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Sunday, 15 September 2013

First Week at the ISU

The first week at the International Space University is over! So far, things have progressed really smoothly and I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do this year.

Registration went well, despite my worrying, and I have only a few things to wrap up which I can do in my own time. It also turned out that I overpaid my tuition so instead of paying the school money that day, they paid me! Along with this, I received an ample amount of documents stating my status as a student, as well as a few other pamphlets about what there is to do in Strasbourg. I am really excited about one part in particular: I paid an extra 25 euros to be registered in the sports program and this gives me the ability to join any and as many of the clubs as I want throughout the year!

Now, there seems to be some confusion as to whether the 25 euros just gives you gym access or if it gives us the ability to take classes in different activities as well, but it something worth investigating. Most of the students are in agreement that we'll be too busy once the school year starts to participate in anything, but I think I'll make the effort because I know how important it is to mix work and play.

After everyone had completed registration, we had an introductory lecture, and a special guest lecturer. Dr. Kevin Ford, astronaut and former ISS commander gave a talk on the challenges and rewards of human spaceflight! It was a very entertaining lecture which discussed, mostly, the differences between the Russian Soyuz program and the Space Shuttle program. Afterward, he answered questions, took photos and joined us in a luncheon, of sorts.

For a little extra perspective, Dr. Ford was the commander of the International Space Station who passed off command to Chris Hadfield (first Canadian to walk in space, first Canadian commander of the ISS).

While I was getting my picture taken with Dr. Ford, I thanked him for talking so much about microgravity as it is a subject on which I wish to focus. The two of us became caught up in the necessity and interesting aspects of the subject, so much so that I was literally pulled aside so that others could have their pictures taken. The evening went quite well as all the students had a chance to meet and speak with all the professors, as well as Kevin Ford, and everyone left feeling excited for the year to come.

The next day, we had our opening ceremony in which we heard speeches from the ISU President, the Dean, and the Program Director. We had a chance to see some video of last year's class, and a chance to introduce ourselves. Most seemed a little nervous talking about ourselves in front of other people like that, but everyone had something interesting and unique to say. I made people chuckle when I said, "I've wanted to work in the space industry since I could speak", haha.

Afterward, we had another luncheon, with wine, cheese, sandwiches, and some of it was even in the shape of a bird.

During the luncheon, I had another chance to speak with the professors and it seems there is a York University connection, of sorts. Dr. John Farrow, physicist, said he was looking through my C.V. and asked if I knew a Ben Quine. I smiled and said of course I know Professor Quine! He was the Associate Director of the Space Engineering stream at York and I had enjoyed working with him over the years. We talked about him for some time and then talked about some of my interests. I also had a chance to talk about geology and astrobiology with Dr. Hugh Hill. It was a really nice moment because, to be honest, before that, I had felt a little like an underachiever.

Most of the students I've met already have a Masters degree, and usually some internship/employment experience. I have passion, dedication, yes, but did I belong? Moments of doubt are becoming less common as I learn more about myself, but it is still nice to have some validation from time to time. But, I felt comfortable in that environment and look forward to showing off, even to myself, my skills this year.

The following day, we did a tour of the facilities. When I first arrived at the ISU building, I was a little disappointed that it was just that, a single building. I knew they were a not-for-profit organization, but I paid quite a bit of money and only seeing one building did not impress me. However, the tour helped greatly with this. I did not take any photos, sorry everyone, but I became very excited about the different facilities.

There's a ground station laboratory, a place where the ISU can connect to radio networks and satellites! With a command centre on one side of the room, there were pieces of equipment all everywhere else. At one point, the tech director, Josh Nelson, said, their network was connecting with various other university networks from across the globe. In this way, people from the other side of the Earth could still work on missions when their satellite of interest was out of reach, out of communications range. When asked if any of us had their amateur radio licence, I proudly said yes and he said that with that, I could send as well as receive information from various satellites and that they were already setup to do so! I asked him afterward, and he told me that it shouldn't be much of a problem to gain French certification as the usual process is showing approved certification and then filling out a form and paying some euros in order to gain French Amateur Radio Certification. I look forward to that, and to tinkering with the radio equipment.

Next was the Concurrent Design Facility. Looking just like mission control from various space movies I had seen, the lab mirrored ESA designs, having three monitors at the front of the room, controlled by a master computer, and two semi-circular rows of computers facing the front. The computers were all connected and files could be easily shared between them. Josh said that the room was great for brainstorming and working on projects and many ESA projects got started in rooms like these.

On to the Make-It Space which, to be honest, was little more than a workroom. It featured some tables and shelves and to most would probably not be very exciting. Except that it was decently well stocked with equipment including, oscilloscopes, soldering irons, drill press, and a whole array of shelves containing various tools. The place will come in handy as I decide to become more handy, as the year goes on.

After this, we were able to see two very special laboratories. Now, I forget their names, exactly, but they were very interesting nonetheless. The first featured various pieces of testing equipment such as a small pressure chamber, a thermal chamber, and a microgravity test area. The pressure chamber was currently able to replicate a Terran atmosphere(fancy way of saying Earth-like) with a Martian pressure. Soon, Josh said, they were hoping to make it so it could also replicate the Martian atmosphere as this would be great for testing various experiments and pieces of equipment. The unit was about the size of a small oven so most robotics projects could be tested out in that environment.

Speaking of ovens, the thermal chamber, currently under repairs, is able to force the internal temperature to very hot or very cold extremes. Again, just for testing, and again very useful for designing for the extremes of space and other worlds.

The microgravity area did not look extremely impressive, but I believe it is because most of the equipment was hidden away. Basically, it is an area in which objects can be dropped, and special recording equipment can record the half second of microgravity experienced. I look forward to discovering this in more detail.

The last laboratory on our tour was a Life Science's laboratory. Inside, there was a specially configured chair which could spin and tilt in almost all directions. Used to simulate various aspects of space-flight, I look forward to testing it out myself. There were also various other things which could be used for analysis but we were a little rushed at this point so I didn't get to ask too many questions here.

For the last part of our tour, we were able to view an almost space ready capsule! Russian made, the capsule had never been flown, and indeed did not have an "up-to-spec" heat shield, but otherwise was made exactly to specifications for their space program. It had been used for various experiments by former ISU students, including one ambitious project in which the interior was mapped using 3D technology and design drawings were produced. Unfortunately, I was too busy looking at it to take some pictures, but I'll go back and bring you some more information, I promise.

For the last part of the week, we attended some lectures, just introductory, and most of us had a chance to learn a little more about economics. The International Space University works to give their students coverage of the entire spectrum of the space industry. From space engineering, sciences, human performance in space, space applications, to the international/intercultural aspects, space policy, and humanities, the ISU curriculum wants its students to have a good understanding of all space-related disciplines and I look forward to learning more! Obviously, such a widespread program doesn't go into extremely great depth on every subject, but it is up to the student to focus where they want/need.

And while I understand the constant Return of the King inspired "fade to black" tendency of this blog, I have just one more part to add. For most of this week, the ISU students had been getting together after class and seeing more of the city's nightlife. Due to some personal issues, I was not in the mood and thus did not join them. I felt a little bad about this because I didn't want them to think I was avoiding them and also because I didn't know how many chances I would get once school work began. I was feeling a lot better yesterday, so I made the effort.

I am still waiting on a bike helmet (coming in the mail, thanks Amazon, still cheaper than other helmets I've found here), but I had my second lock so I took a tour of the canal. The Rhone-Rhine human-made canal runs north-south in all of France, and part of it connects Strasbourg city and Illkirch, where I live. It was a really nice tour, but with the light rain we were having, nothing was really worth me stopping to take pictures. However, when I made it into the city, I ended up seeing sights like these.

The Alscatian Museum, is right behind me. 
Looking forward to taking one of these boats out on a tour next week with the rest of ISU!

I walked by this statue not knowing who or what it was about, until I realized it was in celebration of Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press! I'll have to do some research to find out if/where there is a museum about him and his work.

After taking a quick walk around, I had a Lebanese-style dinner with my roommate and a friend, and we wandered over to 25 Cathedrale Avenue, the so called "party house" of this year's ISU recruits. I have to say, I am pretty jealous of their apartment. Situated right next to the cathedral, their apartment lies at the top of a spiral staircase and features some of the oddest architecture I've ever seen. I have a friend who said she liked to rent apartments which have odd and interesting shapes and designs to them as she would bore too easily with a square-shaped living space, and I was thinking of her as I took a tour of this apartment. Small isolated areas, bedrooms hidden at the tops of narrow stairs, wooden beams sticking out here and there, the place is a veritable maze, not in the confusing sense, but in an intricate way. And while having the cathedral, and its bells, situated just outside your window might be bad for sleeping, I'd take it consider the cathedral is literally a stone's throw from their apartment! When you look up Strasbourg on Google Maps, the little balloon that pins the location of Strasbourg is situated right where their apartment is. A great place to hang out, we did so until the early hours of the morning when I biked back.

A great week, and a good start. Today's tasks include recuperating, cleaning, and preparing myself for a studious year to come. If there's anything I've learned about life, and heard about this program, it's that you have to make your opportunities happen. You have to work hard, take chances, make mistakes, and take the initiative to strike out on your own. I want this to be the best academic year I've ever had and I look forward to all the challenges and rewards to come!

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