05/28/2012 10:01 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2012

Encounter With Comet Bob: An Adventure at the New York City Center for Space Science Education

Events of May 18, 2012

Long-time readers of my blog may have noticed that I've slacked off a bit on my usual weekly posts. The reason for that has been that the month of May has been unexpectedly busy for me, between studying for (and taking) the final exams of my Freshman year of college, packing up the contents of my dorm room (how did I manage to acquire so many books in only nine months?), moving back home, getting ready to come to Washington, D.C., and the fun-filled orientation week of Boston University's D.C. summer program.

So you see, my lack of posts hasn't been because I haven't done anything fun in that time -- I've done a whole bunch of things that I can't wait to tell all of you about -- but because I just haven't had the time to write them up!

As some of you may remember, back in March, I visited the New York City Center for Space Science Education (NYCCSSE) and got to see the "Spacecraft" and "Mission Control" rooms where schoolchildren perform simulated space missions when they visit the center on field trips. My two regrets were not having enough time to see everything at the center and not being there when a real simulation was going on.

However, about a month before the end of the semester, once I'd found out I would have a week at home before heading off to D.C., I emailed Peter Giles, the teacher who had showed me around on my last visit, with this information. He told me that classes would be visiting the center on the 17th and 18th, from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.. As my mother already had an appointment in New York City on the 18th, that seemed like the best day for me. So, after dropping my brothers off at school, my mom and I drove off on the highway, headed for the city.

Due to traffic troubles, I ended up arriving an hour after I'd originally planned to, when the mission was in full swing. However, the center staff welcomed me into the Mission Control room to watch the students there. They were hard at work following their checklists and monitoring their computer screens, seemingly just as professional as their lab coats made them appear. Every so often, a Flight Controller would stand up and pass a sticky note bearing a message for the Spacecraft crew to the designated Communications Officer. (After my experiences at Space Camp, hearing that title as opposed to the standard "CapCom" or "capsule communicator" took some getting used to. But since the Space Shuttle Program showed that spacecraft aren't necessarily always capsules, it actually makes sense to use a more generic title like Communications Officer.)

In this simulation, the astronauts onboard the "spacecraft" were heading to Comet Encke to study it up-close. Along the way, as on a real space mission, the crew was conducting several other science experiments, all while having to keep an eye on their personal health and their life-support systems.

After dealing with a buildup of static electricity and a few other minor problems, an announcement suddenly flashed across the main TV screen -- an unknown object had been detected, on a collision course with the Spacecraft! After a quick course correction, the collision was averted, and the class analyzed data that their instruments had gathered about the unknown object to determine what it was.

Based on an analysis of its orbital period and density, the students quickly determined that the object was a previously undiscovered comet. And, as Flight Director Kristen Staffaroni informed the class, that gave them the right to name it. After a vote, the simple and humorous name "Comet Bob" won out over more sensationalistic ideas like "Comet Crash" and "Comet Destructor."

Both the team in Mission Control and the Spacecraft crew voted to use their instruments to study this unexplored Comet Bob instead of continuing on to Comet Encke. At this point, the two teams switched, so that every student had the opportunity to be both a Flight Controller and an astronaut during the field trip. I moved to the Spacecraft room to watch the proceedings from there.

Remembering my previous failures, I was eager to try using the robotic arm station again. This time, utilizing my previous experience, as well as a handy sign describing the arm's functions, I managed to do much better, and even helped out the boy assigned to that station with his tasks.

Once the Spacecraft was in position, a probe was deployed to fly close by Comet Bob's icy heart ("nucleus", in scientific terms.) When the photos appeared on the screen, the students all cheered. The team celebrated with the customary round of high-fives and hugs in Mission Control, as well as a not-so-customary blaring of the Star Wars theme over the loudspeaker. (Or maybe that is customary in the real Mission Control. I'll have to meet a real Flight Controller and ask them sometime...)

It's natural enough that, as the two simulation rooms are the heart of the NYCCSSE's Challenger Learning Center, a lighted plaque displaying the names of the Space Shuttle Challenger's final crew is mounted on a wall near the entrance of the Spacecraft room. As I said back in January, I know quite a bit (perhaps too much) about that mission, including that one of its primary objectives was to observe Comet Halley. So I've always found it very sweet that comet missions are one of the standard simulations offered at these Centers, and when I saw those jubilant kids walking past the plaque with their mission accomplished... it did indeed warm my heart, as sentimental as that may sound.

Before the students boarded their bus to go home, I was able to interview the two girls who had worked as Communications Officers, passing messages to each other between "Earth" and "space." I asked them what they'd learned during their session.

"We learned that it's very hard to fly a spacecraft. It's hard to work as a team, but that's the only way to get everything done."

"I didn't know [comets] were made out of rock and ice!"

When I asked what they thought of the experience, one girl spoke for both of them: "I didn't want to leave!"

"Would you like to come back for another mission?"


"Yes, my siblings would definitely love this!"

By now it was getting late, and the girls had to get to their bus, but I asked them if they had any advice for future space crews visiting the center.

"Good luck!"