Cool coding just for kids

Pioneering Nasa scientist Katherine Johnson celebrated in Lego

If nerds are the new rock stars, it’s time to get kids techy

Tech innovation depends on brainpower. That’s why encouraging children to study STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is vital. And the good news is there’s help at hand. Lego has just launched its Boost sets, which incorporate app-based coding — allowing kids to bring their creations to life.

Aimed at children aged seven and older, the kits enable youngsters to build projects including Vernie The Robot and the Guitar 4000, while learning about how the built-in motors and sensors work. They can even add personality to their creations using voice recordings.

The Danish toymaker is also working on a Women Of Nasa set. Designed to mark the accomplishments of women and people of colour in space (and hopefully encourage their successors) it has just been given the green light to go into production…

You can read the full article in Metro (originally published 10 March 2017).

How VR and AR could turn you into a bona fide space explorer

12444-c9a15545b69790cfe97a93810d1c1e12Mainstream virtual reality is still in its infancy but it’s been tackling the final frontier – space – for years. Now the latest hardware, such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR headsets, combined with sophisticated 360-degree filming techniques, is finally bringing space exploration to the masses.

VR’s ability to produce large-scale 3D environments not only offers armchair astronauts a glimpse of what life is like in space, it is now also more helpful than ever at aiding real-life astronauts in their jobs both on Earth and out there. 

What’s more, augmented reality can offer spacemen and women a new perspective by merging the worlds of Earth and space. Compared to VR, though, augmented reality still has some way to go before we start to see smartglasses and AR helmets both on our faces and in our homes.

Training astronauts

While virtual reality has been relatively slow to catch on in the mainstream, NASA has been using it for more than 25 years because it’s simply one of the best ways to replicate space while remaining safely on home soil.

“Simulated environments have always been important in astronaut training,” explains Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut crews all spent at least one third of their training time in simulators and contemporary crews use VR simulations to train for tasks on the International Space Station (ISS).

Early NASA headsets were improvised affairs – the first prototype of the Virtual Environment Workstation headset was built from a motorcycle helmet – and the American space agency has continued to update the tech involved. Astronauts now use NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab (VRL), located at the Johnson Space Center, to train for missions aboard the ISS. Using a headset, real-time graphics and motion simulators, astronauts train to carry out tasks during microgravity spacewalks.

A vital part of the training involves using their powered jetpack – the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER) – which carries very limited fuel, to navigate their way back to the ISS should they get stranded in space. 

The ability to recreate a life-size 3D environment makes VR ideal for astronaut training and now NASA is looking at using augmented reality to keep reality in the frame.

You can read the full article at Wareable (originally published 20 April 2016).

The wearables from NASA that made it back to Earth

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What has spaceflight ever done for us? A hell of a lot, actually – and aside from trying to get humans to Mars, NASA’s technology has trickled down to a host of wearable gadgets.

NASA makes a huge investment in technology and each year it releases a report called Spinoff. This details all of the innovations that have been developed as a result of space travel, from Sony’s latest ‘magnetic fluid’ speakers to more realistic 3D mapping in video games like SSX.

NASA estimates that over the last decade or so, its spinoff innovations have saved 449,850 lives, created 18,888 jobs and created $5.2 billion of revenue.

From healthcare to aviation, sports and product manufacturing, the benefits of spaceflight have filtered down into almost every aspect of our lives, and there are several pieces of wearable kit that have been developed as a result of space exploration. Here are some of the best so far…

Zephyr Bioharness

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NASA was in need of a gadget with real-time sensors for astronauts to track their own physiological symptoms in order to prevent vomiting caused by microgravity.

Step forward Maryland-based Zephyr Technology which developed a product for the space programme, while also giving it the opportunity to improve its own technology. The Bioharness is now used for tracking health and fitness by the US military, firefighters and several pro sports teams in the NBA, NHL and NLB as well as numerous college teams.

Jockey Staycool

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Famous US underwear maker Jockey’s Staycool range was created using the ‘phase change materials’ that NASA developed for astronauts’ space gloves. The special material is designed to maintain a suitable temperature for optimum comfort. Basically, space pants.

Jasper Systems compression wear

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NASA’s Ames Research Centre originally developed liquid-cooled garments to keep astronauts’ airtight spacesuits from becoming hot and humid. The technology has since been used by California-based Vasper Systems to produce compression garments which are designed for more efficient exercise by concentrating lactic acid buildup in the muscles.

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 8 April 2015).

Wearables in space

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

From the famous Mercury Seven astronauts to the spacemen and women on the ISS, what these pioneers wear is absolutely critical when it comes to coping with life at Zero-G.

Much of the technology that Nasa develops for space flight eventually makes it into the products that we all use here on Earth, but what about wearables in space? We’ve pulled together some of the space-aged kit that astronauts wear in space and a few things they might wear in future…

Space watch

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While the first watch to make it into space was a Sturmanskie, worn by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the official watch of the Apollo moon landings was the Omega Speedmaster. But it was the Timex Datalink that was arguably the first smartwatch in space as it was also the very first watch capable of downloading information from a computer.

Made in conjunction with Microsoft, the watch has been approved by Nasa for space travel and has been worn by many astronauts since, but the Speedmaster remains the only watch certified for spacewalks.

Health monitoring

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Wearable health monitors have been a big part of human spaceflight from the start, with all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts wearing biosensors ranging from a belt-like harness to a full biosuit comprising heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure monitors.

Nasa recently tested out Google Glass and Bluetooth heart rate monitors during simulated space walks on its Neemo (Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations) underwater facility for potential use on the ISS in future.

GoPro

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Action cam specialist GoPro was named ‘official on-board camera of Nasa’ in 2011. Used by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), and famously by Felix Baumgartner in his epic space jump, the brand’s Hero 3 is compatible with a huge selection of mounts, ideal for keeping the action steady in zero gravity.

This spectacular selfie was above was snapped outside the ISS by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide…

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 28 September 2014).

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Neil ArmstrongWhen I heard the sad news of Neil Armsrong’s death via NBC‘s Twitter feed, it really hit home that the only generation to have walked on the moon won’t be with us forever.

Many of the elite Apollo astronauts, including first American in space Alan Shephard, have already departed and only two of the Mercury Seven – immortalised in the 1983 biopic The Right Stuff – survive (although John Glenn continues to bat a cracking innings at the age of 91 and even managed to get into the record books as the oldest person in space when he flew on the space shuttle at the age of 77, as well as being the only individual to fly in both the Mercury and shuttle programmes. What a life!).

Even relative youngster and first American woman in space Sally Ride passed away a short time ago. Sad times indeed.

If we ignore the crackpot conspiracy theorists who claim that it was all an elaborate hoax (as, thankfully, the scientific world does), the moon landing in 1969 can be considered one of the most significant moments in 20th century history.

It’s safe to say that I’m a bit of a space nerd. I own mission patches from all of the Apollo flights, my favourite mug is emblazoned with Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz’s memorable book title “Failure is Not an Option” and I got up at 6am on a Monday morning a few weeks back to witness the Mars Curiosity rover touching down on the Red Planet.

Neil ArmstrongI recently visited the the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where I got the chance to see the Apollo 11 command module as well as a huge selection of artefacts from the mission including spacesuits, and the Hasselblad camera used by Michael Collins to take photos of the lunar module.

In short, I would’ve loved to have been around to witness such an important moment in the history of science and exploration – my mum has always talked fondly of staying up until the small hours to watch the moon landing with my gran.

Although most well-known for his history-making role as Commander of the Apollo 11 mission and being the first human being to set foot on the moon, making him the first of only 12 men to do so, Armstrong also flew in Nasa’s previous programme, as Command Pilot of the Gemini 8, making him one of an elite band of astronauts to have flown in more than one space programme.

Second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin paid tribute to Armstong, saying:

“My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history.

“I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit”.

Neil ArmstrongLast year I wrote about the the end of the Space Shuttle programme, which was canned after 30 years to make way for the Constellation programme, in which the Americans were set to go back to non-reusable spacecraft.

Following the NASA Authorization Act 2010, this plan was ditched with Nasa not expected to launch its own spaceflights again until at least 2016. In the meantime, American astronauts will be hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians, for the measly sum of around $63 million per seat.

We can only hope that Nasa picks up where it left off in terms of manned spaceflight. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s dangerous, but in the spirit of human endeavour, it would be a crime not to invest in further exploration.

While the future of spaceflight appears hesitant, one thing’s for certain – whatever “the right stuff” is, Armstrong had it.

Images: Nasa