Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Last week we had the opportunity to be given a lecture from Doug Ellison, who is the Visualisation Producer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I was extremely excited for this as I have always been somewhat of a space geek and an avid admirer of NASA and what they're capable of doing, and the unbelievable lengths they go to to reveal the unknown benefiting the whole of mankind. 

As I’ve mentioned Doug is the Visualisation Producer at JPL, which during the lecture he explained means that he works together with programmers and 3D artists, as well as the NASA engineers and scientists involved in NASA's missions to create visualisation tools for the general public. In a nut shell I believe he designs and creates key visual elements, primarily animations of various NASA missions to help less space exploration savvy people like us better understand NASA's ideas, objectives and the actual missions as well as to engage further with the missions themselves. Because lets be honest, how much interest do the general public really take in NASA today? I know I try my best to, albeit it may be slightly harder to keep up here in the UK, but with the wealth of information available today through the internet that’s hardly an excuse. A few years ago I did buy myself the NASA's greatest missions box-set on blu-ray, on its release day no less, (I did mention I’ve always been a bit of a NASA fan didn't I?). I also have NASA on facebook, which, however briefly, lets me keep up to date to some extent on NASA's current missions etc. But, on July 20th 1969, yes that’s right, when Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin aboard the Apollo 11 were the first men to ever step on the moon (the third man who stayed on board Apollo during the first moon walk was Michael Collins, and he was just as vitally important to the success of the mission, so don’t forget that name!), it is estimated that over 500 million people watched every moment of the arrival of Apollo 11's arrival on the Lunar surface.

So why such little interest today? Well there's probably many reasons and I'm probably not the best person to venture a guess as to why, but I can tell you that it isn't just our generation that have suddenly lost interest, interest has fallen over the past 30 years or so, and one reason is that NASA missions eventually become so routine that people began to feel it was too easy, especially compared to the likes of the Apollo missions which some might say were near impossible feats of human exploration. But also the Apollo missions were some of, some might say were actually the biggest and most incredible things humankind have ever done bar none. The engineering, the science, the discoveries and especially the finances were just mind blowing. But since the Apollo missions I myself, since being born in 1990 have been treated by NASA to some life defining experiences that I will always hold as part of my generation. For a start the Space Shuttle missions which I have been fortunate enough to be alive over half of the Shuttles life time up until the sad, but amazingly proud day of July 8, 2011, when I was able to see Shuttle Atlantis on the last ever Shuttle launch spread over the news. I am also growing up during the era when we see the International Space Station continue to expand, and one of the greatest things to be part of is the recent Mars landings, and most recently the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity, and I can only thank NASA and count my blessings that I am fortunate to be alive at such a time of continuing great missions and discoveries.

And so I come back to Doug Ellison and his role at NASA, and if I'm not mistaken, if you were decent enough to follow the news during Curiosity decent onto the Mars surface, and shame on you if your didn't, then you'll of seen various animations explaining to the general public how the Mars Lander, and Rover worked and would continue to carry out various tasks on the Martian surface. Highly detailed animations, like those shown on BBC news, developed by the Visualisation team at JPL, with whom Doug is the Producer, helped to explain to the general public all of these things and helped us to feel engaged with NASA's ground breaking mission and subsequent discoveries. And it can be simply put that Doug's team at JPL, play the vital role of connecting us, the general public with NASA's current missions by moving NASA's communication with us into the 21st century with such animations as well as interactive experiences online such as JPL's 'Eye's on the Solar System' which I believe Doug worked on, and if you haven’t tried it yet here's the link, you must go and have a go, its awesome;

And we also see interactive augmented reality apps on the iPad, such as Spacecraft 3D, which I've also been fortunate to have a play with, which allows you to select from a number of various spacecraft and learn about and interact with the spacecraft, seeing how they move right on your dining table! Again cool! But most importantly these experiences provided by Doug and his team give NASA the opportunity to educate, and to help people like myself learn about the engineering feats used to expand our knowledge and understanding of space alongside the great minds at NASA. So I thank Doug and his team for providing us with these opportunities and experiences, and I also thank Doug himself for the great lecture he gave us on his work and his experiences within NASA and his life leading up to such a wonderful role, it was an absolute pleasure to be part of it.

I would like to end this blog by further cementing my appreciation of NASA and the benefits they provide for all of humanity, as some may not really understand what NASA has really provided us over the years. When I was seven I was unbelievably lucky to be taken to Florida by my Grandparents, and during our second week there, when everyone went back to Disney Land, my Grandad took me alone to Kennedy Space Centre, as mentioned I have always, always been so interested in space and NASA. It is an experience I will never forget. (I was quite disappointed to learn there was to be a Shuttle Launch on the same day the very next week! As you can imagine I was more gutted than dissapointed!), but nonetheless, the visit to Kennedy Space Centre was one of the most wonderful things I've done in my life so far, to experience the rocket gardens and actually see inside some of the rockets, to go through the huge facility with an actual Saturn V rocket inside, the sheers size of it, and even at such a young age to have an appreciation of how this unbelievably massive thing could get into space was purely overwhelming to say the least. And last but not least, despite not seeing the Shuttle Launch the next week, I was able to stand on the viewing platform were thousands of people would stand the very next week to witness the launch, see the launch pad off in the distance, see the countdown clock right in front of me and, amazingly, to see the Space Shuttle Discovery a mere few hundred feet away on the back of a mover on its way to the launch pad!!! I count myself very lucky for this experience, and as you can probably guess, it is one I will never forget.

Oh! and for those of you who haven’t yet guessed, the title of my blog post 'Opportunity', not only describes my experiences of NASA as mentioned in my blog, but, it is also the name of one of the twin Mars Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) which landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, and unbelievably is still active to this day 9 years later! What more can be said about NASA's amazing work!

The Saturn V Rocket at Kennedy Space Centre

Me, age 7, at Kennedy space Centre.

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