The Head of NASA Science Spent a Whole Weekend Building a LEGO Rocket

Early on a recent Monday morning, the head of NASA’s science division shared to social media a triumphant photograph of a massive LEGO rocket. Scientific American called Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and she revealed that she bought the LEGO set—a mini version of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket—as a gift for herself. The kit includes 3,601 pieces and stands more than two feet tall when fully constructed. In comparison, the real rocket stands more than 300 feet tall. That rocket saw its first launch in 2022, when it flew Artemis I, an uncrewed test mission around the moon and the first step in the agency’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface later this decade.

Scientific American talked with Fox about her LEGO hobby, the recent spate of high solar activity and upcoming NASA science to get excited about.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

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Being head of all things science at NASA must give you a different perspective when assembling the LEGO version of a NASA rocket. What was that like?

It’s my stress relief; it’s something that I’ve always done. This time, I won’t say I was in a competition with another person at NASA, but I came home from my international travel on the Friday, and it was waiting for me. I didn’t start it because I was really tired, but because I was jet-lagged, I woke up at four o’clock in the morning, and so I started it. And as I checked social media, I saw a colleague had started theirs. It was fun to build because there were a lot of people from NASA building it that weekend, and so we were all sort of chatting with one another. Like I asked one of them, “Why is there a pink LEGO brick in the base? Is this some secret thing about Artemis that I don’t know?” And she was like, “No, it’s just there so that you know which way to orient the set.”

Did you assemble the entire rocket in one weekend?

I did do it all in one weekend. I built a lot on the Saturday and finished it on the Sunday.

This is very nosy, but I had seen that the post with the photograph was time-stamped 5 A.M. Did you pull an all-nighter to finish it?

Really? Oh, that’s strange. I thought I did it the night before. It’s one of the benefits of jet lag: it gives you more time. But I did not pull an all-nighter, I swear it.

Did you get to see the Artemis I SLS launch?

I did not, unfortunately. I took my son down for the first attempt and stood with I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people waiting for it to go, but unfortunately that launch was scrubbed. I’d already kept him out of school for one day to do that, so I had to get him home. I watched it, of course, but I didn’t see it in person.

Who do you think had an easier job: you putting together the LEGOs or the NASA folks getting that launch off?

Definitely me putting together the LEGOs. I’m sure that was much easier.

Have you gotten the LEGO rocket to your office yet?

It’s still sitting on the dining room table: no one has been able to use the dining room table. I’ve figured out how to get it there. The base is going to go in a box; the actual rocket will have to go separately because there’s no way that thing is coming in the car. The bigger problem is actually figuring out where to put it in the office so that it doesn’t get damaged. I have many, many fantastic spacecraft models in here. [Fox points behind her.] That’s the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope there that we’re building right now, which is an astrophysics mission. And we have NEO Surveyor [a proposed asteroid-detection mission] and Dragonfly [a quadcopter bound for Saturn’s moon Titan] also in here—not LEGO.

LEGOs aside, as science administrator, what’s exciting to you about SLS?

Obviously taking crew to the moon is just huge. But every time we do a launch, we put NASA science on that launch. With Artemis I [the uncrewed moon-orbiting mission in 2022], inside the Orion capsule we had some great biological and physical sciences experiments. We’re preparing for things like sustainability and adaptability for humans in space, and so we flew seeds and yeast and algae and fungi in carefully controlled containers, looking at gene expression and the way things are adapting to space.

This was the first time we were able to take those samples outside low-Earth orbit, because normally we do our experiments on the International Space Station. That is absolutely fabulous. It gives us microgravity and the ability to do things that we can’t do here on Earth. But with Orion we were able to look at not just microgravity but also the radiation environment that our astronauts will experience on the moon. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to do that. We also launched some CubeSats on Artemis I as well.

We’re excited about the type of science that we can do on the future Artemis missions. We just selected the tools that the astronauts will take down to the surface with Artemis III [currently targeting a 2026 launch, this will be the first mission to land humans since Apollo 17 in 1972], including some really cool science experiments. Every time we launch, we’re looking at the science we can do.

For Artemis II, which is due to launch next year and will carry humans around the moon but not land, do you plan to carry another group of CubeSats or just experiments inside the capsule itself?

We’re still finalizing exactly what will be on Artemis II. We certainly have a list of things that we’re ready to put on; we’re just waiting to see exactly what they can accommodate for us. So stay tuned.

What’s a particularly exciting launch that’s coming up?

We will launch Europa Clipper in October on a Falcon Heavy, in fact, and using the same boosters that we used to launch the Psyche mission to a metal asteroid last October. Europa Clipper is going out to Europa, the moon of Jupiter, which we believe to be another water world or ocean world. When the Clipper gets there, it will do about 50 close flybys of that moon. We’re hoping to fly through some of the plumes that we see coming out of the moon and maybe see things that, at some point, may have sustained life. We’re looking at the building blocks of life and what our planet might have been like before life started.

The past few months have been wild for the sun, with enormous solar flares that triggered auroras as far south as Florida in the U.S. Given your background as a heliophysicist, what’s it been like to watch this solar activity?

It’s been wonderful. You don’t want any of your spacecraft to be impacted by it, obviously. But really it’s just been amazing. And it happened just after a total solar eclipse where millions of people were able to actually see the corona, and there was some solar activity on the sun the day of the total solar eclipse. I feel like everybody’s got more of a relationship with the sun this year than normal because of seeing that. It’s a great time to be a heliophysicist.

While I have you, I did want to ask about the Voyager spacecraft. What it was like to get Voyager 1 back into normal operations after such a hard communications glitch?

Oh my goodness, it was so amazing. And I cannot give enough credit to the team that did this. People came out of retirement. They got code that was literally written in the 1970s and upgraded it. They had to write new code. It was just incredible. The amount of people that just poured their heart and soul into it—I will tear up in a minute.

Voyager 1 is so far away that you send a command, and you wait a long, long time for a response to come back. And if you do anything big, you can actually do harm. You have to gently, gently, gently bring this spacecraft back. I got this text: We think we’ve got communication. And it’s like, “Do we? Do we have it? I need to know!” And you have to wait another couple of days, and then you stabilize the spacecraft; then you start bringing back the instruments. To have it back in science mode is just incredible.

Six antennas arrayed in the same direction at the Madrid Deep Space Communication Complex

In a historic first, all six radio frequency antennas at the Madrid Deep Space Communication Complex, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), carried out a test to receive data from the agency’s Voyager 1 spacecraft at the same time on April 20, 2024.

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

I personify spacecraft. And Voyager, you feel like they’re so brave, and they’re so lonely, and they’re so far out there, that I think it’s a real personal thing—oh that poor spacecraft, and I can’t even go get it, because it’s so far away. There’s a wonderful image from Madrid, from the Deep Space Network station that’s out in Madrid. It’s the first time they’ve ever done this, but they turned all six dishes and made an array out of the six dishes, and all of them are talking to Voyager. They’re all trying to ping Voyager, and it’s beautiful. They’ve got these great big dishes, and they’re all kind of going, “Hello! Talk to me. Talk to me.” So it was a huge team effort. And the Voyager team deserves an Olympic medal or something like that. They were so amazing.

What do you hope is next for the Voyager spacecraft?

It’s going to be decades until we can get another spacecraft out there, just because of the distances. [Voyager 1 is currently 15 billion miles away from Earth; Voyager 2 a mere 12 billion miles away.] So they are going to continue to just send us information about an area that we’ve never been to before and that it’s going to take us a long time to get to again.

Is there anything else you want people to know about regarding what the NASA science team is up to these days?

NASA science is wonderful. We have more than 140 missions in various stages and various sizes. And we just keep doing great science. We deliver science every second of every day of every year.

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