01/30/2012 07:37 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Harmonize With the Singing Satellites: Attending the 2012 Zero Robotics Championship

Events of January 23, 2012

Okay, today was definitely one of my busiest days since I arrived at Boston University. I found out a week ago that High School teams would be visiting MIT on the 23rd to take part in the Zero Robotics Championship, controlling robots aboard the International Space Station to score points in a complex game. As exciting to watch as the competition sounded on its own, the event listing on the MIT website stated that astronaut Greg Chamitoff would be attending the event, as would my old friend Leland Melvin.

However, getting there wasn't as simple as the other events I'd attended at MIT. For one thing, I had classes until 1 PM, and the Zero Robotics website said that the competition was supposed to run from 9 to 1. It was too early in the semester to ask to be excused from classes, so I worried I was going to miss the whole event. I e-mailed Mr. Melvin, and he said he would be staying until 3 to interact with the High School kids, so I figured it was worth going anyway to catch up with him and to meet the student teams, even if I didn't get to see the competition itself. And for another thing, the snow and ice made walking across the Harvard Bridge unsafe, so I'd need to take a cab both ways.

I was pretty excited as I went off to my classes this morning, even though I wished I could already be at the competition. I hummed the Owl City song "Alligator Sky" to myself as I hurried to my fitness class. "It's gonna be a starry night over every town, if you look down. So harmonize with the singing satellites."

When my English class let out at 1, I hurried downstairs and called the cab service. By my watch, the cab came within 10 minutes, just as the operator said it would, but in my state of anticipation, the wait seemed much, much longer! The cab let me out in front of the Rogers Building on Massachusetts Avenue, and I sprinted inside, headed for the room number I'd been given for the competition. Hopefully, I hadn't missed everything.

I made it to the auditorium and hurried up the stairs. There were already a lot of people there, and a presentation was in progress, but I was able to find a seat. I caught my breath and looked around. I recognized Leland Melvin sitting in the front row, and Mr. Chamitoff down at the podium, but who was that gray-haired man with him? He looked familiar, but, no, it couldn't be, the listing hadn't said anything about--

"And we took this picture of Richard right as he was coming out of the Soyuz. Do you remember that?" Chamitoff asked, showing a picture of the gray-haired man coming through a hatch on the International Space Station.

"I sure do." The man said.

-- Oh man, it's him! Richard Garriott! Here!

(Now, I know that some of you may not stop in the middle of reading this article to click the link to that bio, so let me give you the highlights: 1) son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, 2) millionaire video game developer, 3) space tourist and first American second-generation space traveler, 4) magician, 5) designed a castle with secret passages and an observatory where he lived until recently, 6) very cool dude.)

It turned out that it was almost time for a break so that everybody could walk around, so I raced down to the stage area to say hello to Leland. He recognized me and we talked a little bit. Then, he asked for my camera and told me to back up.

"But Mr. Chamitoff and Mr. Garriott are back there. I don't want to bump into them!" I protested.

"It'll be okay." He said, and motioned for me to back up further. And further, and then--

"Oh, hello." I'd bumped into Garriott. Leland motioned for him to take a picture with me. He obliged, although it didn't come out well because of the shocked look on my face.

"I cannot believe I'm actually meeting you." I said "You have an awesome life!"

"Thank you, I like it myself." Mr. Garriott said, laughing. I asked for an autograph and a hug, both of which he was happy to give me. I thought about asking if he would consider adopting me, too, but somebody else came up to ask a question and I figured I should let them speak, so I went over to talk to Leland.

Soon, the break was over, and Mr. Chamitoff gave another mini-presentation about his most recent shuttle mission, STS-134. Unfortunately, the final rounds of the competition had occurred while the space station was out of tracking range, so we didn't get to see the robot face-offs live. However, the results were announced as they came in, and we got to see the winning games played back. All of the winning teams cheered when their names were announced, and some kids waved their hands in the air or hugged their teammates. The first-place winners were team Rocket (no, not like in Pokémon.)

Since I'd missed the opening rounds, I wasn't sure exactly how the game that the students had been playing worked until we saw the matches played back. It's a little complicated, but very cool:

On the space station, there are several bowling-ball sized, robotic mini-satellites called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, natch.) that can change their position by firing carbon dioxide thrusters. (They were inspired by the training remote Luke used for lightsaber practice in the first Star Wars movie, and they look a bit like it, too, only more colorful.) Each of the SPHERES can sense its position relative to the others, and the satellites can be made to fly in formation within the station or work together in various ways. (If you will, they "harmonize" with each other, like in the song I'd been thinking of earlier.)

In the game itself, each SPHERE has to move to recover certain "tools" before maneuvering to one of two asteroids and either "orbiting" or "drilling" into them to extract Helium 3 gas and then maneuver to a station where it can drop off its harvest. The more of these tasks the SPHERE does successfully, the more points the team controlling it gets. However, each SPHERE only has a limited amount of fuel, and the other SPHERE can "zap" and "repel" its competitor to disrupt its mission.

Now, all of those things I just described--the Helium 3, the asteroids, the tools, the docking stations--are only virtual. All that's around the actual SPHERES onboard the space station is empty space, but the robots are programmed to REACT as if their environment contains all of those things, which is what makes the programming the students do so difficult.

(I have to thank my new friends, team Haverhill Robotics, for explaining all of these details to me. The students and their teacher, Ms. Stretta, were kind enough to allow me to sit with them during the lunch reception after the competition and pepper them with questions. I especially want to thank Nate, who told me the specifics of the challenge, and Etel, who described the work that got them to the competition.)

While the team was getting their food, I had another surprise astronaut encounter, this time with "Hubble Hugger" and head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld. Like most people, I followed the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in May of 2009 very closely, including Mr. Grunsfeld's spacewalks, so it was incredibly cool to meet the man I'd seen help save the Hubble.

So, despite all of the hurrying, and despite only being there for part of the event, I'm very, very glad I came to the championship. During the announcement of the winning teams, astronaut Don Pettit, the current space station crewmember who served as "space referee" for the in-space games, said that he hoped next year the station's Robonaut2 helper robot could help in releasing the SPHERES and monitoring the in-space games.

And if that's the case, I'm DEFINITELY coming back next year.