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Getting Ready for NASA Ames Testing (a reflection on the past, in preparation for the future)

As I was writing the Blank Slate Blogs, Parts 1 and 2, I realized I had never discussed the hurdles we had to overcome to be given access to NASA Ames Research Center for our launch simulation testing; many of which we cleared just in the nick of time. As you can imagine, the NASA facility is a secured facility with guards at the gates.

A background check was completed on my team and I was told this would take longer if I had foreign nationals as part of my team. For NASA Ames, I had one green card holder and the rest of the team were US citizens.

The team was required to bring their drivers licenses for documentation purposes, while the Green Card holder on the team also had to provide additional proof of documentation by providing a Green Card. Fortunately none of my students were from any states that required supplementary documents.

So when we drove in from the San Francisco Airport, the first thing we had to do was go to security to get our badges, which were made based on our background check and information supplied in advance by NASA personnel. These badges, along with our driver’s licenses (and Green Card) allowed us to pass through the guarded gates and proceed to the laboratory buildings. NASA personnel were waiting to meet us at the buildings for entrance clearance and they were required to escort us everywhere we went in the buildings. 

As we were handling animals and using an X-ray machine, we had to take 4 hours of animal training, which consisted of reading material followed by quizzes plus an additional 2 hours of X-ray safety training prior to our arrival. This is in addition to providing certified documentation from officials confirming we had our own institutional training in these areas. We were also required to obtain radiation exposure badges for all team members, as well as for different locations throughout the room. These badges record exposure to radiation. I had to obtain a control badge for going through airport security along with an official letter asking TSA to hand check the badges, rather than placing them through the X-ray machine, as they would register the dose of radiation from the machine.

Because you do get a minor dose of radiation when you fly, and as an added precaution in the event that the badges were to go through the X-ray machine at airport security, the control badge would negate this by ‘subtracting’ all of the radiation from our travel.

It took 1 NASA personnel, the review committee and myself a few days of work to fill out applications to use the X-ray machine. It then took over 2 days when we first arrived to get the X-ray machine tested for the amount of radiation released at a number of distances. We also had to fill out a 50+ page application to get approval for our animal study. This took several weeks, if not a month of time, by myself, the review committee and 2 NASA personnel. Fortunately, one senior NASA employee was kind enough to assist us in understanding the NASA committees’ required changes so that we could properly revise the document to obtain approvals.

In general, I have found that although there are tons of hurdles that take much more time than one would imagine, all of the NASA employees I have worked with have been superbly helpful in educating me in their system. They truly want to see our mission succeed and will help however they can to make that happen, within the limitations of course. 

In addition to what I mentioned above, there were also a number of forms that all 12 team members had to fill out and sign. Keeping track of all of the documents and making sure the proper person received them took a significant amount of time (as did reminding the students to complete the training and forms Wink).  As I hope you are beginning to appreciate the magnitude of effort put into such planning, there are many things to do other than the actual experiment when preparing for spaceflight studies. Clearly there are lots of regulatory forms and approvals which are required to utilize NASA facilities, even for ground-based studies, and many more for the actual spaceflight study!




Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul at

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Carl Pinkham