NASA’s Camilla: The Cure For Fear Of Asking Stupid Questions
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
NASA researchers work in a variety of fields, from astrophysics to medicine. Now, they have entered a new phase of research – curing the common phobia of asking “stupid” questions.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…. rubber chicken in a spacesuit?
Meet Camilla, NASA’s newest “astronaut.”
When confronted with an astronaut or an astrophysicist, school kids and even teachers freeze up for fear of asking silly questions. The problem is that this interferes with NASA’s mission to reach out, inspire and educate.
“But nobody’s afraid to talk to a rubber chicken,” says Romeo Durscher of Stanford University, executive secretary for a fowl NASA ambassador who is taking classrooms by storm.
Camilla travels around the country to meet with kids at schools, science centers and even sci-fi conventions where she helps to break the ice for astronauts and other space-celebrities when they meet the general public. She also makes educational videos.
“Camilla is the perfect NASA spokes-chicken!” says astronaut Clayton Anderson. “I am one of her biggest fans. Always a big hit with the kids, she makes science, engineering, technology and math seem appealing, not threatening, to youth of all ages.”
Camilla is always up for a trip and is willing to go nearly anywhere. She proved that earlier this year when she flew to the edge of space clinging to the payload of a helium balloon. A group of high school students attached radiation sensors to Camilla and sent her into a solar radiation storm where she flew so high – 124,000 feet on one flight – that the daytime sky turned as black as space. The kids are still studying the data she gathered and returned after Camilla parachuted back to Earth.
“We had so much fun working with Camilla on this experiment,” says Rachel Molina, a senior at Bishop Union High School and a member of the launch team. “She is one cool chick.” One of Camilla’s prime missions is to inspire girls to enter the sciences, where they are woefully underrepresented. She seems to be succeeding as Molina plans to major in physics when she goes to college next year. “Should I ask Camilla for a letter of recommendation?” she wonders.
Camilla is quite the Internet sensation with 20,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Every adventure she has is a new opportunity for science education.
“During one visit to Johnson Space Center, Clayton Anderson showed her the space toilet trainer,” Durscher recalls. “Camilla insisted on trying it out. She ended up getting sucked into the hose — and stuck in the toilet. Luckily, we were able to free her. And we used the incident to teach how space toilets work.”
Camilla is headed to Australia this month to observe the total solar eclipse. Afterwards, she will run the “Solar Eclipse Marathon” that begins when the first ray of sunlight lances over the edge of the retreating Moon. This is the first time a rubber chicken has run a marathon, as far as anyone knows.
Camilla has to make some concessions because of budget cuts. For example, when she flies on commercial airlines, Camilla usually travels in the overhead compartment.
“I ask her to keep quiet,” says Durscher, “but every now and then she lets out a disgruntled squawk. I just sit there like I don’t hear anything.”
Durscher would like Camilla to join the crew of the International Space Station, so he’s trying to get her a berth on Soyuz 40/41. If this happens, astronaut chats with school kids and reporters will never be the same. It’s going to be awfully hard to worry about asking stupid questions with a space-suited rubber chicken floating in the background.