rockets make rainbows

I’ve been working at Stennis for a little over a a year now, and have worked at various NASA facilities off and on for the last 6 years, and whenever a friend asks me about “rocket fuel” they do it in hushed tones with the occasional glance over their shoulder. As if it were some national secret, and that if it were, I would somehow have the 411 and give them the insider scoop so long as they keep it on the DL… Well you are all in luck! I am going to let you in on a little secret, ssshhh! Ok, come a little closer to your computer monitor, we don’t want your coworkers overhearing what you’re reading. Ready?… Most rocket fuel is almost entirely liquid oxygen and/or liquid hydrogen. Surprise! 

So while LOX and LH2 are amazing and beautiful, what many people think about is that rockets are powered by water. Yup. Water. Granted you have to separate it, and bring it down to liquid temperatures, but nonetheless these aren’t exotic materials; they are completely sustainable and clean burning.

So the cloud you see forming as the exhaust of a rocket engine is literally a could. Not to mention that when we are testing rocket engines we quench the flame with nearly 1 million gallons of water per minute. So after any test on site it rains immediately after, usually right on top of all of the people standing around watching it; and when the conditions are right, the exhaust creates rainbows. So there you are, probably the coolest way to make a rainbow.


here is a video I took of the RS-68 test yesterday that led to the above image.

And here are a few more photos in case you want more 😉

and for those that are curious, this is what it sounds like inside the building where I work during the test.

Everything you need to know about 3D printing rockets

As you may have heard, about a week ago Marshall Space Flight successfully tested a rocket injector that was 3D Printed. Well actually the first tests were earlier than that, but everyone took notice when the video posted below (and others taken at the same time) were posted.

What you might not know is why this is just now a “breakthrough” when 3D printing in metal isn’t new. Shapeways has been printing metal pieces since 2009, and the technology was first patented in the 80s. The biggest difference is that traditionally 3D printing in metal has been done using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) whereas this injector was printed in Inconel using Selective Laser Melting (SLM). If the difference isn’t clear… in SLS the laser fuses the metal powder together through a localized reaction, whereas SLM essentially melts (or welds) all of the metal in the part. There is a little bit of research going into the difference in properties etc. between the two. The two processes are being improved daily, but everything I have read or seen shows SLM to be stronger (though only marginally in most materials). If your curious, Marshall uses the M2 Cusing by Concept Laser. So the technology specific to printing this part is very new. Marshall just started testing out the technology a year ago.

Enter SpaceX. Yesterday SpaceX posted the video below showing off there cool Iron Man inspired 3D model viewing technology. At the end of the video they print a part to scale in inconel using SLS (specifically using this printer).  So SpaceX posts a video where they 3D print an inconel engine part and everyone is too distracted by the shiny sci-fi-esque toy  to really grasp that, while the call the part a “prototype”, it is a functional prototype and they could (& probably will) make the end product the exact same way. The only thing left to be seen (from my perspective) is if the SLS printed parts will hold up just as well as the SLM parts.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the SLM printed rocket injectors is currently at Stennis and I have been given the opportunity to handle it and give feedback? If you know me, you know how much I love both 3D printing and rockets, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to tweet/post pictures at the time but I was told no :/   I guess I’ll settle for writing this post, even though I have to leave out some of my coolest thoughts/opinions on the matter 😉

NASA Asks Universities For Early Stage Innovation Tech Proposals

April 02, 2013

David E. Steitz

Headquarters, Washington


RELEASE: 13-095


WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking innovative, early-stage space technology proposals from accredited U.S. universities that will enable NASA’s future missions and America’s leadership in space.

Proposals are sought for science instruments, cryogenic propellant storage for long-duration space exploration, optical coatings for astrophysical pursuits, oxygen recovery for life support systems, and to improve our understanding of and protection from near-Earth asteroids.

Each of these space technology areas requires dramatic improvements over existing capabilities. New early stage, or low technology readiness-level, technologies could mature into tools that solve the hard challenges facing NASA’s future scientific and human spaceflight missions. Researchers should propose unique, transformational space technologies that address specific topics found in this solicitation.

“Space technology is the underpinning of all of NASA’s future missions,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA’s collaboration with the National Research Council and the agency’s recent Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan have helped us identify areas where new, cross-cutting space technologies are needed to enable our future missions. Now we’re reaching out to American universities to tap into the nation’s best and brightest minds to help solve these tough technology problems.”

This solicitation requests proposals on five topic areas. The first topic area seeks new instrument technologies for the exploration of planetary bodies within our solar system. Innovative technology advances are needed to support the instruments that scientists will need to better understand the history, climates, evidence of past life and future potential habitability of planets and moons within the solar system.

Spaceflight architectures for future human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit will require technologies and capabilities not available today, such as long duration storage of cryogenic propellants in a zero gravity environment. Under a second topic area for this solicitation, NASA is particularly interested in proposals regarding how to mature fundamental experimental and computational solutions to address the challenges of cryogenic storage of liquid hydrogen.

Through a third topic area for this solicitation, NASA is seeking advances in optics technologies to enable the challenging science measurements that may contribute to the understanding of the first moments of the universe, the characterization of galaxy evolution over time and the characterization of newly found exoplanets.

As future exploration missions extend beyond low-Earth orbit, vehicles and extraterrestrial surface habitats housing astronauts will need to be highly reliable and self-sufficient; the opportunity for resupply of consumables diminishes the farther from home you go. The fourth topic area of this solicitation seeks novel technologies that will help close the atmosphere revitalization loop aboard spaceships and surface habitats during long duration space missions. New technologies must have the potential to significantly increase the oxygen recovery rate beyond the current state of the art.

Under a final topic area, NASA is seeking proposals for new technologies to better understand and protect our planet from near-Earth asteroids. Early stage technologies that will help with characterizing, understanding, and planning how to mitigate the threat of near-Earth asteroids are of great interest. These efforts are important for the sustainability and future of our home planet.

NASA expects to make approximately 10 awards this fall, based on the merit of proposals received. Each award will be made for one year with an additional year of research possible. The typical annual award value is expected to be approximately $250,000. Second-year funding will be contingent on the availability of appropriated funds and technical progress. Only accredited U.S. universities may submit proposals to this solicitation. Notices of intent are due by April 29 with proposals due May 21.

To view the Early Stage Innovation NASA Research Announcement and information for submitting proposals, visit:

The solicitation is a part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA’s future missions. For more information about NASA’s investment in space technology, visit:

Retiring a giant

I have personally worked at 3 different NASA facilities and
visited at least half a dozen. I also worked for GE Healthcare for
a while, which endeared me to that brand in ways few outside
of GE could understand. So when I first started at Stennis Space
Center (where I currently work) a giant piece
of machinery being uninstalled caught my eye quickly.
This piece of equipment had been on site for probably longer than I
have been alive. At all NASA facilities, and manufacturers like the
one I worked at while I was with GE,
old machinery is surprisingly common. Calling
either GE or NASA “cutting edge” would be an understatement, but
you don’t need glass office desks, or brand
new everything to be cutting edge. Older equipment that
is still in use today is there because it was built to last. I
really loved seeing this article about
the NASA Crawler, which is essentially a
GIANT tank that carries the shuttles
out to launch. In the article it talks about upgrades to the
system, but how it couldn’t possibly be replaced. When I see
machines like GE Space Heater get retired it feels a little like
the changing of the guard to me, and I only hope the
equipment that our generation builds is not only better, but
performs as long as the equipment our grandparents built.

200 pages per week goal, week 1 | The Tipping Point, & ‘Alot’ of links

As part of my 2013 goals I committed to writing a blog summarizing all of the pages I read every week. Last week was my first week of the reading goal and I’ve learned a few things: First, that 200 pages might be too low of a goal; second, that I need to do a better job of catologing all of the things that I read during a week; and third, that either I need to blog more in between or post these summaries on a completely different medium, otherwise this blog will be entirely devoted to my reading list.


The tipping point book review

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcom Gladwell. (304 pages)

You can read my 3 paragraph Goodreads review here. To sum it up in fewer words, Gladwell eloquently uses entertaining and intriguing stories to outline what key ingredients are necessary to tip a message over the edge into an epidemic, or what we now commonly call “viral”.


The Oatmeal & hyperbole and a half (too many pages)
I had a spare hour or two on Sunday and I needed a good laugh, so I read ‘alot’ of comics by The Oatmeal, including this one. Which lead me to Allie Brosh’s website. Perhaps everyone else already knows, but Allie Brosh is creator of epic comics such as “This is why I will never be an adult” Where the image “clean all the things”; she is also the creator of the “alot” monster. She is currently battling depression, and has been for quit some time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes her the best.
CNN: Print your own life-size robot for under $1,000 (~1 page)
An open source robotics project where you can print most of the parts to a humanoid robot. It’s exciting, it’s open, I like it, but… I don’t think 3D printing is always the right mfg process for parts, and I don’t think humanoid is usually the right design for a robot. More often than not a robot can preform a task better w/o articulating fingers. I think that the idea behind encouraging people to collaborate and make there own robot is fantastic. I don’t think the robot itself is ideal. But I am definitely glad to see this sort of work happening.
3d printed robot
Meet ATHLETE, NASA’s Next Robot Moon Walker (~1 page)
Nasa has a cool moon walker. Check out the blog for full details.
NASA Moon walker
FYI: Why Is There A Winter Flu Season? (~2 pages)
 A good analysis of why and how the cold weather actually effects the probability of you catching a cold.

via Popular Science

So those are the highlights of the week. And I am realizing that capturing the content of all of the things that I read is a great exercise for me to commit the knowledge to memory as well as to help people by condensing content and sharing my insight. Granted I’m not an expert, but I like to share what I do know, and my semi-unique perspective on the world. Given all of that I think it would be easier to give blog digests as I read them, and the book updates once a week. Or as I finish the book. That is a lot more content than I normally share on this blog, and somewhat out of the vein of what I share on here. This blog is typically reserved for my thoughts, life events, etc. And occasionally news that I find so impactful that I feel the need to talk about the implications at length. Next week you can expect to see a new blog or tumblr from me with all of the content generated by my two part goal to (1) read over 200 pages per week and (2) share that information.

Here are a few more links of what I found interested this week if you’ve actually managed to read this far and are still interested 😉

NASA Joins ESA’s “Dark Universe” Mission

Awesome skateboard rack made out of PVC

A (physics) Trampoline of Light

Going Paperless: Getting “9 Things” Done With Penultimate and Evernote

Audi Envisions A Future Of Laser Brakes and OLED Trim

Engineers pinpoint origin of bone fractures

Modern day boilermakers

What do Rocket Scientists and Boilermakers have in common?

Steamboat boiler explosion

Helen McGregor 1830 Wikipedia

Sorry there is no punch line to that joke, but there is an answer in there somewhere; give me a few paragraphs to find it.

Most Americans familiar with the history of the industrial revolution, or engineering are familiar with the unconscionable number of deaths related to boiler explosions. Just to give you an idea of how serious the situation could be, in 1865 approximately 1,600 of the 2,400 passengers aboard the SS Sultana dies when 3 of the 4 boilers exploded. All of this lead to the formation of ASMEThe American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Despite the name ASME is now multidisciplinary and world wide. I guess it would be too hard now to change their name to Global Society of Engineering & Stuff (GSES).

Fast forward 100+ years from the Sultana accident and we have a wide variety of engineering fields and disciplines, and thousands of sub specialties; and almost none of them are boilermakers. Yet ASME’s biggest area is pressure vessel code. Last week I spent a week in Vegas for training on Section VIII Div I. A handful of you will know what this is, for everyone else “pressure vessel design code” is a sufficient explanation.

view from the cosmopolitan in Vegas with Haley

The view from the pool at the Cosmopolitan. We were there to see Blink-182, great show.

“Wait, I thought you worked at NASA?” you might say. That’s right, at Stennis Space Center we have nearly 1,000 pressurized vessels. And to keep the center running right a lot of work goes into making sure those vessels don’t fail. And by fail I mean either exploding, or more likely, cracking/leaking liquid nitrogen, hydrogen, or oxygen everywhere.

NASA Stennis A3 Rocket Test Stand

Construction of A3 test stand at Stennis Space Center. Capable of test firing rocket engines under vacuum.

“Aren’t you a Material Science Engineer or something? I thought you played with lasers and x-rays?” Another good question. Yes my BS is in Material Science Engineering, and I still play with X-rays sometimes, as well as several other forms of NDE (Non-Destructive Examination). I work with Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Industrial Engineers, Certified Inspectors, a variety of highly specialized machinists, welders, etc.; and during training this last week I met programmers, chemical engineers, and just about every variety of engineering discipline you can think of.

In the last century or two, while the field of engineering has drastically grown and subdivided, it still takes all of them to make a good product at the end of the day. Not every engineer is a mechanical engineer, the same way not everyone that works at NASA is a rocket scientist. ASME was formed to prevent loss of life from poorly made boilers. That president of smart engineering, and value of life in the pursuit of advancements in science and industry, set the stage in the 19th century for what NASA has done in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The atrophy of ambition

Several weeks ago the Obama administration called to end the Constellation Space program. The Human Spaceflight Review was organized to review the Constellation program do to some concerns about the Aries I rocket amongst other things. They concluded that the program was underfunded, and the payload capabilities of the Aries I were lacking. Speaking as someone who was working in the space industry at the time I agree that the program would have been substantially better with the added funding, and the Aries I rocket should have been rethought before it reached the development stages it was at.

This was a hard decision for the president, but a choice was made that I didn’t see coming, and I still don’t fully understand. They decided to cut the entire Constellation program indefinitely postponing visiting the moon and mars. They did not cut the budget. They instead gave NASA a small increase in there budget, but gave them NO direction as to what to do with it. They said that they wanted to focus on “technology”. I love tech as much as the next guy, but it is an incredibly vague term.

I can see where the politicians are coming from in a sense. Since I first started working summer internships in aerospace I’ve had the “what’s the point of NASA?” conversation many times. For people who don’t see the grandeur and beauty of space, or understand the accomplishment and pride that not only the US has for having put a living person on the moon, this is a difficult conversation. A lot of people in my generation who didn’t see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when it happened don’t feel passionately about going back.

So what do you say to someone who doesn’t care about space to justify the space program, because honestly it doesn’t matter to everyone? Technology. Without NASA we wouldn’t have satellites, cell phones, GPS, actual data about global warming, and countless materials that are used to make a lot of the super cool stuff we have today. You could argue that we would have gotten there without NASA, that the military would have pursued the technology, and you would be right. But the military only has there best interests at heart, and they only give up there technology when they are done with it. Meaning that we would be at least a generation behind, if not three. Who knows, instead of being excited about having apps on your phone, you would just now be getting your first camera phone.

So with that idea NASA is asked to develop technology, but without anyone telling them to what end. It would be like asking a teenage boy to build muscle but taking away his weights and not teaching him anything about exercise. Large for profit companies like General Electric, and 3M have been filling technological needs for years. They know how to probe the market for what is needed, design it, and then market it. Large government entities like NASA are not adept for things like that.

For decades NASA has been coming up with mind blowing technology, but it isn’t until someone else comes along and figures out good everday applications and licenses it that we get the amazing tech that we love. If you expect NASA to just come up with cool technology that people will actually be able to use then they are going to have to seriously beef up there marketing department. Because the NASA marketing department’s sole product for the last 50 years has been NASA. And if you check out any of there podcasts, or twitter feeds you’ll see they’re doing an awesome job at that.

But without the challenge, neigh the dream, of human space flight, how do you expect them to come up with anything more awesome than what they already have. The Wright brothers to take there ingenuity and make cars I don’t think it we would be talking about them. Or if you asked Edward Armstrong to work out the bugs of AM radio instead of ditching them to develop FM radio we’d probably still be listening to AM when our CD player doesn’t work.

The point being that NASA directly and indirectly employs many of the smartest minds in our country, and to take away the task at hand without giving them any specific direction will not only cost the country jobs, it will cost us ambition and ingenuity. Two of the things that have made the United States what they are. And without space flight what will inspire the next generation of rocket scientists?