By Aquanaut Steve Squyres (Cornell University)
Today was the coolest day of the mission for me.
Today we moved from engineering to science.
Engineering and science are different things. Engineers are inventors. Their
job is to design and build things that people can use. Engineering requires
enormous creativity, and creativity of a very special kind: creativity that is
coupled with practicality. The stuff engineers build actually has to work.
Image at right: Aquanaut Kimya Yui (JAXA) collects chipping samples from a rock simulating an asteroid boulder.
Scientists, on the other hand, are seekers of truth. Their job is to figure out
how the world works. Science requires intuition, knowledge that is based on the
work of many other scientists, and sometimes a fair amount of luck.
What we've been doing at NEEMO so far has been engineering in the service of
science. We've been testing out hardware that was designed and built by
engineers, using the procedures they recommended to us. Our job has been to
find out what works and what doesn't, and to relay that information back to the
engineers. They build, we test, they make changes, and we test again. Someday,
on an asteroid, the stuff that works best is going to be used to do science on
that asteroid. We've been doing the engineering work to help make that future
But today was different. On our EVAs today we had no engineering tests to
perform. Instead, our job was to explore, to report what we found back to
Mission Control, and then to collect the samples they wanted us to collect.
The cool thing about this is that when we went out the door we didn't know what
we were going to find. The surface of our "asteroid" is
reconfigurable, and the day before some clever people had gone out there, set
up some challenges for us, and had not told us what they'd done. It was up to
us to figure it out.
Just like any other field scientists, we started with reconnaissance, flying
above the surface with jetpacks and reporting back to Mission Control what we
discovered. On the spot, they came up with a science plan for us, just as would
happen with a crew at an asteroid. And then it was up to us to use all the
tools we had at our disposal, in whatever way we thought best, to carry out
that science plan.
When Kimiya and I did this on our morning EVA, we relied a lot on our jetpacks.
Dottie and Tim made more use of the translation lines and the booms to do their
sampling. Both approaches worked, but in different ways. It was really
interesting to debrief after dinner, and compare notes on our experiences.
But most of all, these EVAs felt like real scientific field work to me.
It was a taste of how it's really going to be to explore an asteroid and I
think it was a big step forward for NEEMO and NASA, and something that'll take
us a significant step closer toward doing it for real someday.
To learn more about NEEMO visit www.nasa.gov/neemo.