September 10, 2003

Beam Me Up Scotty

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Astronaut Ed Lu ’84 spoke from the International Space Station (ISS) high above North America to over 40 Cornell students, staff and faculty as well as elementary school children and some Ithaca residents last Tuesday in Barton Hall.

For the brief 11 minutes while the station rushed through communication range, Lu answered 13 questions posed by Cornell students and faculty before losing satellite contact with the space station.

The communication session was part of NASA’s Amateur Radio Onboard the International Space Station (ARISS) program, and members of the Cornell Amateur Radio Club (W2XCM) organized the contact.

In May, ARISS representatives informed Mike Hammer, director of data management at Cornell’s College of Engineering and the radio club’s faculty adviser that Lu requested a contact with Cornell.

“We went through an accelerated paper process,” said Hammer, “and had our first date for July, [but] then changed it for September because no students were around.” NASA announced the date of the contact two weeks before Sept. 4.

During the event, Christopher Chase Million ’05, president of W2CXM, kept the radio antennas properly aimed during the space station’s high angled passage through Ithaca’s sky. Post-doctoral associate Wulf Tobias Hofbauer, chemistry and chemical biology, operated the radio and adapted the device’s frequency, as needed, to correct for doppler distortions.

A powerful computer called Cubesat, running a program written by John A. Magliacane, called Predict, tracked the motion of the Space Station.

Mike Nicolls grad established first contact with Lu and managed the questioning.

W. Kent Fuchs, dean of the College of Engineering, welcomed Lu on behalf of the community saying, “greetings from beautiful Ithaca.”

Chase Million followed with the session’s first question asking Lu to describe some of the experiments that are done in the station’s microgravity environment. Lu explained that he was involved in a variety of experiments ranging from basic physics to tests involving human health such as the improving exercise regimes to reduce bone loss.

Prof. Carl Franck, physics also asked a question related to Lu’s experience: “What is the coolest tool you use up there and why is it your favorite?” Lu responded by describing a complex electrical drill that offers an enormous statistical output and a four foot long screw driver used to reach difficult to reach screws.

Other questions were related to Lu’s experience at Cornell and his motivation to join NASA. Chenchow Yeoh ’05, asked Lu, “What inspired you to become an astronaut, with your background as an electrical engineer from Cornell?” Lu responded by saying that he had been interested in space flight since he was a small kid. He then said that his experience at NASA has been a “neat opportunity to blend together [my] science, engineering, and my love for aviation, all in one.”

Wulf Hofbauer, chemistry and chemical biology, asked a more technical question relating to the vacuum outside the station. “With the ISS emitting a small amount of gases …, how good is the vacuum just outside the ISS?” Lu admitted that the “vacuum outside [the station] isn’t all that good and … it does emit a small amount of gas and particulate matter.”

Lu explained that the dust outside the shuttle can sometimes be seen through the window when the sun shines on the station.

The session with Lu ended abruptly while Lu responded to a question posed by Kevin Feeney, network engineer for CIT, asking how Lu handled reading materials and keyboards in outer space. Contact with the station was lost due to the earth’s curvature as the station continued on its orbital course.

Organizers and questioners expressed great satisfaction over the communication with Lu.

“During the event,” said Hammer, “I was nervous … it was a lot of work to set it up and a lot of things can go wrong.” Nonetheless, “everything went perfectly and I was more excited afterwards than I was before.”

“I think it went great,” said Feeney, “the audio was extremely good; even better than I expected.”

Organizers also described Lu’s personality positively. “Ed Lu is great at making these contacts,” said Million. “He is extremely personable and friendly,” said Hammer.

Feeney said that Lu “seemed to really know his stuff; [his answers] were not a bland recitation of stuff.”

Amanda Yu Fu, electrical and computer engineering, described Lu as “a hard working person,” a conclusion that she made from his reply to her question asking about the differences between being a Cornell Student and an astronaut.

In the future, Hammer hopes to bring Lu to Cornell in person. However, another space contact is unlikely. “Communications slots are rare enough,” said Hofbauer.

Lu graduated from Cornell with a degree in electrical engineering. He was a Merrill Presidential Scholar and a member of the Cornell wrestling team.

In 1989, he received his doctoral degree in applied physics from Stanford University. He was a general aviation pilot for many years before finally applying to NASA. Prior to the current mission, Lu had flown into space twice on the Shuttle Atlantis. His present journey with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko began in April and is expected to end in late October.

Archived article by David Andrade