David Smith is a fourth year graduate student in Biology and Astrobiology. As part of the Hands-On Project Experience (HOPE) 2012 Training Opportunity for NASA Personnel, David combines his graduate education with practical, on-the-job training at the Kennedy Space Center, outside Orlando, Florida, where he spends at least one quarter each academic year. This year, David spent the last three months leading a team of scientists and engineers to develop a near-space mission to use high-altitude balloons for sampling Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (MIST). In the coming months, MIST balloons will be launched into the Earth's upper atmosphere to take samples that will allow David, his team, and follow NASA scientists to comprehensively characterize airborne microbiology in our own stratosphere.
Working at the Kennedy Space Center offers more than the usual field experience, though. As a Principal Investigator (P.I.) on a NASA mission, David is partnering with and learning from highly talented teams in astrobiology research and has an up-close view of the many projects housed at "our nation's gateway to exploring, discovering, and understanding the universe." We recently heard from David on the eve of a major rocket launch and, just as you would expect, he is finding himself at the center of exciting, nail-biting developments in astrobiology.
From my laboratory here at Kennedy Space Center, I have an unobstructed view of Launch Complex-41 where the Curiosity Rover, equipped with the new Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), sits atop a massive United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket awaiting liftoff on Saturday November 26, weather permitting. The excitement is palpable -- on par with any human spaceflight mission I have experienced since starting work at NASA in 2007.
Photo: David Smith in front of the launch pad a Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy of David Smith.
Jeff Bowman is a biological oceanography graduate student, studying with Professor Jody Deming in Oceanography and Astrobiology. Since oceans cover a vast majority of Earth's surface, Jeff and his fellow oceanographers have a lot of potential field sites to choose from when looking for somewhere to conduct research. But for astrobiologists, who are searching for an understanding of the different ways and environments in which life can evolve, you have to work in environments that can be extreme. In Jeff's case, the extreme is cold. Really, really cold.
Jeff, along with Shelly Carpenter, Manager of Professor Deming's lab in the School of Oceanography, spent the past two months on an NSF-funded trip to Antarctica studying the environment and life-cycle of algae that grow in and on sea ice -- one of the most inhospitable, almost extraterrestrial environments on the planet. Jeff chronicled his and Shelly's work in an outstanding blog and we caught up with him right before they started out on the long journey back from McMurdo Sound to Puget Sound. As we learned, even the best prepared scientist is likely to encounter some unexpected (and potentially overpowering) experiences in the field.
We should have expected the smell.
Over the last two months Shelly Carpenter and I had been sampling sea ice cores from McMurdo Sound, a deep ice-covered bay adjacent to our research base at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Sea ice is a topic of study in astrobiology because it is an excellent analogue for the many frozen environments in our solar system and beyond. Our samples were taken during the transition from winter to spring conditions in the Sound, a time when the sea ice ecosystem changes quickly and dramatically.
Photos: (Upper Left) Jeff Bowman collects ice core samples in Anarctica. (Lower Right) Shelley Carpenter with core samples collected in September. Courtesy of Jeff Bowman & Shelly Carpenter.