PoSSUM Day Two

Day Two of the PoSSUM Project class 1503 is finally at an end, and just like yesterday, it was action packed! By comparison it was relatively relaxing: today we travelled down to SAMI, the Southern AeroMedical Institute in Melbourne, Florida. There we spent the day learning about the effects of high-altitude on the human body, specifically the effects of hypoxia, or low-oxygen.

The SAMI Hyper/Hypobaric Chamber.

In order to accomplish this, we underwent a simulated flight to 22,000 feet, where our aircraft developed a slow leak. In the following decompression event, we were exposed to lower and lower atmospheric concentrations of oxygen, until  we became conscious of the symptoms. In the video below, Captain Alex McHale and I demonstrated a “textbook” decompression response, describing our symptoms as they arose (“textbook” in the words of Dr. Buza, Medical Director at SAMI).

If you’re short on time, skip to 18,000 feet in the video.

The rest of the PoSSUM contingent experienced the same simulations over the course of the day. Culminating in a test of the Final Frontier Design‘s commercial spacesuit by Captain Richard Blakeman.

Captain Richard Blakeman prepares for a simulated ascent to 22,000 feet in the Final Frontier Design spacesuit.
Captain Richard Blakeman prepares for a simulated ascent to 22,000 feet in the Final Frontier Design spacesuit.t

As usual, the rest of the photos from the day are available to download from my Flickr page under the PoSSUM Day Two album with Creative Commons Attribution licensing.

PoSSUM Day One

We’re just getting to the end of Day One here at Project PoSSUM 1503. It’s been non-stop since we arrived in Daytona Beach, starting almost immediately when we pulled in last night with presentation from Dr. Perry Bechtle, former Blue Angel Navy Flight Surgeon, talking about flight physiology. Already my expectations have been exceeded by the quality of this program, and I’m am excited for what Sunday is going to bring.

Pathways to the Sky sculpture outside the Embry-Riddle's College of Aviation’s Hagedorn Complex
Pathways to the Sky sculpture outside the Embry-Riddle’s College of Aviation’s Hagedorn Complex.

First, let me thank everyone that donated to my GoFundMe campaign. I appreciate all the generosity you’ve shown, and I feel compelled to share lots of updates for you.

The day began with a long 4-hour session with Dr. Jason Reimuller the principal investigator of Project PoSSUM.  We started with a group introduction before moving on to an overview of the research and outreach objectives of the project. We covered the aeronomy research that led to the development of the project, and got deep into the details of upper atmospheric effects that lead to the formation of noctilucent clouds. Suffice to say my notebook had over 16 pages filled in the first 4-hours.

Dr. Reimuller introduces Project PoSSUM.
Dr. Reimuller introduces Project PoSSUM.

The afternoon brought another big name into the classroom, Dr. Erik Seedhouse, whose accomplishments are too long to list here, but is easily most recognizable for his prolific authorship of dozens of space related books. Major topics covered by Dr. Seedhouse included Spaceflight Life Support, and Space Physiology. If 16 pages of notes from the morning wasn’t enough, in only two hours I added another 12 more.

Following a quick break, we covered the PoSSUM instrumentation before heading over to Embry-Riddle’s Aviation Sciences building to check out the PoSSUM simulator for the first time.

The PoSSUM simulator at Embry-Riddle.
The PoSSUM instrumentation in a simulator at Embry-Riddle.

If you thought the day was over, you’d be wrong. After a quick dinner we regrouped to a keynote speech by veteran spacesuit designer, Nikolay Moiseev for a discussion about the fundamentals of spacesuit design and operation.

Nikolay Moiseev presents Space Suits 101.

We’ll be getting up bright and early to head over to the Southern Aeronautical Medical Institute Facility for a “flight” in their decompression chamber that will simulate the atmosphere at 25,000 feet. Sounds like there will be a video of the simulation, which I will share as soon as I can!

The best pictures from today are available on Flickr in my PoSSUM Day One album with Creative Commons Attribution licensing.

The PoSSUM Adventure

Welcome to my PoSSUM journal! You can follow my adventure here, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Many of you already know about my participation in PoSSUM this upcoming week, but few of you are aware of the tremendous expense this is for me personally. If you have a few dollars to invest in my future career as an astronaut, please consider giving me a donation. I’ve set up a GoFundMe page (GoFundMe.com/SpaceRoss) where you can donate to help offset the cost of this next step in my career. I appreciate it!

On Friday, October 9th, I’ll be departing for Embry-Riddle Air Force Base in Daytona Beach, Florida. There I’ll join a class of “scientist-astronaut candidates” for a week’s worth of training with the PoSSUM Project research team. (Press can learn more by downloading the PoSSUM Press Pack).

PoSSUM stands for Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere, which is where some very interesting atmospheric science occurs. In particular, PoSSUM intends to study noctilucent clouds, which are clouds that form right at the edge of space, between 76 and 85 kilometres altitude. Their name means “night shining” in latin, because they are illuminated by sunlight long after sunset. These clouds are thought to have a strong correlation with global climate change, which is why they are an interesting research target.

Noctilucent clouds at sunset. Photo by Flickr user jepaulsen.
Noctilucent clouds at sunset. Photo by Flickr user jepaulsen.

Part of our training will teach us how to operate the scientific instruments for the Notilucent Cloud Tomography Experiment. These instruments will image the notilucent clouds in 3D, similar to the way a CAT scan produces a 3D image of the human body. Other experiments will precisely measure the temperatures and densities of the atmosphere along the flightpath.

When commercial spaceflight becomes available, PoSSUM plans on being ready with a large contingent of scientist-astronaut candidates. Spaceplanes like the XCOR Lynx will be outfitted with PoSSUM instruments, and their suborbital flightpath, which crosses the edge of space at 100 kilometers, will be perfect for collecting data about notilucent cloud structure.

The XCOR Lynx spaceplane. Photo taken by Flickr user 24oranges.
The XCOR Lynx spaceplane. Photo taken by Flickr user 24oranges.

The PoSSUM training will prepare us for the rigours of launch conditions by taking us on high-G aerobatic flights. We’ll also learn about high-altitude, low-oxygen environments, and the physiological dangers of hypoxia. Afterwards, I’ll join the PoSSUM team in Ottawa for the second component of my trip, which will test their microgravity spacesuit on zero-G parabolic flights.

Martian Scripting: Prefetching URLs

During the HI-SEAS 2 mission, we tested many implementations of a simulated “delay server”. The delay server was meant to replicate the conditions that a crew on Mars could expect due to the distance, and therefore the speed-of-light delay, from Earth. This caused our e-mail and internet traffic to have a 20-minute one-way delay, and a 40-minute round-trip delay.

For simplicity, one of the early delay server implementations we tested would display a splash page with a 40-minute countdown to simulate the round-trip time that an internet request would take to propagate to Earth and back. Sadly, this meant that we were waiting 40-minutes before we were able to navigate a website.

Obviously, this will not be the method that a Mars mission could expect to use. A Martian base could have a server dedicated to prefetching content from major sites routinely, as well as content a few hyperlinks deep, depending on which crew member was being considered. The experience of browsing the web would be similar to our experience here on Earth, with an odd webpage being unavailable for up to 40-minutes.

From the HI-SEAS habitat, I was able to simulate this behaviour with a clever Automator script originally written by John Gruber, and modified by Dr. Drang entitled “Open URLs in Default Browser”. By converting the Automator workflow to an application, I could set Hazel to launch Safari (or your default web browser) 40 minutes before my morning alarm, and the webpages I specified would be available when I awoke. If you’d like to download the bundle Automator application that I put together, use this link.

You can modify the URL list by first launching Automator on your Mac, and using the File > Open menu to select it. URLs can be added an removed from the ‘Get Specified URLs’ action. Double check that you save this file as an application, otherwise the Automator window will open every time it is launched.

I keep this application, and other scripts in a folder organized into /Documents/Scripts. There, I point Hazel to it, which has a rule called “Prefetch Morning URLs”. The rule only has one condition, namely to check the current time, and then perform an action: Open the Automator application I created. Of course, this means that your computer will have to be on and running for this to work, but you can schedule your computer to wake up using the System Preference > Energy Saver.


If you find yourself routinely opening the same set of tabs, do yourself a favour and spend a few minutes automating the process. Even though I’m no longer on sMars, I continue to use the script so that my morning websites are waiting for me when I get up.

The Craft of Experimental Physics

It’s been a long road, academically speaking, getting to where I am today. I began as a graduate student in September 2008, putting me just over the 6 year mark on the road to getting my PhD. The path has been fraught with difficulties, most frequently stemming from feelings of inadequacy due to an effect called the Impostor Syndrome, an affliction that is so common to graduate students, many institutions offer advice to their students.

Yesterday, I ran upon an article that staunched these feelings, only a week before my PhD defence (it couldn’t have come at a better time). An article, written in 1933 by Baron Blackett, entitled “The Craft of Experimental Physics” describes what I consider today to be a lost appreciation for hands-on experimentalism. In addition to the image above, let me quote from the first page of the article:

For the experimental physicist is a Jack-of-All-Trades, a versatile but amateur craftsman. He must blow glass and turn metal, though he could not earn his living as a glass-blower nor ever be classed as a skilled mechanic; he must carpenter, photograph, wire electric circuits and be a master of gadgets of all kinds; he may find invaluable a training as an engineer and can profit always by utilising his gifts as a mathematician. In such activities will he be engaged for three-quarters of his working day. During the rest, he must be a physicist, that is, he must cultivate an intimacy with the behaviour of the physical world. But in none of these activities, taken alone, need he be pre-eminent, certainly not as a craftsman, for he will seldom achieve more than an amateur’s skill; and not even in his knowledge of his own special field of physics need he, or indeed perhaps can he, surpass the knowledge of some theoretician. For a theoretical physicist has no long laboratory hours to keep him from study, and he must in general be credited with at least an equal physical intuition and certainly a greater mathematical skill. The experimental physicist must be enough of a theorist to know what experiments are worth doing and enough of a craftsman to be able to do them. He is only preeminent in being able to do both. (Emphasis added.)

Never, in my academic career, have I felt so vindicated in the path that I’ve chosen. Not only that, but pause for a second and just think of when this article was written. It was written during the adolescence of modern physics; before semiconductor transistors, radar, space-flight, nuclear power, before software and the internet. To hear someone speak such a truth that resonates so strongly today has breathed new confidence into me.

Many of you know already that I am preparing my next steps post-PhD. So it is that I proudly state, whatever the future may hold, I am an experimental physicist, which is what I’ve worked towards earning a PhD in.

Soon I knew the craft of experimental physics was beyond me – it was the sublime quality of patience – patience in accumulating data, patience with recalcitrant equipment – which I sadly lacked. -Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate