August 4th, 2022


The NASA First Nations Launch (FNL) competition, an Artemis Student Challenge, offers students from Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Native American Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTIs), and schools with American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) chapters the opportunity to demonstrate engineering and design skills through high-powered rocketry.

From April 22-24, the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, which implements FNL on behalf of NASA, hosted the activity’s first Launch Weekend since 2019 at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In attendance at this 13th annual event were nearly 60 students from 13 schools around the country who represented 25 tribal organizations.

“FNL provides a great way for NASA to engage Native American students, who are often absent from national discussions on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) underrepresentation,” said Shanessa Jackson, FNL lead at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “This event delivers life-expanding experiences to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity, including the first chance to engage the outside world in some cases.”

FNL 2022 called for faculty advisor-led teams of undergraduate students to conceive, design, fabricate, and fly dual deploy high-power rockets within three challenges with various technical requirements. For the full list of 2022 results, click here. Key highlights include the following:

  • Moon Challenge Winner: University of California, Davis (second year in a row)
  • International Division Winner: Queen’s University
  • Mars Engineering Challenge Winner: Northern Arizona University
  • Altitude Award: University of North Carolina, Pembroke
  • Outreach Award: Northern Oklahoma College (a rookie team)

This year’s overarching competition theme was flight dynamics. The Moon Challenge required a GPS data logger onboard and an apogee of 3,500 to 4,000 ft., in addition to verifying stability and creating a 3D reconstruction of the trajectory of the flight. The Mars Engineering Challenge required a cold gas thruster system, gyroscope sensor, and an external camera – with the rocket maintaining a roll rate of 120-240 rpm for 3 seconds and reaching an altitude range of 3,500 to 4,000 ft. The Gateway Challenge required a design from a list of possible kit combinations and launch to an altitude of 2,500 ft.

“In addition to teams returning to Wisconsin for culture, community, curriculum, and competition, we introduced a new challenge and saw  great levels of participation in terms of overall numbers and variety of schools,” added Christine Bolz, who manages the implementation of FNL at Carthage College. “We had a significant increase in Tribal and Native American Serving Institutions and those schools performed well, which is evident in the awards – with NASNTIs Northern Arizona and University of North Carolina both winning top awards.”

NASA officials in attendance included Torry Johnson, acting deputy associate administrator for STEM Engagement Programs, and Reagan Hunter, special assistant for the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs. The weekend events featured a blessing by Dr. Bret Benally Thompson (White Earth Band of Ojibwe Tribe) from the AISES Council of Elders and a keynote address by James Wood (Osage Nation and Loyal Shawnee) who is the chief engineer of the Launch Services Program at Kennedy. The pool of Native American NASA and industry judges for the competition also included four FNL alumni who completed their STEM degrees and became engineers in the aerospace field.

FNL is a NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) effort that supports the White House initiative on TCUs by engaging these organizations as well as directly involving students. MUREP, which is administered by NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, provides assistance to MSIs such as TCUs in their efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented and underserved students into STEM fields. FNL also enables unique engagement with Native American communities and encourages students to pursue education and careers in STEM. Teams conduct outreach within their communities, serving as role models to inspire the next generation of explorers.

NASA’s Artemis Student Challenges introduce students to topics and technologies critical to the success of the agency’s program to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. Through the Artemis Student Challenges, students test and strengthen their skills for future mission planning and crewed space missions to other worlds.

FNL is facilitated by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, managed by the Office of STEM Engagement at Kennedy, and funded by NASA MUREP. The Office of STEM Engagement uses challenges and competitions to engage the future technological workforce and stimulate innovation in technologies that benefit NASA and the Nation.


July 21st, 2022

Throwback Thursday to a Spring 2022 Student Research Trip!

JACKSON, Wyo. — Central Wyoming College is sending indigenous students to Mount Everest base camp to conduct climate research.

Students, Jada Antelope, Aidan Darissa Hereford, Red Thunder Spoonhunter,
Antoine Day, and one non-Indigenous student Ryan Town, along with professor Jacki Klancher set off on their trip today, April 26.

Read the full Buckrail article online here.

Author Credit: Lindsay Vallen

How the son of sharecroppers helped send the world's most powerful telescope to space

July 15th, 2022

NASA released the first batch of images from the James Webb telescope this week, wowing the world with never-before-seen views of ancient and distant galaxies.

The approximately $10 billion telescope was decades in the making, a partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency that involved some 20,000 collaborators across 29 countries and 14 U.S. states. It finally launched in December 2021 after a long string of setbacks and delays that led some astronomers to fear it might never get off the ground.

Gregory Robinson wasn't one of them. The career NASA employee was brought in as director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program in March 2018 to help get the project back on the rails, over the finish line and into space. Despite the challenges, he tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that he never doubted whether it would work.

"As we moved closer to launch and even as we launched, I never had a concern on the outcome," Robinson says. "My biggest concern was, 'Let's get on with it already, get to the launch site and get it off the ground.' "

While Robinson credits the work of many others in making the telescope a success, he's received special recognition for the role he played — including being recognized as one of TIME's most influential people of 2022.

In his tribute, NASA astrophysicist and Nobel laureate John Mather wrote that Robinson "channeled the forces of human nature and ingenuity," from NASA and Congress to foreign space agencies and aerospace companies.

"Our teams orbit around Greg, because we trust him to ask questions and understand our concerns and respect our opinions," Mather wrote. "He makes it look easy, but I can barely imagine how he does it, and I admire him tremendously for it."

Robinson — who most recently served as the deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA's Science Mission Directorate — has worked on several high-profile missions and held numerous leadership roles since joining the space agency in 1989.

But Robinson, the ninth of 11 children born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Virginia, says he didn't exactly grow up dreaming about space ... other than watching the moon landing.

"I often refer to Webb as our Apollo moment today," he adds. "But space was not high on my list."

NASA’s New Solar Sail Could Soon Navigate in Space

May 30th, 2022

Scientists say the flashy tech could help them study the sun’s polar regions.

A project to develop an innovative solar sail has advanced to the final leg of a NASA research program. Phase three of the Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) will allow researchers to continue exploring and developing a diffractive solar sail for two years with a funding award of $2 million, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. This award could push the solar sail concept, a long-simmering field of research for space exploration only used a handful of times, towards far wider use.

"As we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, we'll need innovative, cutting-edge technologies to drive our missions," NASA administrator Bill Nelson says in a statement. "The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program helps to unlock visionary ideas—like novel solar sails—and bring them closer to reality."

In a similar way that a regular sail on a boat uses wind to create motion, solar sails work by using the pressure exerted by sunlight to move through space. When photons of light bounce off the mirror-like surface, their momentum pushes the sail forward in a manner that allows a craft not to use any fuel. Current refractive solar sail designs are large, thin and often limited in what directions they can travel. However, a diffractive solar sail, which uses small grates embedded into thin films, could be smaller, more versatile and steerable, closer in maneuverability to a fuel-powered ship.

The concept of a diffractive solar sail was first selected for NIAC Phase 1 and Phase 2 status in 2019. During those phases and their trials, a team tested several sail materials and developed navigation and control schemes for a potential diffractive lightsail mission to orbit the Sun’s poles, a statement explains. Both phases also had space weathering experiments that tested the sail’s ability to survive the harsh ultraviolet exposure of space, according to a NASA statement from 2019. During phase 3, researchers will optimize the sail material and perform ground tests to prepare for the conceptual solar mission.

Solar sails have a relatively short and checkered history. The nonprofit research organization The Planetary Society attempted to launch the Cosmos 1 probe in 2005 to orbit around Earth, but it didn’t even leave the planet due to a rocket failure. The government of India launched small solar sail-powered missions as accessories on communication satellites in 1992 and 2003. The Japanese Exploration Space Agency (JAXA) successfully launched the IKAROS spacecraft, deployed with a solar sail, in 2010, to study Venus and the Sun. Since then, NASA and the Planetary Society have both launched successful solar sail-powered crafts into low-earth orbit.

“Diffractive solar sailing is a modern take on the decades old vision of lightsails,” says Amber Dubill, a mechanical engineer at Johns Hopkins University who will lead the third phase, in a NASA statement. “While this technology can improve a multitude of mission architectures, it is poised to highly impact the heliophysics community’s need for unique solar observation capabilities.”


First Dream Chaser vehicle takes shape

April 30th, 2022

WASHINGTON — Sierra Space says it is making good progress on its first Dream Chaser spaceplane as the company looks ahead to versions of the vehicle that can carry crews and perform national security missions.

The company provided SpaceNews with images of the first Dream Chaser, named Tenacity, being assembled at its Colorado headquarters. The vehicle’s structure is now largely complete, but there is still more work to install its thermal protection system and other components.

“We have the wings on now. It really looks like a spaceplane,” said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, during a panel at the AIAA ASCENDx Texas conference in Houston April 28, where she played a video showing work building the vehicle.

In a recent interview, Tom Vice, chief executive of Sierra Space, said the company had completed structural testing of the vehicle and was moving into final integration and testing. It should be ready to ship to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station, in August or September for four months of thermal vacuum testing.

“Then we ship it to the Kennedy Space Center for integration onto the Vulcan rocket,” he said, with a launch tentatively planned for February. However, Kavandi said in her remarks at the AIAA conference that the launch was planned “about a year from now.”

That launch will be the first in a series of cargo missions to the International Space Station under a NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract awarded in 2016. Sierra Space is looking beyond cargo missions and is starting work on a crewed version of Dream Chaser that could launch as soon as 2026.

Work on the crewed version is internally funded, he said, but with hopes of offering it to NASA for future ISS crew transportation missions. “We think that we’ve got a really good opportunity to on-ramp back on NASA crew,” he said. NASA supported earlier phases of Dream Chaser development through funded Space Act Agreements in its Commercial Crew Development program, but did not select the vehicle for contracts it awarded in 2014 to Boeing and SpaceX to complete development and testing of crewed vehicles.

Dream catcher

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts return safely to Earth

March 30th, 2022

Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut landed in a remote area of Kazakhstan on Wednesday after undocking from the International Space Station and flying back to Earth in a historic mission that came amid mounting tensions over the war in Ukraine.

The Soyuz spacecraft touched down under a parachute right on time, at 7:28 a.m. Eastern, and rescue crews descended on the capsule and erected a medical tent to assess the astronauts’ health before flying them home.

Rob Navias, of NASA’s public affairs office, said on NASA’s broadcast that it was “a perfect landing, a bull’s eye touchdown.” Shortly before touchdown, he said, “the crew is feeling fine, everything is going by the book.”

Navias said that after the spacecraft Soyuz landed it “was pulled over by the wind” and was on its side. He said that “is not unusual,” adding: “The search and recovery personnel are beginning the process of safing the vehicle,” or getting it into a stable orientation.

American astronaut Mark Vande Hei was pulled out of the capsule while it was still on its side, about a half-hour after landing. He seemed in good spirits, smiling and giving the ground crews a thumbs up.

The landing marks the end of a triumphant mission for Vande Hei, whose 355 days in space set a record for the longest single spaceflight for an American. His safe return, along with his Russian counterparts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov, also serves as a powerful symbol of partnership amid heightened tensions between the United States and Russia over the war in Ukraine — strain that has surfaced persistent questions about whether the relationship in space can endure.

Ever since Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine began more than a month ago, NASA has steadfastly maintained that the station has been operating normally and that its relationship of more than 20 years with the Russian space agency has been unaffected by the turmoil on the ground.

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