Columbia disaster may affect UCSD program

    For ISS EarthKAM, the aftermath of the Feb. 1 space shuttle Columbia disaster could mean the end for the UCSD-based, NASA-affiliated program that operates unnoticed by most students.

    Carlan Wendler
    Guardian

    ISS EarthKAM began in 1995 as the project of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a physics professor at UCSD. Her vision was to collaborate with NASA to mount a high-resolution digital camera on shuttles and allow middle school students to request pictures of specific locations on Earth.

    Officials at NASA liked the idea and mounted the first camera on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1996. The interim time was spent acquiring the necessary materials to build a mission operations center in the Science and Engineering Research Facility building at UCSD. Intel, Sun and IBM made contributions along with a host of other companies.

    Three years and four shuttle missions later, program directors sought a more stable placement for the camera in the new International Space Station. Ride again approached NASA officials, who moved the camera aboard the International Space Station, where it currently remains.

    Courtesy ISS EarthKAM

    Following the move to the ISS, the program directors focused their efforts on programming a functional and intuitive Web site while also recruiting more schools to participate.

    “”We’re looking to get more schools in the San Diego area involved,”” said Karen Flammer, one of the program coordinators. “”But already, we have a lot of international schools taking part: Japan, Germany, Mexico and others.””

    Yet things might be changing for this young program. If NASA chooses to temporarily ground all manned space flights, there would no American astronauts in the space station to initialize the camera and make the connections to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Though it might be possible to collaborate with the Russian cosmonauts on the ISS, such a project seems unlikely when so many other agendas encroach on NASA’s resources.

    In the short run, it seems that the ISS EarthKAM program may get additional opportunities to use its equipment while the existing crew of the ISS seeks to use its additional time on the station to conduct as much research as possible. The American astronauts, due to the suspension of all shuttle missions for the coming months, will stay longer than initially planned and have made an additional ISS EarthKAM window available to UCSD.

    Students involved with ISS EarthKAM said the program involves them in the business of flight and shows them a perspective of this planet they might never have otherwise seen.

    “”[One of] the biggest personal benefits I get from the program is hearing the success stories of teachers whose students went from disinterest to enthusiasm about learning,”” said Emily Ashbaugh, a senior at Earl Warren College majoring in physics.

    Thirty students from the sciences, engineering and humanities work together to maintain and improve this Internet-based project. Computer scientists write programs to check the input of the middle school students for errors. They call it “”making sure the student gets a picture of what he or she wanted.””

    The time between when a student requests a picture and receives it can be as little as four hours.

    Others students analyze and annotate the images once they are received and learn a little about the Earth sciences in the process. ERTH 101, an introductory earth science course at UCSD, uses the ISS EarthKAM images to study geology, geography and see human impact on landscapes around the globe.

    For the middle school students, TERC, an educational group in Massachusetts, and Texas A&M University have developed curricula to help teachers integrate the hands-on learning of ISS EarthKAM with standard subjects like math, science and even art. Program coordinators hope that as the number of participating schools increases, they will see more resources developed for teachers.

    “”You can see the gratitude of the schools when you make it [the Web site] more user-friendly,”” said Chris West, a senior at John Muir College majoring in computer science. “”That’s really gratifying.””

    Over 10,000 students participated in the last mission.

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