Dennis Stocker took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his many experiments that have flown on the International Space Station and his outreach programs to children of all ages. The WING (“What If No Gravity?”) and DIME (Dropping In a Microgravity Environment) programs allow middle and high school students to design their own experiments to test the effects of microgravity inside NASA Glenn’s 2.1 second drop tower. Stocker also works with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America to increase interest in careers related to science and engineering. Scouting is a strong trend in the astronaut core. Thirty-nine American astronauts were former Eagle Scouts, including Neil Armstrong! He showed a cool poster of a Girl Scout astronaut eating Girl Scout cookies on the ISS.
The ISS originally had crews of three people, which decreased to two after the Challenger incident, and today are composed of six people. Its missions alternate between a U.S. and a Russian commander. Each crew member generally spends six months on the station but the crews are staggered so that new members come up and the old go down every three months. Worried about getting scientific returns on its funding, Congress passed a requirement that fifteen percent of experiments on the ISS could not be directly dedicated to space exploration, but rather be applicable to people still living on Earth. Stocker’s many combustion and lifted flame experiments fit the non-exploration bill.
SLICE (Structure and Liftoff in Combustion Experiment) was beneficial to combustion research on Earth because flames are much easier to study and model in microgravity. Without buoyant forces to narrow it into a taper, a flame in microgravity is almost spherical, which vastly simplifies analysis. Researchers paid close attention to the formation of soot because they hoped this research will contribute to reducing combustion emissions. The hardware was scavenged from ELF (Enclosed Laminar Flames) which flew on an earlier ISS mission and put in the ISS glove box. Apparently the astronauts preferred to run SLICE experiments on Saturdays, during their free time, because they enjoyed being able to control the fuel type, fuel flow and air flow and to see the flames respond. Many other experiments on the space station are not interactive, simply requiring the push of a button and then monitoring. Stocker also had four ACME (Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments) fly on later missions.