say goodnight and slept surprisingly well considering the room was too hot (I brought a small fan, which helped) and the bed was small.

So off I go on another adventure. I will try to write a daily post to describe our activities in a hope that other teachers out there can benefit from our experiences and perhaps even apply for next year.

Dorm room-American Univ

Our dorm room at American University. We are staying in Federal Hall. Shannon Baldioli, who heads the Institute for the National Air and Space Museum, left us gifts – water bottles, shirts, name tags, stickers, books on the exhibits, and a backpack. Let the bling begin!

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A Constellation in a Box

Orion stars align

The stars in Orion are represented by beads hung in the correct scale of their distances. They form the well-known asterism when viewed from the center of the eyepiece ring, which represents Earth’s position.

Several weeks ago I wrote up a lesson plan as part of a contest sponsored by ORISE, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Winners of the contest would receive an all-expenses paid trip to the National Science Teachers Association annual conference in St. Louis. I’m afraid I didn’t win, but it was a great excuse to finally write up my lesson for building a constellation in a box. I’ve been meaning to blog about this lesson for some time.

I’ve written a blog post (and a magazine article for The Science Teacher in Summer 2014) on how to create a 3D model of the nearby stars. When I taught astronomy to 6th grade students at Walden School of Liberal Arts and 8th grade students at American Academy of Innovation, I knew that the nearstar model would be too complicated for middle school students, as it requires using trigonometry functions to calculate correct star positions in the model. So I designed a simpler version that still provides all the learning benefits but is more appropriate for middle grades. Its purpose is to build a 3D model of a constellation in a box with accurate scale in distance but without requiring measurements of right ascension and declination.

Orion model 2

The Orion model as seen from a position many light years away from Earth (the center of the canning jar ring). The constellation appears distorted.

I have student teams select a constellation, steering them away from the less exciting ones such as Cancer or Ares or Triangulum. The teams use Stellarium software and the Internet to research the constellation including the story behind it (such as that defeating Scorpio was one of the Seven Labors of Hercules). Then they identify the 7-8 major stars of the constellation and research the meaning of their names, alternate names using Bayer, Flamsteed, and HIP catalogs, their coordinates (right ascension, declination, and distance in light years), and their spectral classes.

Capricorn and Canis Major

Constellation diagrams before taping in their boxes. The students trace these out using Stellarium and a projector and add the star colors, names, coordinates, and spectral types with asterism lines.

I project their constellations onto my white board and the students trace them onto a large sheet of paper that will just fit into the bottom of a box such as a copy paper box or a banker’s box. They circle the stars when they trace, then use markers to color the stars appropriately for spectral types, label each star with name, class, and distance, and draw asterism lines between them. They draw a grid of lines horizontally and vertically every three centimeters, then glue or tape their diagram into the bottom of the box facing up. They lay their box on its side with the diagram turned the right direction. In the open top of the box (now the front), they use thick black thread or string (monofilament works best) to hang a canning jar ring in the center of the opening as an eyepiece. It needs to be secured on both sides as well so that it stays rigid.

Tracing constellation

6th grade students tracing their constellation on paper using Stellarium to project it on to a white board.

Now comes the calculation part. The students measure the depth of the box from the ring to the bottom where the constellation diagram is located. Let’s say it is 23 cm (which is fairly typical). They then decide which star in their list of 7-8 is the furthest star they will hang. If that star is 500 light years away, it will hang against the backdrop constellation drawing. For the others, divide the furthest star’s distance by the depth of the box, or 500 light years divided by 23 cm, which gives you 21.7 light years/cm as the scale or proportion. Now take the distance of each of the remaining stars and divide it by the scale number to find the centimeters distance to hang that star. For example, if a star is 100 light years away, then using the scale it would be 100 LY/ 21.7 LY/cm which gives me 4.6 cm distance to hang the star from eyepiece.

Measuring to hang star

Students measuring the scale distance for where to hang the star bead from Earth’s position (the eyepiece ring) to the horizontal position of the star in the diagram of Scorpio.

To hang a star, use the diagram at the back of the box to sight into the star. Make a mark on the top of the box directly above that star’s position, then draw a line on the top of the box between where the eyepiece hangs and that point. Measure the scale distance (4.6 cm) along that line and poke a hole in the top (formerly side) of the box with the sharp point of a drawing compass.

To make the stars, use beads of the right colors and sizes for each spectral type and hang them on the same black thread or string. Poke the other end of the string up through the hole in the box and pull up the star bead until it lines up with the star on the diagram as seen while looking through the center of the eyepiece. Then tape it down securely and cut off any extra string. By using a 2D diagram of the constellation, students will not have to worry about measuring the right ascension and declination. Once completed, a typed up version of their star table should be taped across the top of the box to hide the star strings and tape.

Gemini box

The constellation Gemini partially completed. The stars must be lined up with their spots on the back diagram when viewed from Earth’s position (the center of the ring).

Once all the stars are hung, they should form the constellation and line up with the diagram as you look through the center of the eyepiece, such as is shown here with my model of Orion.

Constellation in box diagram-s

Diagram of the constellation in a box and instructions for hanging the star beads.

Once the models are complete, I have my students use a piece of graph paper to draw out the constellation with its grid. One student looks through the center of the eyepiece with her or his eye against the ring to draw this, then moves his or her eye 5 centimeters to the right. The constellations become distorted as the closer stars seem to move more than the further stars through what we call parallax. The students then draw the constellation as it appears moving the observer’s eyes 10 cm to the left of the eyepiece center then 5 cm up from the center. All four drawings can be placed on the same graph paper using different colors of pencils/pens for each eye position and labeling the main stars. I usually have the students answer some reflection questions or lead a discussion on how constellations are temporary since stars have proper motion through space, and how their appearance would change if we could travel several light years through space. I then have many choices for how to continue or extend this lesson.

Orion distorted

Moving the viewer’s position 5 cm to the left produces distortion in the constellation as the closer stars appear to move further to the right. Only Alnilam, the center star in Orion’s belt, appears to not move very much because it is in the far distance next to the back of the box.

I’ve done this activity several times now in three different schools and have modified and improved it. The first time I tried, I had students build their own boxes or frames, which wound up taking far too much time, effort, and materials. Instead, I simply plan ahead and when the school orders more copy paper, I collect the boxes it came in. These are just the right size for this activity.

The NGSS standards that this activity meets include the Crosscutting Concepts of Scale, Proportion, and Distance and Using Models in Science. It also teaches the Earth Science and Astronomy Disciplinary Core Ideas of stars, spectral types, coordinates in space, and constellations. This activity is also good for global awareness as you can have students use non-Greco-Roman constellations such as The Wain or The Wagon instead of Ursa Major, etc., and have them look up alternative mythologies and star names.

Gemini distrotions drawn

A completed diagram of Gemini with the original constellation as seen form the center of the eyepiece (Earth’s position) and from other locations as shown by different colored markers. Castor and Pollux move much more than Wasat because they are closer to Earth and there is more parallax as a result of the change of the observer’s position.

You can extend this activity to have the students chart their stars in the H-R Diagram Lesson I will post at a later date, and from there to a lesson on stellar evolution. You could discuss why there are no red or brown dwarfs in the models. This is because even the brightest and nearest red dwarfs are too small to see without telescopes, so they are not included in planetarium software such as Stellarium. This can lead into an activity on measuring the distances to stars, such as my Parallax lesson plan ( or the Distance Modulus Method (

Thumbs up

Doing great! Students charting out the change in the stars’ apparent positions as the observer moves.

At the end, you will have some nice models to display in your classroom for Parent – Teacher nights or STEAM Showcases. As always, if you use this lesson, feel free to modify it any way you want and let me know how it goes.

Here is a PDF version of the final lesson plan:

Constellation in a Box-David Black

Scorpio and Gemini

Completed boxes for Scorpio and Gemini, with distortion diagrams included.

Row of constellation boxes-AAI

A row of completed constellation boxes at American Academy of Innovation.

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Farewell to Opportunity

MER model-Isaac Wilson

A 3D model of the Mars Exploration Rovers created by my student, Isaac Wilson. This model was featured on the cover of The Deseret News in 2004.

NASA announced last week that the Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover has been declared dead after over 14 years of operation. When a global dust storm enshrouded Mars last year, the rover probably became so covered with dust that its solar panels couldn’t produce enough energy to keep the rover going. Once the dust cleared, the rover operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent signals to try to wake it up, but after a final attempt last week yielded no results, they officially pulled the plug on the mission.

MER zoom 4

A student-created 3D model of the Mars Exploration Rovers on the surface of Mars created using MOLA altitude data.

I’ve been expecting this. Given that all attempts to re-establish communications last fall failed, it was only a matter of time. The same thing happened to Spirit in 2010 after it got stuck in a sand pit with its solar panels facing away from the sun during a Martian winter. Once the winter ended, Spirit did not wake up. But even though this announcement was expected, it still makes me feel a bit sad that my old friend is gone. I also feel proud that it exceeded all expectations by lasting 13.5 years longer than designed and traveling over 25 miles across the surface of Mars.

Gale to Gusev render

A section of Mars with Gale crater in the upper left corner (where Curiosity landed) and Gusev crater in the far right (where Spirit landed). This image was created using Mars MOLA 3D altitude data.

I call it my old friend because that is how it feels to me. I was at JPL during the summer of 2002 when both rovers were being built, and I saw the assembly team putting the parts together in the High Bay clean room in Building 179. I was there as an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics And Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program. My job was to work as a liaison for 25 teachers that had been selected from across the country to attend a two-week all-expenses-paid workshop at JPL. I communicated with them before the workshop to help arrange for their flights. I worked out details with the hotel, rented mini-vans for our daily trips to JPL and elsewhere, and arranged meals, workshop sessions, tours, and guest speakers. I even had the chance to lead a few of the sessions.


David Seidel, Manager, Elementary and Secondary Education at JPL, explains the operation of the FIDO rover mockup in the Mars Yard at JPL in 2002 along with participants in the 2002 NEWMAST educator workshop.

I had the privilege of working with Dave Seidel, Art Hammon, and other Education and Public Outreach specialists at JPL. They were with the Mars Exploration team and other missions such as Cassini, Deep Impact, and Stardust. To put the final touches on our plans, I traveled to JPL a week early and then spent several days after the workshop writing final reports and shipping materials back to my home in Utah. I returned later that summer for four days as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator and received further training. Altogether, I was at JPL for over a month that summer and saw Opportunity and Spirit several times as they were being built.

The Birth of a New Space Probe

Jim Green at Town Hall

Dr. Jim Green, Chief NASA Scientist, outlines the Fiscal Year 2018 budget during the NASA Town Hall meeting at the 38th Annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 2017. Notice the budget items approving the 2020 Mars Rover and the Europa Clipper probe.

Space probes begin as a gleam in the eye of NASA’s Planetary Science Directorate with an Announcement of Opportunity at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference during the NASA Town Hall Meeting. NASA looks ahead to alignments of the planets and determines if a mission for a particular launch window is part of the their strategic plan, as outlined in the Decadal Survey. In the Town Hall Meeting, the Chief Scientist (currently Dr. Jim Green, whom my students and I met two years ago in Houston) announces the upcoming opportunities and goals – if the probe will be a flyby, an orbiter, a lander, a rover, or a sample return. Different research teams from various universities are in the audience, which is invited to put together proposals for instruments to fly on the bus, or basic vehicle structure, including their cost, dimensions, and energy requirements. NASA looks over the proposals and selects several that have the most scientific merit for further feasibility funding. Those selected build and test a prototype of their instrument and provide detailed reports back to NASA, which then selects the final instruments to fly.


Dr. Wayne Zimmerman explains his cryobot to participants in the NASA Explorer Schools 2004 workshop at JPL. The prototype is on the table, and was tested by melting down through 50 feet of a glacier on an island off the coast of Norway. It is designed to melt through and sample the ice of Europa.

Some don’t make the final cut. I saw a presentation by Wayne Zimmerman of JPL who has created a type of ice drilling torpedo that can heat through planetary ice, collecting and analyzing samples as it goes. It would be ideal for a mission to Europa where a lander would place it onto the thinnest ice. It would drill down until it reached open water (or at least slush) beneath and convert itself into a submersible to explore that ocean. His team received feasibility funding and tested their device on a glacier on an island off the coast of Norway with polar bears migrating through their camp. They went down 50 feet and it worked perfectly. It was sitting on his desk during our tour of JPL, not because it isn’t worthy to go on a mission but because no mission yet has landed on planetary ice. Maybe some day, soon.

Admin Bldg 2

The Administration Building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where the Opportunity and Spirit rovers were designed, constructed, and tested.

Once the final instruments are selected, the probe must be designed, built, tested, and launched. This is the part done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a focus of the workshops I helped to lead for NASA.

The Project Development Tour


Teachers for the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at JPL going through the Badging Office at the beginning of their tour of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

On our first full day at JPL, we arranged for the participants to do what Dave Seidel calls the Project Development Tour. For the teachers to learn the phases in designing, building, testing, launching, and monitoring a space probe mission such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, he designed a tour through the JPL labs that paralleled the process a probe goes through. We began in the Badging Office where all visitors have to register, receive a badge, and have an escort take them to their destination.


Participants of the 2002 NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I am in the green shirt at the back right, and Art Hammon is in the light cyan shirt and white shorts in the front left.

We took photos out on the quad of our group, then visited the Von Karman Museum to see models and engineering test beds of various rovers, including the test bed for the Galileo probe that was still orbiting Jupiter at that time. We were treated to a presentation and welcome in the Von Karman Auditorium next door, which still contains the mockup of the Voyager space probe that I first saw in 1978 as a high school senior, except that then it was in the middle of the room and is now over on the left side.


Participants of the 2004 NASA Explorer Schools workshop inspecting the Voyager engineering model in the Von Karman Auditorium. I first saw this model sitting in the middle of the room during my first visit to JPL in 1978 as a high school senior.

We then walked to the Project Design Center and learned how the different subsystems of a probe are designed cooperatively. For example, there has to be a give and take as new requirements/specifications are decided on. Building a larger solar panel, for example, requires more weight and more propellant and a larger tank, so other parts have to be lightened or pared down. It all has to fold up to fit inside the shroud on top of the launch vehicle, then be able to unfold once it reaches and then leaves Earth orbit. It has to be able to survive Mars orbital insertion using aerobraking or drogue chutes then make a soft landing on the surface.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at the Project Design Center at JPL.

Our next stop was the Micro Devices Lab, where we got to see samples of some of the types of instruments that would be going on Spirit and Opportunity. They had prototype space probes that were the size of shoeboxes with micro thrusters to steer them. They had a micro-etched compact disc with the names of thousands of people (mine and my children’s included) etched on their surfaces and transported to Mars on the rovers (encased in a cover near the calibration target and sundial). They had a scanning tunneling electron microscope (Ooh! Aah!) and a working methanol-air fuel cell system.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop in the Micro Devices Lab.

This last was important to me because I built my own methanol-air fuel cells as a senior in high school and managed to coax about 70 microamps out of them. This wasn’t enough to electrocute a flea, but my project did win first place in the Southern Utah Science Fair that year and got me a free trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim, CA. One of the days of that fair, we weren’t allowed to be at our booths so the judges could read our data books and our backdrops without us. The fair organizers set up tours, and I chose to visit JPL. It was my first visit, and now here I was helping to lead teachers through the lab and looking at a working fuel cell system. It was fitting.


A prototype of a shoebox sized mini probe or satellite, with tiny thrusters on the corners, in the Micro Devices Lab at JPL. 16 years later, we are now launching small Cube Sats from the International Space Station.

Once a space probe is designed, prototypes of subsystems are built and extensively tested, such as the airbag system first used on the Pathfinder mission that had to be scaled up for the MERs (since they were bigger and heavier). All of these parts have to be machined and fabricated. We next took the teachers to the Fabrication Shop, which is amazing. For the MERs, the mission was not farmed out to a third party such as Ball Aerospace or Lockheed Martin. All the parts were built in-house in the Fab Shop, and the shop is a machinist’s heaven, with five 5-axis Fodel milling machines and other unique equipment to build the parts of a machine no one has ever built before to do a job never before attempted.


The Fabrication Shop at JPL. The machines in the foreground are Fodel computer controlled milling machines with five axes of rotation.


Teachers in the 2004 NES workshop outside the In Situ Instruments Lab, or ISIL, at JPL.

For testing the design, we visited the In-Situ Instruments Lab (ISIL), where the prototype rovers are tested in a large indoor sandbox. Their electronics are thoroughly investigated and ran through their paces to make sure every command is well understood and practiced. We visited the Mars Yard, where a mock up rover bed called FIDO was tested to see how it could handle different types and sizes of rocks. The Mars Exploration Rovers were built with six-wheel drive and a rocker bogey suspension that could handle fairly steep slopes and different types of Martian regolith. Whenever the rovers encountered a challenging terrain, it was simulated in the Mars Yard and tested with the mock up to be certain the rover could handle the challenge, such as driving down into Endurance Crater.


Entrance to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility building at JPL.

Our next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building (179) where we walked up to the viewing gallery and watched as the technicians in grounded bunny suits carefully assembled the parts of both rovers. In the front below our gallery window were the backshell and solar panels used for the trip from Earth to Mars. In the back technicians were adding parts to the rovers themselves, with each connection and hookup tested and retested. The room is a Class 5 clean room so that no particles of dust or contaminant can get into the rovers to ruin a circuit. This is cleaner than a hospital operating room, and the entire bay is kept in positive pressure to prevent particles from entering the room. It was thrilling to look down into the High Bay and see the pieces that would travel to Mars the next year and know I was a witness to history.


Technicians assembling one of the Mars Exploration Rovers in the High Bay assembly room. It is a Class 5 clean room with positive pressure to prevent contamination. Photo by Tony Baldasaro.

For the final stop of our full day tour, we hoofed it to the top of JPL, up what is called Cardiac Hill for good reason. At the top of the hill is the Environmental Test Lab, or what everyone commonly calls Shake and Bake, because that’s what they do. Once the space probes are assembled and everything works and fits, they are taken apart and shipped to Shake and Bake for the real testing. They place the parts and subsystems inside an acoustic chamber with large horns that hit the parts with over 150 decibels of sound. Decibels are on a logarithmic scale, so what would be loud to us at 50 decibels would lead to deafness at 100 decibels and irreparable brain damage at 150 db. Yet launching a space probe is so noisy and so shaky that the parts have to be able to withstand these types of vibrations. They place the parts on shaker tables to see if they will fail. They place them in large radiation ovens and pump out all the air and blast them with ultraviolet rays to simulate the conditions of traveling through space. Then they put the parts back together and place the whole rover inside a giant 25-foot vacuum chamber with large arc lamps to simulate the sun.


One of the Mars Exploration Rovers being assembled at JPL. Notice that it is in cruise configuration with the wheels retracted. Once it lands on Mars, the wheels unfolded and the MER rolled off of its landing platform.

Only about 2 in 5 parts manage to survive, so the Fab Shop always makes extra – they really built about five probes for each one sent, and keep at least one back as a test bed. When I first visited JPL in 1978 as a high school senior, they had recently sent the Viking missions to Mars and had one of the lander test beds on display in the Von Karman museum, as well as the test bed for Voyager, which is still there but now off to the side instead of in the middle of the auditorium.


View of the High Bay at JPL as the Mars Exploration Rovers are being assembled. In the foreground left is a completed backshell for the probe without the solar panels on the top. The rover sits inside during its cruise to Mars, then lands inside airbags before unfolding and rolling onto the surface.

Once everything checks out, the final probe is again taken apart and shipped to Cape Canaveral, where it is reassembled inside the shroud at the top of the launch vehicle. I had the privilege of seeing the launch of the Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter. It launched in 2001 on a Delta II Heavy rocket with five boosters and what a sight that was! And it’s still orbiting Mars.


Participants in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop inside the 25-foot vacuum chamber in the Environmental Test Lab at JPL. This chamber is used to test the re-assembled space probes by pumping out all the air and hitting the probes with high radiation from arc lamps to simulate the conditions of space.


An acoustic horn, capable of over 150 decibels, to simulate the vibrational energy during launch. If you were to be in the chamber when this goes off, the noise would melt your brian. And I’m not exaggerating . . .


Not exactly your standard Easy Bake Oven. This chamber simulates the conditions of space, which the probe must survive for 6-8 months on its way to Mars. The air is pumped out to a high vacuum and the chamber is blasted with high radiation.

Communicating with Space Probes

On other days of the workshop we showed the teachers how NASA and JPL communicate with the space probes. This is done by taking the data from the probe (instrument readings, images from cameras, etc.), which is in the form of binary code, and translating it into radio signals using phase modulation. Essentially, a carrier radio signal is modulated by a second signal of the same frequency that is either in phase (adding up or a 1) or out of phase (subtracting out, or a 0). The radio signal travels back to Earth where it is picked up by the large 34 and 70 meter radio dishes of the Deep Space Network.

DSN 70 dish

The 70 meter radio antenna at the Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. This photo is from a student tour in March 2016.

DSN has three locations around the world so that a probe’s signals can be continuously monitored. These are at Goldstone at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California; near Canberra, Australia; and near Madrid, Spain. On the Saturday of our two-week NEWMAST workshop, we arranged to drive out to Goldstone and take a tour of the Deep Space Network antennas. It was 114° and we tried to fry an egg on the asphalt, but it wasn’t quite hot enough. I will write a later post of a tour that I arranged in 2016 of my students to visit the Goldstone DSN. The photo you see here is of the 70-meter dish taken during our tour there in March 2016.

Walden students at SFOF-2016

Students from Walden School of Liberal Arts visiting the Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL in March 2016. I am at far right. Photo by Shannon McConnell.

Once the signals come in to DSN, they are sent directly to JPL from Goldstone via landline where they arrive at the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF). We took the teachers to the SFOF as a continuation of the Project Development Tour. I have since taken my own students on a tour of JPL and we got to sit in the visitor gallery overlooking the main operations floor, which looks like mission control and has large monitors showing the data as it comes in to SFOF.

SFOF control room-2016

Space Flight Operations Facility control room at JPL in 2016. Notice the upgraded monitors and the data streams coming in from the Deep Space Network.

For the third year of the NEWMAST (later NASA Explorer Schools, or NES) program, we took the teachers to the SFOF gallery one evening for a special treat. This was a second year workshop for NES all about robotics and Mars exploration. When visitors use the gallery, EPO personnel can take over the middle screen of the mission control room to make presentations. Dave, Art, and I decided to give the teachers a viewing of the old movie Angry Red Planet on the central screen. The controllers sitting in the SFOF mission control room below had some very puzzled expressions on their faces as they saw the infamous bat rat spider crab appear on their monitor. Don’t ask me what a bat rat spider crab is. Look it up . . . It was one of the most hilarious experiences of my life, doubly enhanced by the setting. Mars is red . . . and it’s angry!

SFOF Gallery 2002

Teachers from the 2002 NEWMAST workshop in the gallery overlooking the Space Flight Operations Facility control room.

Once the data comes in to JPL, it may need some processing and fixing. There are many ways that data can be corrupted or interfered with on its long journey between the planets, not the least of which is radiation and charged particles streaming out from our sun. The damaged data must be cleaned up then re-translated back into a usable format, such as the pretty pictures of Mars or Saturn that we see in the newspapers and on the Internet. This is done in the Multi-Mission Image Processing Lab, or MMIPL. On one of the days of our workshop, we took the teachers to the MMIPL and had a great presentation on how the navigation cameras on a Mars probe are combined to make a red-blue 3D anaglyph. I questioned Chris Carrara, one of the engineers there, on how to make this work and he gave me instructions which I have used successfully in my own classes.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at the Multi Mission Image Processing lab, learning how 3D images work.

Student Opportunities

Having seen Spirit and Opportunity as they were being built and tested, I feel something of an affinity for them. I went over all the diagrams and specifications during our workshops. Yet what makes them my old friends was a project my students participated in a year and a half later. I applied for them to join the inaugural Mars Exploration Student Data Team project, and we were selected as the only non-science team out of 53 groups that year.


A rendered 3D model of Valles Marineris on Mars, created using Mars MOLA data from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

My students were media design and 3D modeling students, and we learned how to use the J-Mars software to predict when the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft would be passing over the MER’s positions. As Spirit and Opportunity approached Mars, we followed their progress carefully. A global dust storm similar to the one this last year kicked up just before the landers arrived, and the scientists were concerned that the dust might interfere with the landings. Since it traps heat, the dust would cause the Martian atmosphere to warm up and expand, changing the timing of when the explosive bolts would need to fire to release the drogue chutes, drop off the backshell and heat shield, and inflate the airbags.

Dust storm frames 2

Frames from our animation of the dust storm on Mars during December 2003. As the Mars Exploration Rovers approached their landings, the dust storm began over the Tharsis Plateau and quickly spread across the martian equator until it enveloped the entire planet. This caused mission controllers to recalculate the timing of when the parachutes and airbags deployed. This image uses dust opacity data from Mars Global Surveyor converted to a 3D model, then animated by my media design students as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program.

When the MERs landed, I had my students watch them live. Spirit landed first, in Gusev Crater, but it was Opportunity that scored a literal hole in one. It landed in a flat area in Terra Meridiani north of Miyamoto Crater where the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey had identified iron hematite. Since the rovers were tasked to “follow the water,” this was an excellent choice because specular hematite can only form in liquid water. Opportunity rolled into a small crater and as soon as they turned on the cameras, the scientists could see sedimentary layers in the crater walls. As Opportunity rolled up for a close-up inspection, it found small rounded iron hematite concretions that were called “blueberries” because that’s what they looked like in color enhanced photos from the MAHLI hand-lens camera on the end of the robotic arm.


The area of Kasei Valles on Mars, created using Mars MOLA 3D altitude data.

As we worked with the science teams, my students also learned how to use 3D altitude data of Mars from the Mars Global Surveyor’s MOLA instrument. It was something of a quest of mine to work out how to get the data into my favorite 3D program, and with the help of such people as Kees Veenenbos I finally figured it out. My students were able to access the UNIX server at JPL that housed all the MER data and download the Tau dust opacity data. We created a 3D animation of the dust storm that hit Mars in December 2003. They used engineering diagrams to build 3D models of Spirit and Opportunity as well as other Mars landers, rovers, and orbiters. They designed and programmed an interactive CD-ROM on the history of Mars exploration. Four of my students (including my son Jordan) traveled to Arizona State University with me to present their project at a student symposium for the MESDT program. We also got to select and acquire an image of Mars from the Mars Odyssey probe through the Mars Student Imaging Program.

MESDT symp-Isaac present-f

Isaac and Renn, two of my media design students, present their Mars interface and project to students for the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program in 2004 at a symposium at Arizona State University.

Because of their participation in the program, my students were interviewed by local news agencies including two TV stations, two newspapers, and the Associated Press out of Los Angeles (over the telephone). Their 3D models of space probes and the surface of Mars were featured in newspapers. Pretty good for high school students!

Mars article-MATC-f

Newspaper article in the Deseret News, with interviews of my students and images they created including 3D models of the Sojourner Rover, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a 3D image of Mars using MOLA data. They were interviewed by two TV stations, two newspapers, and the Associated Press out of Los Angeles.

Opportunities Roll On

Later that spring I traveled to the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston to present what my students were doing and how they were using authentic Mars data at a pre-conference workshop. I attended the NASA Town Hall meeting where I saw Dr. Steven Squyres, the Principle Investigator for some of the MER instruments. Later in 2004, as I helped lead other workshops at JPL, we were briefed by John Callas, Project Manager for Opportunity. As we were waiting for Dr. Callas to come in, we could see Dr. Squyres and the other MER planners working out where to send the rovers next. Although we couldn’t hear their discussions (there was a glass partition between us), we could see them display photos from Opportunity of the sand dunes at the bottom of Endurance Crater. Dr. Callas told us later that they were deciding whether or not to send the rover to the sand dunes or if it was time to exit the crater and move on.

JPL all

A view of all of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ve had the privilege of visiting JPL on many occasions and I consider it to be the most amazing place on the planet.

Since then, Opportunity has explored progressively larger craters, starting with the small crater they landed in then Endurance, Victoria, and Endeavor Craters. It got stuck for a while in a sand dune but with some coaxing the drivers got it out and rolling again. It has gradually gotten more and more covered with fine Mars dust, although dust devils have cleaned it off from time to time. Its robotic arm went arthritic and it was limping on one of its wheels, but it kept on going even though much more attention was grabbed by first the Phoenix lander and then the Curiosity Rover. Through all of this, over 15 years, I’ve tried to keep up to date on what Opportunity is doing.


Sunbathing on Mars. Or at least, the Mars Yard.

Many of the greatest opportunities I’ve had in my life have come about because of the Mars Exploration Rovers. I was at JPL for an educator conference when Curiosity landed on Mars (as I wrote about in previous posts). I won third place in a national lesson plan contest sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc. and received the award from Bill Nye, Director of the Planetary Society. This led to participating in an astrobiology field research study in the Mojave National Preserve with Dr. Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center in 2012. I became a MAVEN Educator Ambassador in 2015 with a visit to Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. I’ve branched out with NASA educator opportunities such as the NITARP program, flying on SOFIA as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, fulfilling an NSF Research Experience for Teachers program in astrophysics at BYU, and being named first runner up as the National Air Force Association’s Aerospace Teacher of the Year. Opportunity was aptly named for me, at least. It truly feels like I’ve lost an old friend.


A photo of me taken from the gallery overlooking High Bay 2 in 2002. The Mars Exploration Rovers are being assembled inside the clean room. I can count many opportunities in my own life because of Opportunity and Spirit. I’m sad they are now part of history after 14 years of operation on Mars.

Yet the exploration of Mars continues. Curiosity is finally beginning to climb Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater, and the as yet unnamed 2020 Mars Rover is on schedule for launch next year. InSight landed last fall and will provide us with a peak inside Mars for the first time. I hope to see humans land on Mars before I die and the chances are looking better every year.

But for now, goodbye Opportunity.


The participants in the 2004 NASA Explorer Schools robotics workshop at JPL. This week long workshop focused on Mars exploration and robotics, and we spent much of the time building LEGO Mars rovers and paper mache Mars terrains to learn how to remotely guide a rover. We also toured JPL and the robotics labs there. I am at far left next to Art Hammon (dark blue shirt and white shorts). Dave Seidel is at the far right on the third row back. Ota Lutz, who also helped to plan and lead the workshop, is in the row in front and to the left of Dave in a navy blue shirt.


A 3D model of the area of Terra Meridiani around Miyamoto Crater (the crater of the sickle moon in upper left). The Opportunity rover landed just north of Miyamoto. This area was identified from orbit as having large deposits of specular hematite, which forms in running water. There are numerous old river channels crossing Terra Meridiani, as you can see in this model.

Gale crater 3D

A 3D model of Gale Crater on Mars, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012. I was at JPL for the week leading up to the landing, and it was a fun time to be part of it all.

Mars Interface-MER

Interface for the Mars Exploration project my students created in 2004. They presented this at the MESDT symposium at Arizona State University.

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