Press Release

Science off the Sphere Astronaut Don Pettit Wins NASA Engineer of Year Award

By SpaceRef Editor
July 1, 2013
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Science off the Sphere Astronaut Don Pettit Wins NASA Engineer of Year Award
Science off the Sphere Astronaut Don Pettit Wins NASA Engineer of Year Award

NASA astronaut Don Pettit was awarded NASA Engineer of the Year by the National Society of Professional Engineers/Professional Engineers in Government (NSPE/PEG) Feb. 21, at the Federal Engineer of the Year Awards ceremony held at the National Press Club in Washington.

As a flight engineer during Expedition 30/31 aboard the International Space Station, Pettit shared his love of science with students through weekly videos. Pettit, who has a doctorate in physics from the University of Arizona, created 14 videos, comprised of experiments and demonstrations in a microgravity environment.

A partnership between NASA and the American Physical Society allows these “Science off the Sphere” videos to be shared with audiences around the world, available for students and educators to enjoy at their convenience. All “Science off the Sphere” videos are archived and available for viewing any time on NASA’s YouTube Reel NASA channel, as well as the Physics Central website, the outreach site for the American Physical Society.

While aboard the space station, Pettit’s videos had people tuning in each week to learn how physics works in space. Each episode involved physical science principles and included a challenge question. Pettit announced the names of the weekly challenge winners from the station, and each winner received a “Science off the Sphere” T-shirt.

“I use my off duty time to investigate scientific curiosities of my own design,” Pettit said in March 2012, while living on the orbiting outpost. “[These are] my own investigations that I do simply because I’m here and I can, and these things tickle my imagination and enrich my mind.”

“Science off the Sphere” is a continuation of the Saturday Morning Science activities Pettit started during his stay on the orbiting lab during Expedition 6 and while aboard space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-126 mission.

Pettit’s creativity, humor and enthusiasm show as he explains complicated concepts in a user-friendly way, not only making these theories easier to understand, but also making them enjoyable and entertaining to watch. Using everyday objects available to him aboard the station and items he brought from home, he was able to inspire students using yo-yos, knitting needles, computer speakers, water and a variety of other things.

These educational videos cover many different aspects of physics. Yo-yos were used to demonstrate momentum and energy expenditure. Water droplets revealed how volume and mass affect momentum, inertia and surface oscillations. Droplets of water also exhibited surface tension and centrifugal force effects, and they showed how resonance and pressure affect surface tension.

Simple hardware items showed how relative mass can be determined by oscillation frequencies. Properties of infrared light were examined through Earth observation techniques from the vantage of space. Surface tension and capillary properties were used to design a special cup for sipping in microgravity, as opposed to using a straw in a bag. Pettit used knitting needles to demonstrate properties of charged particles, and something similar to a bubble wand demonstrated how things disperse in water and how fluid consistency influences a whirlpool-like mass.

The microgravity environment of the space station allows Pettit’s audiences to see traditional physics concepts in a new light. “Science off the Sphere” helps make these complex theories approachable for students and easier for them to understand as they learn more about the force of gravity and the world in which they live.

SpaceRef staff editor.