National Aeronautics and Space Administration + NASA Quest
+ Search Quest
 Find it at NASA
 Home Field Expeditions MDRS Archives
Mojave Desert 2007

Student Spaceward Bound

by Matt Allner
West Middle School

Daily Blog (Day 3)
Sunday, June 3, 2007

thermometer shoing             Woke up early this morning (6:30 am) on only about four hours of sleep—where’s the coffee?.  Star gazing last night was awesome, and the photos students took with their cameras through the telescope were very impressive.  I awoke to a much cooler morning, but a clear one with no rain in site.  Our lab thermometer was recording the air temp to be around 60 FI got out of my tent to find my boots were still damp from the day before and some of my clothing the same. campfire


Glen greeted me at the fire pit and so we got some fresh wood on the fire, thinking everyone could warm up with breakfast and dry out their damp clothes before we started our final day of the expedition .  It was a little sad to think this was going to be the last day before heading home to begin our summer break.  We have all learned so much about science and survival in the woods, but most of all we have learned a lot about each other and ourselves. 

students at picnic table doing microscopy


            As the crew awoke everyone seemed in great spirits once again and was excited about the day’s agenda ahead of them.  As usual we started with breakfast and a little social time, but this morning we would transition the eating tables into hard-core science laboratory tables for microscopy of our collected specimens from the day before being the main event.  Students had collected samples of moss growing on the bark of dead tree limbs, snails, moths, spiders, a variety of mushrooms, and many other interesting forms    of life.  Stacey was in charge of the microscopy lab, where she helped students prepare slides with water samples from those collected the day before, as well as looking at cross sections of mushrooms.  Students were looking for any living specimens that may be living in the stream, while also conducting water sampling tests for nitrates, nitrites, and bacteria.

tools for testing water
students testing water
student viewing through microscope

Students found both nitrate and nitrite levels to be at 0 ppm, and prepared the bacteria test, but wouldn’t know the results for 48 hours (results observed later showed that bacteria was indeed present in the water). 

They also reviewed their slide preparation techniques for site burial and surface markingAfter about an hour of observing life with the aid of microscopes and magnifying boxes, students prepared for “Operation Eastwing”—the main objective being to safely find, recover and return the Eastwing rock hammer we had left at the slide burial site the day before.  Since Andy was so excited about recovering the hammer, plus he did so well in our Rock Climbing Club earlier in the year, nobody argued that he should be the one to get lowered down the muddy cliff to get the hammer.  Students had practiced their knots the night before so they were ready for the operation and to safely lower Andy to the hammer.

reviewing slide preparation Students practicing knots

            We set out to recover the hammer around 9:30 am, with our EVA mission time allotment being only 90 minutes today.  We packed climbing rope, harnesses, carabineers, and an ATC for breaking control.  After navigating to the site with GPS, we got Andy set up in his harness, and I in mine as his belayer. I had the students tie the knots to Andy’s harness (a double figure 8 with a stopper knot)

preparing to harness Andy

Here are some great photos of Andy safely being lowered down the muddy cliff sideAndy found the hammer quickly and so

Andy begins descent Andy Lowering down cliff Andy with Matt with the successful retrieval of the hammer

            While Andy and I were down in the ravine our next mission was to collect a large sample of water from the stream to test the turbidity (clarity) of the water.  Not falling into the stream (which was a lot more challenging than it sounds) we collected three Gatorade bottles full of water and then preceded to carefully climb back up the muddy cliff with the help of the repelling team above.  At the top we packed up the rope and climbing gear and then took out the turbidity tube and listened to Doug explain the objective of the lab and how we would go about testing the water clarity of the samples we collected.  The object was to fill the turbidity tube and then slowly let water out until we could see a black/white patterned disk (called a secchi disk) at the bottom.  Once visible, we would stop the draining process and then measure the amount of water left in the tube to determine the clarity.  Photos from the lab are as follows: 

collecting water samples water in turbidity tube preparing to test water
viewing water in tube view into tube measuring the amount of water left in the tube

After our little EVA excursion we would continue our morning hike to get a lesson from Glen on shelter building and survival skills in the woods.  Using moisture barrier material used when building homes and buildings, Glen showed everyone how to build a tent shelter out of it using a pocketknife, duct tape, a rope, and sticks from off of the ground.  We were all amazed at the design and how small it packed away

Instruction on shelter building using a tree for roof support
Shaping & reinforcing a "stake" hole connecting the shelter to a twig completed survival shelter

Glen continued on with the survival training by showing us all how to pack a simple survival kit (in a ziploc bag) and how we could use simple things like foil, dryer lent, etc. to keep warm, dry, signal for help, and basically stay alive until either you would be found or would find help yourself.  It was a great lesson and we all learned a lot, as well as each of us being able to add some of our own personal knowledge and experience to the training. documenting rock size with hammer 


            Heading back to camp, students had spotted a rock on the first day that they thought they had saw hypoliths on and wanted to try to take a few samples back to camp. 

Upon hitting it with a rock hammer, they found that it was a little harder than they had expected, so they decided to use the chisel this time.  After several solid whacks of the hammer some chunks broke off and everyone took a close look at them looking for endoliths. 

The results:  no endolithic life, but easily observable life on the exterior of the rock.

using the chisel samples chipped away

Kara & Elixe relaxingAndy by the fire           Back at camp students enjoyed a few minutes of personal time—Kara and Elise enjoying the horse-tire swings and Andy relaxing by the fire

With time winding down on our expedition experience, we had one last task for the students to complete and then we would have lunch and pack up camp.  It had been beautiful all day but heavy rain was in the forecast for the afternoon so we were trying to keep things moving along. 

The last and final task (and by far the toughest and most frustrating) was a Mars Rover Challenge.  Similar to the Lego Challenge, students would use their skills from this previous challenge to coordinate the navigation of an old RC car that my parents had bought me when I was in the fourth grade (a Radio Shack special that still runs as good as the day I opened it up on Christmas Eve in 1984).  Navigating it through a complex obstacle course set up on a sloping rock driveway, students worked in their EVA teams once again using their two-way radios.  One team (Team A) would stand in view of the RC car and give the other EVA team (Team B) the commands for navigating the car.  Team B had the remote control, but couldn’t see the car, so Team A was their eyes.  What the students learned quickly (like the Lego Challenge) was that the key was to have a common language established so the controllers knew how long to hold down the forward/reverse buttons and how hard to turn right or left.  After the students had completed half the obstacle course, they then switched roles to experience the other challenge.

Team A views the RC car Team B remotely controls car without being able to see car

The students concluded the challenge was the most difficult and frustrating they had ever done---and the parents agreed, as they wanted to help them several times so we could get to lunch sooner.  During lunch we discussed the Human Factors issues surrounding this experience, as fatigue from the trip had set in, the end was near, and frustration had started to get the best of some.  We discussed the importance of working together, staying calm, being supportive, and remembering that we succeed and fail as a team, not as individuals, when on space missions. 

            Eating our last lunch, we shared our “funny moments” and “good stories” from the trip.  Parents all agreed that even though I was moving with my family to Colorado they wanted to continue this experience for other students in Sioux City in the future.  I was so glad to know that all of the hard work and money spent on science equipment would be put to good use in the future, and that the program wouldn’t stop with this one.  It was truly a pleasure working with all the families on this expedition and I couldn’t thank Mr. Newton and Mr. Houts enough for all of their participation ever since the beginning of our pre-expedition training (which had started in February).  But even bigger thanks must go to my wife, our two wonderful children, and my parents.  For the past 12 months I have been blessed with so many experiences and science-related travel opportunities (Chile, China, Spain, Utah—MDRS, and the Mojave Desert) and now this.  All through the traveling they have been so supportive and willing to help out, as I took time away from them to go on these trips.  At times I questioned the time I spent away from them to experience all I had, but being able to bring all this experience together in a three-day expedition that I was able to allow my family to be a part of, made it all worth-while.  They have been such an integral part of my life and my support, and I can never thank them enough. 

            Following lunch we packed up the camp, our tents, and personal belongings and just in time.  Almost to the minute we started driving away from the camp the rains came.  We were all tired, wet, and worn out, but everyone left with smiles on their face and the look of a crew that had truly bonded in a positive and memorable way. 

We would eventually conclude our final Spaceward Bound Experience with a Power Point Presentation to our School Board on Monday, June 18, 2007 (with the whole group presenting a piece of the presentation).  Two students and their parents would later join me live on a radio show owned and hosted by one of my grad school professors, Dr. David Livingston (The Space Show).  The radio show would air live (and then be archived) on Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 9:30 am PDT.  For more information on the radio show, go to to find our show in the list of archives. 

And finally, special thanks needs to go out to the following people for their help in our pre-expedition training sessions (videoconferencing calls to the students and parents):  Jon Rask of NASA Ames; Astronaut Joe Acaba of NASA JSC; and Tony Muscatello of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society.  And I certainly can’t forget to thank Liza Coe, Chris McKay and all of the NASA Ames crew for putting together the first three Spaceward Bound expeditions I have been a part of.  If it weren’t for these experiences none of this student expedition would have been possible.  Also, a very special thanks needs to go to Linda Conrad of NASA Ames for putting all of these journal documents and pictures online for everyone to read and see.  West Middle School and the community of Sioux City greatly appreciates everything that NASA has done to help make our student experience such a great one!


Matthew M. Allner

Return to Index Page

See Spaceward Bound Project

 FirstGov  NASA

Editor: Linda Conrad
NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated:February 2006
Students Contact: Loretta Hidalgo
Teachers Contact: Liza Coe