Twenty community college faculty members in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) specializations were recently selected by NASA for a three-day program of workshops at Wallops Launch Facility near Chincoteague. Among these were Rappahannock Community College’s Dr. Thomas Mosca III, a professor of mathematics, and engineering instructor Johnny Cornett.
The workshops consisted of simulations using data collected during actual missions at Wallops. Their purpose was to demonstrate the importance of teaching community college students how to work as members of a large team. Emphasis was placed on teaching scenarios that the participants could adapt for use in their own classrooms.
“NASA depends on Virginia’s community colleges for quality employees,” says Mosca, “and many NASA employees who started their education in community colleges were introduced to us.”
Dr. Mosca acted as radar controller of a simulated launch involving the second Antares orbital vehicle, with the objective of resupplying the International Space Station. “The biggest surprise was the amount of resources NASA committed to these exercises,” he said.
Both the Range Control facility, which directs launches from a point seven miles away, and the associated radar units, were activated and operated to help the student controllers replicate the original mission. The test director of the previous Antares flight, as well as five members of NASA’s radar control team, were on hand to assist Dr. Mosca.
Launching a scientific balloon that could carry a payload of up to 8,500 pounds was the exercise in which Cornett acted as mission director. His team simulated sending this load — with a mass as great as a large pickup truck — to the edge of space, above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia manages the scientific balloon program with 10 to 15 flights each year from launch sites worldwide. Recently a tracking and communications payload landed safely upright in the Australian outback.
Other simulated missions included the operation of the Global Hawk autonomous vehicle, which NASA uses to observe hurricanes from altitudes as high as 65,000 feet; and the launch of a sounding rocket, a sub-orbital vehicle that carries scientific payloads into space on ballistic trajectories. All missions from Wallops Island are unmanned.
The series of workshops was sponsored by NASA’a Space Grant Consortium.