Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Robots, Astronauts, and You

I'm working on a new presentation for a couple of space/astronomy events I have coming up this summer. For the last year or so, I've presented a frequently updated PowerPoint with the title "Exploring Space with a Computer." This is basically a framework for talking about the great (and mostly free) space and astronomy resources available on the web, using web materials to focus on whatever news or missions are current at the time. This is usually followed by live demos of Stellarium and Orbiter, and I typically customize these to current events too - showing Comet Holmes in Stellarium, or using Orbiter to land a simulated Phoenix spacecraft near the Martian north pole. Although PowerPoint is great for organizing background materials, the live demos are what really get people's attention.

I could simply update my presentation and demo scenarios for recent space events, but I decided to create a new framework that emphasizes the amazing work of robots (designed, built, programmed, and operated by clever humans, of course) and also talks about the advantages of highly adaptable human astronauts for missions such as space construction and repair. Of course humans are also quite good at actual exploring, though they haven't had a chance to demonstrate this since Apollo 17. I plan to also talk about synergy between robotic systems and astronauts, as we have seen on ISS missions and will certainly see more of in the future (e.g., NASA's Robonaut program). The challenge is to keep this interesting, not too wordy or technical, and suitable for kids from six to eighty-six (my age range to date). And to really emphasize the live demos, because that's where the "you" comes in - the web and free programs like Stellarium, Orbiter, Google Earth, and the new World Wide Telescope help to make space and astronomy more participatory than ever before.

I'm planning this for a one hour presentation, though the great thing about Stellarium and Orbiter is that it's easy to show more cool stuff if time is available. I typically include at least one shuttle or Saturn V launch (nice and noisy) as well as a landing somewhere (typically the Moon or Mars), and if there's time, I will dock with the ISS and maybe play a little "name that body" game, using an Orbiter scenario in which I have placed a bunch of different spacecraft around the solar system (I could just jump to each body from a dialog box, but audience members can usually read the planet names on the screen, so that's not much of a challenge). I've had some kids as young as 7 who really knew their planets and moons.

I will present this at the Beaman Public Library (West Boylston, MA) on July 15 and next at the Aldrich Astronomical Society's STARFEST 2008 at Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA on Saturday August 9 at 7 pm. If you're in the area, stop by - STARFEST will have a lot more going on than just me, including spacesuits, meteorites, and as many as 15 telescopes set up for public viewing (if the weather cooperates).

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