Out of this World But Close to Home: The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
By Barbara Carney
A rocket garden, models of the Hubble Space Telescope, a piece of the Moon and a planetary movie on a sphere await your visit at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) has many field centers around the country, but the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is home to the largest organization of combined scientists and engineers in our nation, “dedicated to learning and sharing knowledge of the Earth, Sun, Solar System, and Universe.” The Center is named for Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion.
We may take for granted clear global telephone calls, heart-monitoring systems in hospitals, and detailed hurricane predictions, but they are all the result of NASA’s work with human space flight, space and earth science, and aeronautics. Some of these incredible achievements began right in our own neighborhood, and a diverse array of outreach programs at GSFC offers the public an opportunity to learn more about the work that continues to expand our understanding of the Universe.
GODDARD VISITOR CENTER
The Goddard Visitor Center is open year-round. Interactive displays encourage children of all ages to think and act like scientists. A provocative question on a wall near the coat rack greets you: “Why Should I Care?” The answer provided: “We all have a stake in understanding how the world around us works, and the roles we may play in those processes. Our home planet, Earth, is a complex system of many interacting parts.”
Panels throughout the main area showcase some of the accomplishments of the GSFC during its almost 50-year history. A major display features the Hubble Space Telescope. Its science instruments were designed and constructed at Goddard. Videos, models, and detailed diagrams explain the workings of this remarkable research device. Launched in 1990, Hubble is still sending back spectacular images of stars and other objects in our galaxy from its orbit well above the atmosphere.
Down a hallway, a small auditorium contains the “Science on a Sphere” exhibit, where a remarkable movie projects onto a six-foot-diameter ball suspended in the darkened room. Satellite data and colorful images of the Earth, Moon, Sun and Mars wrap around the sphere, accompanied by music and elegant narration: “Satellites are like reverse paint brushes. They collect light from below…”
Just outside the main exhibit area, you’ll find an exterior courtyard referred to as the Rocket Garden. Retired rockets, an Apollo mock-up and a Delta Launch Vehicle reside here. Children can fully explore these space artifacts. Near the front entrance of the Visitor Center, picnic tables under trees provide a comfortable place to enjoy your own lunch in good weather. (Family restaurants are a short drive away.)
Field trips for school and camp groups can be accommodated with prearranged tours and activities. During a recent presentation to students, a staff member used Alka Seltzer tablets to demonstrate rocket fuel properties. The kids loved it!
Model rocket launches are held monthly at the Visitor’s Center. Family Science Nights, summer institutes, and teacher support are additional offerings to the community. “Goddard is continually looking to find new ways to explain to our neighbors what is going on in their own backyard,” said Dewayne Washington, public affairs officer for the GSFC.
The Family Science Nights run from September through May. Geared toward middle school students and their parents, the two-hour sessions welcome family members of all ages. Special activities are offered for very young visitors, and prizes awarded at the end of the season for participants. (The more sessions attended, the bigger the prize.)
Barbara Carney is a freelance writer, media producer,and mother of two who lives in Washington, D.C.
September 13, 2008
A special celebration – LaunchFest 2008 – is scheduled for Saturday, September 13, from 10 a.m. to 4:30p.m.. The day will feature entertainment, interactive demonstrations, a variety of food vendors, and fun for the whole family. It’s a kick-off for an unprecedented year of 15 major science launches planned by the GSFC. Some of the launches that will be highlighted at LaunchFest include:
- The shuttle Atlantis STS-125, scheduled for October 8, to service the Hubble Space Telescope for its final years. “Astronauts will conduct five spacewalks…and attempt the first ever on-orbit repair of two existing instruments…”
- The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), also scheduled for launch in October. “IBEX will make the first global observations of the region beyond the termination shock, an invisible shock formed as the solar wind piles up against the gas in interstellar space. The termination shock marks the beginning of our solar system’s final frontier, a vast expanse of turbulent gas and twisting magnetic fields…By making the first images of the interstellar boundaries neighboring our solar system, IBEX will provide a first step toward exploring the galactic frontier.”
- The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). On November 24, NASA plans an unmanned return to the Moon with the LRO launch. “LRO will create the most accurate and comprehensive topographic maps of the lunar surface to date, vital for pinpointing landing sites for future manned missions.”
The GSFC in Greenbelt builds and operates most of NASA’s research science satellites, but if you’d like to see an actual rocket launch, you could drive to Goddard’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va. You can also watch live web coverage right from your own computer starting approximately 30 minutes before a launch. For up-to-date information, check the website at (http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/events/viewing_launches.html) or call the Wallops Information Line at 757-824-2050.
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, less than 10 miles northeast of the District, is a great place to expand your family’s universe. Stay in touch with all the excitement throughout the coming year with podcasts available free through iTunes (http://www.nasa.gov/centers/Goddard/news/tpstory/2008/itunes_prt.htm) or by checking out the many excellent NASA websites. Some of them are out of this world!