Driving on Another World: Apollo Lunar Rover Navigation


While reading about the Chinese lunar rover Yutu wandering the lunar surface, I heard a comment about the moon’s magnetic field being weak, variable and lacking a north/south orientation and because of this a magnetic compass would be unreliable.

This is what the Moon does not have.

Show Off. This is what the moon does not have. Diagram Credit/Copyright: Peter Reid, The University of Edinburgh.

I wondered, without the ability to use a compass, how did astronauts not get lost when driving the Lunar Rover on the moon? While nowadays there are many solutions to this problem, they simply didn’t exist in a lightweight, portable package in the 1960’s. Very indicative of the space race era, the rover’s designers found an elegant solution using old school visual sky measurements, basic geometry, and computers.


Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle
The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was a sporty, two seat, four-wheeled, electric dune buggy that was folded into a triangular storage bay on the exterior of the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 Lunar Modules (LM). Once on the moon, the astronauts deployed and unfolded the LRV and then roved off into the lunar sunset. The LRV greatly expanded the exploratory range of the astronauts, increasing the variability of lunar rock samples brought back to Earth. It’s not surprising then that some of the most important geological information we learned about the moon came from those three missions.


LRV Navigation System
The LRV navigation system consisted of three main components working together: a directional gyro (DG), odometers, and a mini-computer known as an analog/digital signal processing unit (SPU).

Location of LRV NAV components.

Not an SUV. Location of NAV components on LRV. The antenna and camera mounts are removed for clarity.

The directional gyro was a Lear Siegler Model 9010, similar to the kind found in high-end aircraft of that time, that displayed heading information on a rotating compass rose. The odometer system consisted of nine magnets attached inside each wheel rim that sent rotational data to the SPU.

LRV System Console. Navigation system is located at the top.

Center of Attention. Navigation system display on the center console with Integrated Position Indicator located at the top left. Photo: NASA.

The SPU, after negating any slipping wheel information, calculated and displayed total distance traveled. The SPU also used signals from both the directional gyro and odometer to determine range and bearing back to the LM. All of this information was visible on a single compact display called the Integrated Position Indicator found on the center control console (see above pic).

Scematic of the LRV NAV systems

Whole Lotta Signals Going On. Block diagram of the LRV NAV subsystems and how they interacted.

But wait. The directional gyro displays heading information on a rotating compass rose? I thought you couldn’t use a compass on the moon? DG’s don’t rely directly on Earth’s magnetic properties, but maintains which direction you are headed due to principles of angular momentum. Electricity (or suction in some aircraft models) keeps the gyroscope inside it spinning and when you turn, angular momentum keeps the reference arrow or airplane on whatever you have in the center of the DG, pointing upward as the compass rose revolves around it. This property allows you to constantly see which direction you are traveling in.

Directional Gyro/Heading Indicator.

Good Sensor Direction. The little airplane in the center continues to point upward during a right turn due to conservation of angular momentum. GIF from PilotFriend.

The trick is: the DG doesn’t naturally know which way is north. You have to set it manually (see the Block Diagram above where it says “Manual Torquing” above the DG block), usually in reference to a compass showing magnetic north. Argh. But there is no lunar magnetic north. This is where low tech meets high-tech with the Sun Shadow Device (SSD) mounted on the center console. Before wandering off into the lunar highlands, the astronauts positioned the LRV with the sun directly behind them. 

Nav console with sun shadow device

Flipping Out. The SSD could fold up against the console when not in use.  If you look at the first pic of the control console earlier in the post, the SSD is in the unfolded position. The SSD could also be used to hang fuzzy dice when not making solar shadows.

The SSD was then unfolded, casting its shadow on a horizontal linear scale found on the console. The astros reported where the SSD shadow was on the scale, along with LRV roll and pitch information, to the mission control center (MCC) in Houston. Using those values, along with sun and star positions reported earlier, MCC calculated which direction was lunar north. MCC then reported back to the astronauts what to dial in on the DG compass rose and they were on their roving, rock collecting way.

SSD geometry

Working All the Angles. Some of the geometry MCC used to help calculate lunar north.

Well, not really. While the navigation system was tested on Earth, it had never been used on the moon, so several safety precautions were built-in to the LRV missions: landing areas were chosen to have large, identifiable landmarks and the crew trained to identify them; traverses never went so far that they couldn’t see the top of the LM from atop a landmark (calculated to be maximum of ~9.5 km); and always making the first leg of the traverse the longest. This way, if the LRV failed, the astronauts could always locate the LM and walk back with ample life support.

LRV traverse overlay

Home on the Lunar Range. The path of the three Apollo 15 LRV lunar traverses. Easy to see how as confidence in the LRV reliability grew, the astronauts drove further. Also notice for safety reasons, the longest path driven was always the first. The Apollo 15 LRV carried the astronauts a total of 26 km (~17 miles)! Diagram: NASA.

Lastly, there were cameras and antennas on the LRVs that allowed controllers in the MCC to act as backseat drivers and constantly monitor the astronaut’s lunar location. Fortunately, the LRVs performed relatively flawlessly on all three missions and while not super precise (see ‘Maximum Position Error’ on the table below), the astronauts found the NAV system to be dependable.

The LRV carried astronauts on all the three missions for a total of 89 km (~55 miles) with a max range of 7.8 km (4.8 mi) on Apollo 17. Compare that to the total distance walked for Apollo 11, 12, and 14 at 5.4 km (3.3 miles) with a maximum range of 1.4 km (4,600 ft).

Final data for all three Apollo LRV missions.

Results of the Roving Rovers Roves. Final data for all three Apollo LRV missions. Note the number of navigation checks were reduced after Apollo 15 as well as the improvement in position error.


Why Not Just Use a Map, Fancy Pants?
You’re probably asking yourself, “Self, why didn’t they just use a map?” Well self, they did have maps. A whole slew of laminated contour, photo, and emergency bearing maps with prospective routes drawn on them. The map scales ranged from 1:5,000 to 1:25,000 and all packaged nicely in a handy spiral bound manual.

Apollo 17 Contour 10 Interval map.

Lunar Commute. Apollo 17 preliminary LRV traverse route on a contour 10 interval map. Diagram: NASA.

But the maps seemed to be only helpful for identifying large lunar features. While on foot during Apollo 12, astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell had a notoriously bad time with map navigation. It was mentioned that the moon’s “rolling terrain, high contrast lighting and monochromatic nature” made it hard to see landmarks and judge distance. As explained by Ed Mitchell in “On the Moon: The Apollo Journals,”

“Large craters, which we expected to be able to see standing out on a reasonably flat plain, were not on a flat plain. They were hidden behind other craters, ridges, and old worn-down mounds. You could not get enough perspective from any one spot to precisely see where you were. The undulations over the neighborhood were 10 to 15 feet [high].”

I imagine that this effect was complicated further when moving along at rover speeds of 8-10 km/h (5-6 miles/h) and bouncing around in 1/6 gravity. During the Apollo 16 debrief, it was mentioned that the “maps did not reflect the topography very well” with Gene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17, adding that he would often just choose a large landmark in the distance, note its bearing and head in that general direction.

Apollo 16 Lunar Surface photo map.

No Waze. Apollo 16 lunar surface photo map. Not a single Buc-ee’s in sight. Diagram: NASA.

So, while the Apollo astronauts had maps, they certainly weren’t comfortable relying on them. The LRV NAV system seemed like a much more trustworthy and safer solution for the longer distances they would be traveling.

Gene Cernan did eventually put his maps to good use. Amid loading the back of the LRV,  he accidentally ripped of a fender extension with a lunar hammer that was sticking out of his shin pocket. Driving without the fender caused the LRV to rooster tailed large amounts of sticky lunar soil everywhere. After some thought, the solution was to duct tape a few maps to it to act as a make shift fender. It worked like a charm. Cernan was so proud of his solution, he brought the maps and fender extension back to Earth and they are currently on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C..

Fender Bender. The Apollo 17 astronauts used the maps so little, they had no problem sacrificing one to fix a broken fender.

Fender Bender. The Apollo 17 astronauts had no problem sacrificing a few maps to fix a broken fender extension. And yes, that’s duct tape. On the moon. Photo: NASA.


Where Do We Go From Here?
While current un-crewed rovers don’t have to return to the comfort of a lunar module, some aspects of the Apollo systems live on in their design. Four U.S. Martian rovers have used wheel odometers that account for slippage to calculate distance traveled. They’ve also employed gyroscopes (in the form of an inertial measurement units) to determine heading and pitch/roll information. For navigation, after scientists on earth select an area of interest, stereo image navigational cameras (NAVCAM) on the rover map the surrounding area, calculate the safest possible route, then navigate autonomously to the target. This is all done computationally with the rover’s on board computers similarly to the LRV’s simple SPU.

The rovers can also use their cameras to scan the sky for the sun, record it’s path and compute which way the rover is orientated. Martian rovers have even used a SSD in the form of a ‘MarsDial’ to tell sun position and act as a camera calibration target.

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Gordan Ugarkovic

Martian Time-Slip.  Eight minutes of Martian time as shown on Curiosity’s ‘MarsDial.’ The colored tiles are used for camera calibration. GIF: NASA /JPL /MSSS /Gordan Ugarkovic.

NASA’s next generation crew transport is the prototype Lunar Electric Rover (LEV), resembling a hybrid of the ascent stage of the Apollo Lunar Module and LRV. A pressurized crew cabin will allow for two astronauts to live for up to 180 days, while twelve wheels with independent turning ability gives the LEV 360 degrees of steering control for traversing difficult terrain.


Pimp My LRV. NASA’s LEV prototype during a practice run at Johnson Space Center. The white part is the pressurized crew cabin complete with beds & toilet. Each two-wheel set is capable of individual turn control, allowing for forward, reverse and crabbing maneuvers with a zero turning radius. Not visible is are the two EVA ‘suitports’ mounted directly the back of the vehicle. Photo: NASA.

The LEV is still in the concept/development stage, so a final navigation system hasn’t been committed to, but I’m willing to bet that the legacy of the Apollo LRV will live on in it. A view of the LCD display (below) shows a digital version of a compass rose, with roll, pitch and velocity information, resembling the Integrated Position Indicator of the LRV.

LRV display

NASA LEV LCD NAV OMG. The LEV uses a LCD display for navigation, resembling the Integrated Position Indicator on the Apollo LRV. Screen shot from NASA eClips.

Regardless of where humans explore in the future, we’ll probably need some sort of wheeled vehicle for surface transportation. The Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle was the first extraterrestrial human driven transport ever designed and offered navigation challenges we had never encountered. As we push further outward, those demands will continue to test our abilities to know where we are in the universe.


“Lunar Roving Vehicle Navigation System Performance Review”
by Eurnest C. Smith and William C. Mustin, Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA, 1973.

“Lunar Roving Vehicle: Apollo 17″ by Boeing Press Suites, 1972.

“Lunar Roving Vehicle Operations Handbook” The Boeing Company, 1971.

“The Navigation System of the Lunar Roving Vehicle” by Bellcomm, Inc., 1970.

“Apollo Missions to the Moon”

Apollo 15 Debrief

Lunar Duct Tape

Mars Rovers

NASA’s Lunar Electric Vehicle


My Two Favorite Facebook Features


Don’t know when they added them, but last year I discovered two of my favorite Facebook features: the ability to edit your posts and comments & blocking posts on your timeline from sites you find annoying. In case you didn’t know these features existed, here’s your path to happiness:


1. Editing Posts or Comments

For editing posts, first locate this “V” shaped character on the tab in the upper right hand corner of your post in your timeline.


Next, click on it and select “Edit Post” in the pull down menu. Correct your ridiculous errors.

For whatever reason, Facebook sometimes doesn’t let you edit your post right away. If so, go to the post on your profile page and select the “V” tab. It should look like this:
edit 3

You can also edit with the FB Android app (I’ve heard you can also do this with Apple iOS) by pressing on the “V” tab in the app and following the same process as above.

Finally, you can also edit your comments by hitting the little pencil in the upper right hand corner (or long pressing the comment on the app) and edit until the spelling Nazis are happy.

edit comment


2. Hiding posts you’re not interested in.

Often times on FB people like to over-share content, post their Candy Crush scores or provide the latest dribble from a political wisdom provider (i.e. Left or Right Wing political sites/meme generators ) and posts from friends that you may really care to see get buried. Here’s how to clean up your timeline:

Again, find the “V” tab in the upper right hand corner of the shared post you don’t care see anymore:

Click on it, open the menu and select “I don’t want to see this” or if it’s a share from a website click “Hide all from >offending site name here< .”

It will then ask you to provide a reason. I usually select “It’s annoying or not interesting” and then “Other” on the next question. Again, these methods are available on the app as well.

dont want2


And that’s it. Using these two features my timeline is full of things I want to read again and I don’t seem like I failed second grade spelling. Enjoy!

Eating Yogurt is the Same as Eating Three Doughnuts? You Wish.


I’ve seen this picture going around, and, of course, it has no sources to back up it’s claim. Having the nasty habit of not believing everything I read, I did some searching around to see if it was true.


Kinda. The Yoplait Strawberry & Banana yogurt shown is one of the unhealthiest yogurt options out there and has 33g of carbs of which 26g are from “sugars.” One KK doughnut has 22g of carbs with 11g of that from “sugars.”



So, are doughnuts an equivalent option to yogurt? Stop dreaming. Each doughnut has almost 10x as much fat, more sodium, and less vitamins & minerals. So, with 2.7 doughnuts you’d be ingesting less sugar, but 284mg of sodium, 35g of fat and 432 calories. :O)

Sources: Yogurt KK Doughnut

List of Houston Science, Space & Technology Twitter Accounts


My favorite social media program of choice is Twitter (@ProteinWrangler), but while Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world and has a rich science and technology research community, I’ve always thought it lacked a serious presence on the micro-blogging service. After doing some searching, I was surprised that there was a modest amount of Houston tweeps and I had previously just not looked hard enough.

In no particular order, here’s a list of almost 100 active twitter accounts that represent Houston and the Texas Medical Center science, medical and space communities that should liven up your stream even if you don’t live here. Enjoy!

Gordon Vaughan @AeroTweets
Aviation, space & astronomy here. Aerospace engineer, researcher & entrepreneur.

Collect SPACE @collectSPACE
The Source for Space History & Artifacts.

Clayton C. Anderson @Astro_Clay
Crazy fun US (retired) Astronaut/consultant. Helping w/STEM, S Media Q&A/space, love NASA, inventor of Twitpic POTD!

Mike Massimino @Astro_Mike
NASA astronaut, mission specialist for STS-125.

Douglas H. Wheelock @Astro_Wheels
Test Pilot; NASA Astronaut: STS-120 & ISS-25; Space Station Commander; Aspiring Poet; Inspired by quiet moments, kindness and the power of the spoken word.

Ron Garan @Astro_Ron
Husband, Father, Social Entrepreneur, Pizza Aficionado, TBD… #Optimistic4OurFuture, Occasionally Spend Time in Low Earth Orbit or on the Bottom of the Ocean.

Nicole Stott @Astro_Nicole
Mom to my home crew. NASA Astronaut STS-128, ISS Expeditions 20/21, STS-129, STS-133. Aquanaut NEEMO 9.

Royce Renfrew @Tungsten_Flight
NASA Flight Director, Johnson Space Center, Houston Texas. International Space Station Flight Director

Ed Van Cise @Carbon_Flight
Flight Drector at @NASA_Johnson, supporting current and future operations onboard the ISS. My tweets are my own; this is not an official NASA account

Scott Stover @KeystoneFlight
NASA Flight Director

Mike Lammers @Saturn_Flight
Space Station Flight Director

ISS Research @ISS_Research
NASA’s official source for research news from the International Space Station (ISS) – The world’s laboratory in orbit.

National Space Biomedical Research Institute @2ExploreSpac
NSBRI seeks to protect astronaut health and improve health care on Earth. NSBRI is headquartered at Baylor College of Medicine.

Nicole Cloutier @NicoleAtNASA
Lucky to have one of the coolest jobs in the universe, working in public affairs at the Johnson Space Center. I try to share some of the cool moments here.

NASA Johnson Space Center @NASA_Johnson
NASA’s JSC is the lead center for the International Space Station and the Orion spacecraft, and the home of the Mission Control Center and NASA astronaut corps.

Scott Wray‏ @stingwray
NASA Extravehicular Activities Flight Controller and Instructor.

ISS National Lab ‏ @ISS_CASIS
The ISS U.S. National Laboratory is managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

Justin Kugler @phalanx
Aerospace engineer & strategist, former weapons analyst, politics & space blogger, AIAA YPC liaison for public policy. All expressed opinions are my own.

NASA Astronauts @NASA_Astronauts
Hear from all NASA’s astronauts on Twitter, plus updates on astronaut activities here.

Space Center Houston ‏ @SpaceCenterHou
Official Vistors’ Center of Nasa’s Johnson Space Center.

Houston Methodist Hospital @MethodistHosp

Texas Children’s Hospital @TexasChildrens

Woman’s Hospital TX @wecareforwomen

St. Luke’s Hospital ‏ @StLukes_Houston

MD Anderson Cancer Center @MDAndersonNews

Memorial Hermann @memorialhermann

>Medical Doctors
James Suliburk, MD @jsuliburk
Endocrine Surgery & Acute Care Surgery – Baylor College of Medicine, BTGH & BCMMC, Asst. Prof. Surgery. Advocate for mHealth in Surgery. Tweets are my own.

Dr. Ricardo H. Alvarez @rhalvarez1
Assistant Professor at Univ. of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. #UNLP. I tweet on advanced breast cancer and translational oncology.

Drew Dylewski @DrDrewDylewski
A Houston urologist who specializes in robotic prostatectomy and prostate cancer. Follows men’s health, low testosterone, urology news.

Troy Fiesinger @TroyTxFamilyDoc
Family doctor in Houston, Texas. Interested in healthcare policy and improving access to healthcare. Any and all opinions expressed are my own.

Bryan Vartabedian @Doctor_V
Dispatches from the frontline of technology and medicine. Driving digital at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Cathy Eng @CathyEngMD
MD Anderson Cancer Center medical oncologist, Assoc Director, Colorectal Center: Colon, rectal, anal, and appendiceal cancers. Avid runner. Tweets are my own.

>Health Science
Roberta Anding @RobertaAnding
Sports Dietitian Houston Texans,Astros, Rice University Owls and the Director of Sports Nutrition at Texas Children’s.

Jamie Guined @JGuined
Exercise Scientist @ Univ. of Houston/NASA-JSC. Commercial Astronaut Candidate @ A4H. Comments are my own & do not reflect the opinion or stance of my employer.

Houston Methodist Science @TMHScience
Science and research news from the Houston Methodist Hospital system.

Cancer Frontline @CancerFrontline
A blog from MD Anderson Cancer center communicating innovation in cancer research.

Scott Merville @smerv
Comms manager, basic/translational research, University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Opinions are mine. Tweet about cancer and other stuff.

Emily Hollister @ehollister02
Microbial ecologist, plucked from the soil world and tossed into the HMP. Emily Hollister is an Assistant Professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

Texas Heart Institute ‏ @Texas_Heart

Angela Alexander @thecancergeek
Postdoc in translational research at MD Anderson Cancer Center, TT-hopeful, Mac and iPhone lover, music (flute) fan and coffee fiend. Travel lover. I blog too.

Darren Boehning @boehninglab
Scientist working on calcium and apoptosis. I like to tweet about science, grants, academia, and parenthood. Views are mine only.

Sharon Plon @splon
Medical Geneticist, ClinGen investigator and Director of MD-PhD program at Baylor College of Medicine.

David Nelson @nelsondl
Professor, Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA Editor, American Journal of Human Genetics.

Jennifer Herricks @jenrjuarez
Microbiologist & PhD candidate interested in science policy, science writing, and community outreach.

Lyle Green @LDGreen66
Associate VP, Physician Relations at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas. A hockey player who likes classic cars and traveling with my family.

>Colleges & Universities
Texas A&M University Health Science Center, Institute of Biosciences & Technology @TAMHSC_IBT

University of Texas, Houston Medical School @UTMedSchool

University of Texas, Health Science Center @UTHealth

Baylor College of Medicine @bcmhouston

BioEd Online @BioEdOnline
Science teacher resources from Baylor College of Medicine.

Rice University @RiceUniversity

University of Houston @UHouston

Lisa Merkl @SciFlack
University of Houston senior media relations rep, science writer, 2x alumna; interests: health/medicine, music, MaineCoon cats; advocate for UH, opinions my own.

Jessica Brand @Jess_Brand
Social Media Mgr for @UHouston. Likes: Music, sailing, travel, art, science. Dislikes: Waking up.

Bonnie J. Dunbar @BonnieJDunbar
Engineer and retired astronaut now leading the University of Houston STEM Center.

Jeannie Kever ‏@JEKEVER
I cover energy and research for the University of Houston, where our faculty follow the latest trends from the lab to the field.

Ryan Radecki @emlitofnote
Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine – The University of Texas at Houston. AHRQ Patient Safety & Quality Fellow.

Houston Museums @HoustonMuseums
20 museums. 4 walkable zones. daily inspiration.

Mad Science Houston @madsciencehou
Sparking Imaginative Learning! We deliver unique, hands-on science experiences for children that are as entertaining as they are educational!

Houston Museum of Natural Science @hmns

Keith Ostfeld @TheMrO
Science guru (just a polite way of saying science geek) for the Children’s Museum of Houston.

Houston Zoo @houstonzoo

The Health Museum @thehealthmuseum
Take a larger-than-life look at the human body, explore your mental, physical and future selves, & much more at this interactive science museum for all ages.

>Science/Technology Reporters, Communicators, Bloggers
Eric Berger @chronsciguy
Science reporter and blogger for the Houston Chronicle. Cover science from nanometers to parsecs. Love my wife and kids. Cycling. And ice cream.

Carrie Feibel @KUHFHealth
Health and science reporter for Houston Public Radio, contributor to National Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Dwight Silverman @dsilverman
Techblogger, social media manager @ Houston Chronicle. Technology Bytes co-host. TWiT panelist. Computer book author. Pizza lover.

Angela Shah @angelashah
Editor, Xconomy Texas. Global wanderer & freelance writer for NYT, Forbes Asia, TIME. Texas Ex & Knight-Wallace Fellow.

Amy Hurwitz @AmyMHz
Predoctoral/Keck Fellow @BCMhouston. Founder @enventuremed. Translational Biologist. BATD Highland Fellow. Changing the world through sci+biz.

>Sci-Tech/Startups/Incubators/Hacker Spaces
NSBRI Industry Forum @Space_Medical
NSBRI Industry Forum members participate as collaborators & advisors,helping accelerate dev for space & Earth based medical applications of high social impact.

Startup Houston @StartupHouston
Houston startup community news.

Tech Street @TechStHouston
Join us for the inaugural technology event complete with hackathon, startup pitch, demos, talks, panels, and more from innovative minds locally and nationally!

Space Health Houston ‏@spacehealthhtx
Join us for the Space Health Innovation Challenge in Houston, TX in 2014. All innovative minds welcome.

Sarah Worthy‏ @sarahmworthy
Space geek, ambassador to all things web, nonprofit volunteer, distance runner, change management strategist, Houston Startup Digest curator.

Houston Startup Digest @HoustonSW
The Houston Startup Digest publishes the best events and local resources weekly to help more individuals enter the exciting world of high growth startups.

Houston Makerspace @htxmakerspace
A giant workspace in Houston with tools, resources, education and community for makers of all skill levels located at 100 Hutcheson Street, 77003. See you soon!

Liz Young @lizyoungHMS
Houston Makerspace’s Coordinator of Educational Programming • Blogger @htxmakerspace • Art Student • Maker of many things • Bartender • Connoisseur of Horror

Houston Maker Faire @HouMakerFaire

TX/RX Labs @txrxlabs
A hackerspace in Houston! Webpage monitors hashed with #HOUTECH

GroundUP Houston @GroundUPHouston
GroundUP Houston is a monthly event where entrepreneurs and start-up dreamers can share their experiences over coffee.

Pumps & Pipes @PumpsAndPipes
Three of Houston’s major industries—medicine, oil & gas, and aerospace—have come together to explore similarities and spark solutions to challenges.

Enventure @enventuremed
Houston’s medical entrepreneurs. Building a community for life science innovation in the largest medical center in the world.

Startup Weekend HOU @SWHouston
Startup Weekend Houston – Create communities and build companies in a weekend! No Talk. All Action.

BioHouston @BioHouston
BioHouston is the hub of an active and growing life science cluster.

Jacob Shiach @JacobShiach
SynBio researcher, Founder @BrightworkCoRe & Director @SBXLR8R

Brightwork CoResearch @BrightworkCoRe
An Open, Collaborative Research Space for Indie Scientists and Science Entrepreneurs! Join today!

James Wroblewski @JamesSki
I’m the co-founder of @permitmehou, @codeforhouston and @hackhouston. I’m interested in innovation, start-ups and entrepreneurship.

SpaceUp Houston @SpaceUpHOU
We nurture new and radical concepts, help develop partnerships, and is meant for you to create a future worth living in. You decide what happens next.

Hack Houston @HackHouston
Houston, Texas-based entrepreneur development organization, supporting hackathons and other events.

Low Pass of Shuttle Landing Facility


The Shuttle Landing Facility (KTTS) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida was the primary landing facility for NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters after returning from space. I recently had the awesome opportunity to fly down the center line of runway 33 of this 15,000 ft. runway while flying in Florida.

as a bonus I also got to do a low pass of Patrick Air Force Base!

NanoRacks Microgravity Protein Crystal Growth Project Paper Now Available


The paper for the microgravity protein crystal growth project I did with NanoRacks is now available at PLOS ONE:

Carruthers CW Jr, Gerdts C, Johnson MD, Webb P (2013) A Microfluidic, High Throughput Protein Crystal Growth Method for Microgravity PLOS ONE 8(11) e82298 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082298

The attenuation of sedimentation and convection in microgravity can sometimes decrease irregularities formed during macromolecular crystal growth. Current terrestrial protein crystal growth (PCG) capabilities are very different than those used during the Shuttle era and that are currently on the International Space Station (ISS). The focus of this experiment was to demonstrate the use of a commercial off-the-shelf, high throughput, PCG method in microgravity. Using Protein BioSolutions’ microfluidic Plug Maker™/CrystalCard™ system, we tested the ability to grow crystals of the regulator of glucose metabolism and adipogenesis: peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (apo-hPPAR-γ LBD), as well as several PCG standards. Overall, we sent 25 CrystalCards™ to the ISS, containing ~10,000 individual microgravity PCG experiments in a 3U NanoRacks NanoLab (1U = 103 cm.). After 70 days on the ISS, our samples were returned with 16 of 25 (64%) microgravity cards having crystals, compared to 12 of 25 (48%) of the ground controls. Encouragingly, there were more apo-hPPAR-γ LBD crystals in the microgravity PCG cards than the 1g controls. These positive results hope to introduce the use of the PCG standard of low sample volume and large experimental density to the microgravity environment and provide new opportunities for macromolecular samples that may crystallize poorly in standard laboratories.

A quick clip of the project being surveyed on the ISS by Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield

CDR Hadfield actually read the paper! He tweeted this recently:
Hadfield tweet

Beautiful Photography of the ISS: “Making the Invisible Visible”


On the 15th birthday of the International Space Station, I share one of my all time favorite ISS videos with one of my favorite astronauts. If you haven’t seen this, fullscreen and take some time to enjoy it:

and I had to have some fun with Don’s spin at the end:

Pettit Pirouette

Chinese Space Agency Presents at the 29th ASGSR Conference


While the Chinese Space Station played a visible role in the movie “Gravity,” in reality, the Chinese space program has been enigmatic and mostly unmentioned by NASA and the US media. As a microgravity researcher, I have attended several space research conferences in the past two years and Chinese researchers, while making up a large portion of research centers in the US, are noticibly absent. Why? Following “security concerns,” the 2011 US Congress created the “Memorandum Opinion for the General Counsel, Office of Science and Technology Policy” (a.k.a. “The Chinese Exclusion Policy”):

“None of the funds made available by this division may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this division.”

So, I was actually excited to see on the agenda for the recent 29th American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR) meeting in Orlando, Florida that Dr. Gu Yidong from the Chinese Space Agency and president of the Chinese Society of Space Research would be speaking about research on the Chinese Space Station (CSS). This is a first and while it got no media coverage, was kind of a big deal. Turns out Yidong wasn’t there in person, but gave a prepared video presentation about previous research on the Shenzhou missions, Tiangong 1 and upcoming Tiangong 2 & 3 vehicles, scheduled for launch sometime in 2015 and 2020, respectively (Tiangong 3 is what is called “The CSS”). In his absence, there were two representatives from the CSA available at the conference for questions.

Dr. Gu Yidong of the Chinese Space Agency

Dr. Gu Yidong of the Chinese Space Agency

Here’s a brief rundown of the presentation (sorry for the funky blue slide color):

  • between 1999-2012 they ran 50+ scientific research projects carried out on the Shenzhou and Tiangong spacecraft.
    • ~80% of these were for life and physical sciences
  • Everything form inorganic/organic and protein crystal growth, cell culture/bioreactor, material testing
  • Have co-operated with ESA (Germany, Italy) Canada, and Russia
  • New to me: China flew a GAS can on STS-89 with 5 crystal growth and materials science experiments

Examples of Previous Experiments and International Cooperation with Shenzhou Flights and Tiangong 1:



Layout of the Chinese Space Station (Tiangong 3):



Rack System of The CSS (like the ExPRESS Rack System currently on the ISS)





Overall, looks like the typical Chinese style of progression: steady, practical and nothing fancy. As with their entire space program, everything destined for the CSS looks like a hybrid of Russian, ESA and, whether Congress likes it or not, NASA design. There were only a few questions after the presentation, of which my favorite was “Will the CSA allow other nations to participate and fly astronauts to the CSS?” and the representative responded with a confused “Yes, of course.”

To watch Dr. Yidong’s entire talk click here or here for other talks from the ASGSR meeting (I recommend Astronaut Don Pettit’s talk).

Happy that ASGSR stepped up and welcomed the CSA to speak. Looks like that exclusionary treatment is really working well. :O)

How Can I Get My Science Project on the International Space Station?


Several weeks ago I attended the 1st Annual International Space Station (ISS) Research and Development Conference in Denver, Colorado, coordinated by the American Astronautical Association in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). There were almost 400 in attendance with a good portion of the crowd having no experience with flying space research. It was really great to see so many new people interested in space!

The purpose of the three day conference was to showcase the exciting science and R&D possibilities of the ISS and provide an outline of funding sources and routes to getting your projects on the ISS. The first two days centered on previous and current ISS experiments, covering topics from life sciences, fluid dynamics, materials R&D, developing more efficient environmental and life support systems, to hyperspectral imaging devices and results from the well known Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. The last day consisted of workshops showing potential users the pathways to implement the ISS for research and an overview of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer #2 attached to the ISS.

Since I couldn’t possibly cram all the cool science I heard about into one post (you can find a good overview here), I thought I would present a run through of possibly something more beneficial: how to get your project on the ISS.

Science on the ISS? Me?
Do you need to be a genius to get your research on the ISS? Don’t tell anyone, but not really. If you have a unique, testable idea that can’t be carried out on Earth you stand a good chance of having your project funded and NASA will pay for the ride. How cool is that?

For ideas, there is always the obvious micro-g element, but your experiment could make use of the excellent vantage point of 220 miles above Earth for new geographical observations or with access to external platforms one could test things in the extreme heat, cold, radiation, and what astronaut Don Pettit refers to as “a vacuum with infinite pumping capability” of the space environment. Inside, the ISS is a well implemented laboratory with almost everything available that you would find in a research lab on Earth. For inspiration, comb through the ample amount of information on past projects at the ISS research website. With the ISS now averaging six crew members, about 35 hours/week are dedicated to doing science projects. Overall, the universe can literally be your playground and you have astronauts do your bidding. Mwah.

ESA Astronaut Andre Kuipers places samples into the station’s -80C freezer.

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
O.K. so say you came up with an awesome idea, now what? Like all science or R&D, it’s expensive and even Elon Musk needed help getting his dream off the ground. Luckily, as an American researcher there are two sources of support for your ideas: NASA or CASIS.

NASA is interested in sponsoring research in several focused and practical areas that support their mission: human health, technology testing for enabling future exploration, life and physical sciences, and earth and space science. Funding opportunities are through solicitations posted throughout the year on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website. If selected, NASA sees you as a partner in helping to accomplish their science and technological goals. A typical NSPIRES review and selection process takes about 200 days.

NSPIRES Solicitations as of July 2012.

These peer reviewed proposals can be well funded and are sometimes for multi-year sessions. This route does require a bit of “practice” and I suggest first timers spend a fair amount of time familiarizing themselves with the process beforehand, either by using the tutorial and FAQ pages or by getting help from someone who has experience with the process. Also, being a government agency, NASA requires that your organization be registered with the Central Contract Registration (CCR) before submitting a proposal. I’ve also found NSPIRES solicitations come with little to no warning (the “Future Solicitations” box is always empty) and often give a short time to prepare. My advice is check the site often (or sign up for notification e-mails) and always have something ready to go.

In 2005 Congress designated the US portion of the ISS as a national laboratory and in 2010 signed the NASA Authorization Act providing funds “to support international and commercial collaboration and growth, research, and technology development to maximize the scientific return on the significant investment in the ISS.” Upon completion of the ISS, NASA awarded the nonprofit CASIS as the entity responsible for managing the national laboratory as well as acting as a conduit between NASA and the commercial, nonprofit, academic, government agencies and individual researchers wanting to perform science and technology R&D on the ISS. With $3 million dollars a year set aside for research, CASIS is well positioned to do just that.

How is this different than the NASA route? There are simply more options: you can obtain support through a CASIS proposal solicitation; use your own funding (i.e. NIH, NSF, or donations); you can submit an unsolicited proposal; and lastly other government agencies (i.e. DOD) can also use this path.

Due to limiting resources (launch opportunities, lab space, crew time, etc.), CASIS evaluates and prioritizes all proposals with a scientific and economic review. This is essentially the same kind of process any researcher would go through to gain access to any national lab facility, say a synchrotron for example. There is also a business evaluation team in place to help highly rated proposals find funding.

CASIS’ Proposal Submission Page

Currently, CASIS proposal interests are focused on biosciences, with their first ever call for solicitations posted in early July 2012 for protein crystallography in microgravity. Future bioscience requests will be focused on creating animal models for studying the effects of micro-g on living things (i.e. osteoporosis, muscle wasting), as well as a studies on immune functions.

CASIS is so new I can’t give you my opinion of their process, but I can tell you from interacting with their personnel, they are fully committed to helping you get your experiments on the ISS and in the fastest way possible. The process appears more streamlined than NSPIRES, and has a typical “acceptance to launch” time of around 18 months. I honestly love the idea that through CASIS, essentially any researcher, business, or entrepreneur with a great idea can fly on the ISS at an unprecedented speed (pun intended).

I Have a Brilliant Idea and Funding, I’m Ready for Launch!
Don’t blow your hold-down bolts just yet. It’s highly recommended that you work with an “implementation partner” (IP) to assist you with your science or R&D project. IP’s have decades of expereience that can help you in either designing and building a flight-worthy experimental apparatus or provide you with one that is already made to spec.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott does her best Vanna White for the Mouse Drawer System.

Say you have a project that involves mice, there are a few IP’s that already have flight ready mice habitats that you could use. Another advantage of an IP is that they handle most of the legendary 12 inches of paperwork required for flight, so you can focus strictly on your research design. I’ve done the paperwork once, and believe me it’s worth every penny to have the experts do it.

Poll Completed. You Are Go for Launch!
I hope this quick overview demonstrates that science and R&D on the ISS is a tangible goal. There are currently more opportunities than ever before, with NASA and CASIS wanting considerably to help facilitate your ISS project objectives. So, if you have ever been even remotely interested in space science, I greatly encourage you to give it a try. We can’t let the astronauts have all the fun up there, right?

Help Make “Meet a Scientist Monday” Better


I have done 22 “Meet a Scientist Monday” (MSM) interviews with the last 12 being podcasts. The podcasts alone have been downloaded almost 2,000 times. That goes far beyond my imagination and I sincerely thank everyone who has supported MSM.

The one thing that has been missing though is feedback. I’ve received little to no criticism about the podcasts and I’m really curious to how you feel about them. I am not the best interviewer and am always looking for ways to improve. I would love some criticism on what I’m doing well and what stinks. Is the style of the interview engaging and interesting? What kind of question you would like to hear?

Secondly, my time has become seriously constrained and I simply lack the freedom anymore to contact, schedule and interview all of the people I think are cool scientists. I figure the best way to handle this is to have fewer MSM podcasts, but I would like your help on choosing what scientist you would like to hear from. More local scientists? What kind of science fields interest you? Big name scientists? More Space Science? Less Space Science?

Overall, I’m asking you what is the best way to continue with MSM. If you haven’t heard any of the podcast, please take some time and listen and tell me what you think.

All “Meet a Scientist Monday” found HERE.


Meet a Scientist Monday #22: Darren Boehning


Howdy! Today’s guest is Dr. Darren Boehning from The University of Texas, Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas.

Dr. Darren Boehning from UTMB

Learn more about apoptosis and Alzheimer’s Disease.

More information of the Boehining Lab’s Research.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @boehninglab

I hope you enjoyed this podcast of MSM. Please let me know what you think of it, good, bad, or ugly by commenting below.

If you are a scientist/engineer, I would love to have you participate in MSM! Send me an e-mail at: proteinwrangler@gmail.com

To begin Podcast, press the arrow below:



One of the reasons I started the “Meet a Scientist” series was to try and show that scientists are normal people, not the usual stereotypes you often see in the media. For me, one of the most surprising things to come out of that series were the pathways my colleagues had taken to reach their science careers. Thinking I had a strange path was completely wrong. It actually seemed to be the norm.

My first realization that I wasn’t alone was last year while interviewing Dr. Stephen Curry. He mentioned he was working on a film called “I’m A Scientist” and how he wanted to show non-scientists that we are all not geniuses or Nobel Prize winners, but just people. Curious and very stubborn people. He did a brilliant job and if you haven’t seen it, please watch:

The latest connection to this idea is a blog post titled “#IamScience: Embracing Personal Experience on Our Rise Through Science” by Kevin Zelnio. Kevin describes his own amazing winding journey to a science career. He too thought he was alone in his odd path, only to find he was surrounded by very common company.

He started the hashtag #IamScience on Twitter as a way for others to describe their journey and the idea quickly spread. Soon hundreds of people created this beautiful common thread of reasons they became scientists and their often contorted ways of getting there. Some of the comments were set to music in this gorgeous video by Mindy Weisberger.

I Am Science from Mindy Weisberger on Vimeo.

So thank you Stephen, Kevin and all the amazing people using #IamScience for putting a real face to what we do. You are all amazing and I am proud to call you my colleagues, no matter how weird you think you are. :O)

Meet a Scientist Monday #21: Liz Warren


Howdy! Today’s Meet a Scientist Monday podcast guest is Gravitational Physiologist Dr. Liz Warren.

Gravitational Physiologist Dr. Liz Warren

Learn more about Human Space Physiology and NASA’s Human Research Program..

Follow Liz on Twitter: @spasmunkey

I hope you enjoyed this podcast of MSM. Please let me know what you think of it, good, bad, or ugly by commenting below.

If you are a scientist/engineer, I would love to have you participate in MSM! Send me an e-mail at: proteinwrangler@gmail.com

To begin Podcast, press the arrow below:

Removing a Broken FPLC Connector


Have you ever snapped off one of those finger-tight connectors on a FPLC valve? Here’s an easy way to remove the broken part from the valve:

You’ll need:
-mini phillips screwdriver (i.e. the kind for fixing glasses)
-lab burner
-paper towels

1.) Remove valve or column from FPLC.

Valve with broken tubing connector (black) still in valve (tan).

2.) Wrap paper towels around the handle of mini phillips screwdriver. Place tip into flame till it turns slightly red. Be careful in handling this by the paper towel wrapped handle. It’s really hot!!

Heating mini screwdriver.

3.) Quickly insert hot end of screwdriver into broken off part of connector. Allow to cool for a minute or so.

Hot screwdriver in broken connector end.

4.) Once cooled, the screwdriver and connector will act as one piece. Unscrew the broken connector out of the valve.

Cooled screwdriver in a broken connector on a desalting column.

Once removed you may need a pair of pliers to wiggle the broken connector off of the screwdriver.

That’s it! You just saved $350 because you didn’t have to buy a new valve kit!

Meet a Scientist Monday #20: Ben Longmier


Howdy! Today’s Meet a Scientist Monday podcast guest is Ad Astra Rocket Company‘s Principal Scientist Ben Longmier.

Ad Astra Rocket Company Principal Scientist Dr. Ben Longmier

Learn more about Project Aether and Space Center Lecture Series.

I hope you enjoyed this podcast of MSM. Please let me know what you think of it, good, bad, or ugly by commenting below.

Many thanks to @avgjanecrafter on Twitter for suggesting Ben be on MSM. If you are a scientist/engineer, I would love to have you participate in MSM! Send me an e-mail at: proteinwrangler@gmail.com

To begin Podcast, press the arrow below: