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Research Redux: NASA by Marianna Jameson
This article first appeared in the March, 2010, edition of NINK, the newsletter for Novelists, Inc. (NINC)



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration came into being in 1958 as a response to the "Sputnik crisis of confidence" and one of its first priorities was human spaceflight, which led to rapid and continual innovations in every  branch of aeronautics, space science, and earth science. So it's no surprise that NASA's website, is pretty close to geek heaven. But before you breeze past this article as being not what you're interested in, I need to point out that the site isn't just for the science fiction and fantasy writers among us. Don't let that 'aeronautics and space' stuff in the title fool you: the NASA website is a goldmine of information for the rest of us, too.

NASA's website is massive and contains something for everyone  Sure you can learn about the spacecraft settling into life on Mars, what the latest solar orbiters are seeing, why NASA is firing a green laser beam at the Moon, and what the Hubble is photographing now. But as I said, there's more to NASA than just outer space. Many of NASA's scientists and researchers are working on projects that are closer to home and perhaps closer to our hearts.

The first thing that I find wonderful about this site is that you don't need a Ph.D. to get your  information. The home page has buttons that take you to portals set up for educators and students, either of which is a great place to start if you want you information in plain, old, understandable terms. Those areas of the site are further segmented by the age of the audience (kindergarten through college), which is great if you're not exactly sure what you need or want to know, and prefer to start your research with baby steps before moving on to more sophisticated information. And the best part is that every article or news release closes with links to additional information and, usually, information regarding who to contact if you want more information. It's like a gift from the universe.

So, once you're on the home page, and you don't want to go the educator/student route because you know what you want and just want to get there, you can just click on the large icons on the right side of the home page, which will take you directly to the broad topic you're interested in: Earth, the Universe, our Solar System, the Moon, etc. Since the point of this article is showing you the things you might be surprised to find on the site, let's start with information most of us could use in our books: stuff about Earth. 

NASA's many earth-orbiting satellites collect atmospheric data regarding both global climate and regional weather, as well as more focused terrestrial issues. For instance, a single project currently underway is focusing on Central America and will enable researchers to study the structure of tropical rainforests, monitor volcanic processes and activity, create three-dimensional maps of earthquake faults, and examine Mayan archeology sites.

The Hurricane Information page provides what you think it does, like images of hurricanes taken by Shuttle astronauts, but it offers a lot more than just that. There are some great pictures and videos of storms to get you in the mood to write that disaster scene, as well as information about how such storms form and why they move the way they do.

If your character is is a pilot or maybe just a frequent flyer, you might be interested to know why NASA is studying how much solar radiation people are exposed to during commercial airline flights. It's in part because airplane cockpit and cabin crews are considered by the federal government to be "radiation workers", just like X-ray technicians and workers at nuclear power plants. However, until now, no one has been able to quantify how much radiation exposure they receive during flights, only that they are indeed exposed. Going to be crashing a plane in your pages soon? You might want to know the dangers of, as well as the whys and hows of, ice forming on airplane wings. Or maybe you need some down-and-dirty info on the destructive forces that occur during a helicopter crash. NASA recently looked into that by dropping a small chopper from a height of thirty-five feet. And filmed it.

If your story's going up in smoke, you need to check out the Fire and Smoke page. It's the place to go if you want to find out what the global pollution and carbon monoxide distributions were from last autumn's Southern California forest fires, or just see some amazing photographs of them. If you want to see visible light, infrared, and thermal images of those fires, go here.  The Fire and Smoke page also contains links to satellite images of recent wildfires elsewhere in the U.S., as well as in Africa, Australia and Asia, and articles about their environmental and atmospheric impact.

The Climate page is the place to learn about everything from the history of the ozone hole to recent changes in Arctic Ocean sea ice coverage. Specific information regarding all sorts of terrestrial and atmospheric issues is available on an interactive page that allows you to click on a number of different earth-orbiting satellites to find out what they do, to track their orbits and find out where they are in real time and when one of them might be coming to your neighborhood. (For what it's worth, many earth-orbiting satellites, including the International Space Station, are visible with the naked eye if you know where and when to look for them.)

Then there are the more quirky and/or more basic things you can learn from the site. Want to know what you have to do and wear before being allowed access to a clean room? There's a YouTube video just for you. Maybe you have a burning desire to know how microgravity affects the microscopic hairs of the human inner ear and why NASA is studying it. Or what the latest developments are in robotics, and how things are going for Robonaut, the first "humanoid robot designed for space travel", which came into being ten years ago, or its sexy younger sibling, Robonaut2, the "next generation dextrous robot". (go here then click on the Robonaut2 video)  For a techno-beast, it's sexy-hot. And, um, its penmanship is way better than mine.

If you want to know about budgets, how far in advance NASA programs are planned, the hoops a program has to go through to get off the ground (so to speak), or how issues are handled, you want to head to the page set up for policymakers. You'll find links to everything from budget discussions and congressional testimony to the latest reports on near-earth objects and the hazard mitigation plans in place regarding them, to treatises on space trash and reports on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Setting a story in a town that houses one of  NASA's sixteen space centers and facilities? Download a fact sheet about the center and the projects going on there. The News Release Archive goes back to 1990 if you want to find out what might have been going on at a certain time in the last twenty years, and the Media Alert archive is another place to find some interesting tidbits. (Glow-in-the-dark plants, anyone?) Press kits are available going back to 1997 and audio clip files are available. They go back to 2005 and cover everything from Chesley Sullenberger, the Hero of the Hudson, chatting with Shuttle astronauts to interviews with scientists creating computer models that recreate the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And let's not forget NASA TV, which offers channels for the public, the media, and for educational purposes, as well as streaming video from the International Space Station and streaming mission audio, as available.

It's no surprise that the website really shines when it comes to things beyond our atmosphere and I will leave that to you to discover on your own time. Again, though, the site is divided into easily navigable segments via buttons on the Home Page: the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, the Moon and Mars, the Sun and its Solar System, and the Universe. There is a veritable galaxy of information available, ranging from discussions of the intricacies of a Shuttle astronaut's spacewalking suit, including a clickable spacesuit for getting at that specific information, to ponderings about baby black holes, to full-color sky maps of our solar system, to seeing evidence of water on the moon.

No matter which section of this excellent website you go to, you'll find vast amounts of detailed information that will intrigue and amaze; beautiful graphics, photographs, and videos that are available for download; and, best of all, links that work. Happy researching!
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