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Experimental College

Technology in Space Exploration and Beyond

We dream of commercialized space travel and the colonization of Mars, but we rarely stop to consider the technology required to achieve such goals. Margaret Stevens, a Robyn Gittleman Teaching Fellow, highlights the relevance of such technology in her Fall 2019 ExCollege course.

Scientists in action! Students recently recreated images from NASA’s Mariner 4 mission. Learn more below! Photographs by Margaret Stevens.Scientists in action! Students recently recreated images from NASA’s Mariner 4 mission. Learn more below! Photographs by Margaret Stevens.

As a current PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering at Tufts and a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, Stevens has a deep knowledge of spacecraft technology. In fact, her graduate work focuses on making new materials for solar cells that will power satellites and space probes. For the past four years, NASA has supported her graduate work through her fellowship and given her the opportunity to study at the Naval Research Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, two leaders in the field of space technology. Her experience at those two institutions inspired her to teach this class.

The capability of space shuttles is astounding, and it would not at all be possible without the research and ingenuity poured into technology. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are over 11 billion miles away from Earth — so far that, traveling at the speed of light, their radio signals take over 20 hours to reach our planet. Their generators, utilizing the heat of a radioactive substance, have sustained them for 41 years and will continue to do so far into the future. Power systems like the generators of the Voyager shuttles are integral to any space mission, so much so that her class focuses on them, diving into the intricacies of solar cells, thermoelectrics, and battery technologies. 

Stevens also teaches about the history of NASA, present and future missions, the scientific objectives of such missions, the instruments brought on board, and what has since been discovered from them. The course showcases the plentiful educational resources that NASA provides, including information on its website, the podcasts it develops such as Houston We Have a Podcast, and content on its YouTube channel. "It’s truly amazing to see how dedicated NASA is to making their discoveries and missions accessible to people of a variety of backgrounds," Stevens says. "You definitely don’t need to be a scientist or an engineer to learn about our space program!"

Each week, the class hosts a segment called "This Week in Space." Two students are tasked with summarizing a news article relating to space exploration and posing a discussion question to the class. These discussions are not just restricted to technology. "My students come from a wide variety of disciplines, from Mechanical Engineering to International Relations," Stevens describes. "This has been a great way for them to explore the connections between what’s going on in space technology and their disciplines. The conversations have been so interesting!"

Chris Panella, a junior majoring in Film and Media Studies and English, shares the same enthusiasm for the course. He states:

"It’s already one of my favorite courses I’ve taken at Tufts! The learning objectives always inspire a desire to understand how decades of tech development and exploration influence contemporary goals in these areas. We talk about everything from humans in space — it’s crazy how they eat up there! — to the politics of space travel. It’s a really interesting and thought-provoking course, just as any ExCollege course should be!"

The far-reaching impact of space exploration shines clear, but it extends even further than that — so much so that it impacts day-to-day life. Stevens explains, "The technologies developed by NASA scientists often spinoff into everyday technologies that we take for granted. From solar cells on our rooftops, to water filtration and purification devices, to materials that are now employed in pacemakers – we have all benefited from NASA’s technology development and scientific discoveries." By the end of the semester, even if they are not planning to continue in STEM fields, students in The Technology of Space Exploration will grow to admire the importance of off-planet technologies. In such times of progress, recognition of the means to advancement is key to achieving scientific victories and, therefore, victories for humanity itself.

About the Author
Kaycee Feldman is a first-year student planning to earn a double major in Astrophysics and Film & Media Studies. Hailing from the small town of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, she is highly interested in both the arts and sciences and how they can overlap. When not writing for the ExCollege, she can instead be found writing science fiction and horror stories that she intends to convert into screenplays.
 

student scientists

Students (top-right and bottom-left) mirroring NASA engineers as they recreate images from the Mariner 4 mission. In 1965, Mariner 4 flew by Mars only 6,118 miles away from its surface. The images it took were sent back to scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the form of digital data. This data had to be processed by a computer into a real image which could take several hours. Too anxious to wait to see the first ever images of Mars taken from space, the engineers developed a way to process the image by hand. They rushed to their local art store, purchased pastels, and developed a "paint-by-numbers" scheme to paint the picture as the data came in.