Falling Into New Ideas

12:02 minutes

Many engineers can spend their entire careers doing one kind of work. Someone working on airplanes, for example, could spend a decade on the same little screw for a plane hatch.

Mechanical engineer Christine Dailey. Credit: NASA

But not Christine Dailey. A mechanical engineer by training, she dabbles in all sorts of fields, from fluids to electronics—whatever the job requires. She’s created autonomous vehicles; designed an exercise machine for astronauts; explored the mysteries of sloshing spacecraft fuel in zero gravity; and even worked on projects that remain classified—all this while finishing a Ph.D. at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and working a day job for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Dailey shares the contents of her brain with Ira and listeners, live at the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando, Florida.

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Segment Guests

Christine Dailey

Christine Dailey is a PhD student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She’s also a mechanical engineer in the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you from the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando, Florida.


IRA FLATOW: Many engineers can spend their entire careers doing one kind of work. You engineer airplanes, for example, you might spend a whole lot of time, decades, working on the same little screw for a plane hatch. And if you’re an engineer, you know what I’m talking about. But not Christina Bailey. A mechanical engineer by training, she dabbles in everything from fluids to electronics, whatever the demands of the job. She has created autonomous vehicles. She’s designed an exercise machine for astronauts, explored the mysteries of sloshing spacecraft fuel in zero gravity, and even some projects we aren’t allowed to talk about because it’s sort of hush, hush, classified stuff.

And she’s doing all this for she’s finishing her PhD. Let’s welcome her to this stage, Christina Bailey, PhD student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. She’s also a mechanical engineer in the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. Welcome.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: It’s a very long title. I know.

IRA FLATOW: But it must be a lot of fun. You must have a lot of fun doing what you’re doing, though, right?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: It is lot of fun. When I first started and they were showing me around, every time they opened another door, it was like a playground behind there. It’s a great feeling.

IRA FLATOW: Were you always interested– did you want to be an engineer when you started out?



CHRISTINA BAILEY: I was not that engineer putting things together as a kid, and taking things apart, and investigating cool– building robots and water rockets. No, I was playing in the dirt, and probably picking my nose, and getting into trouble. And then eventually, going through school, I started doing journalism, sports journalism. And after about five or six years, one team wins, one team loses. And it just kind of– awesome, we did it teamwork. We all worked together. So I wanted to go back to school and I happened to be kind of good at math. So I fell into it. And I did a tour of Embry-Riddle, and again, kind of fell right into the robotics lab.

IRA FLATOW: You have a habit of falling.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: I really do. It’s that kid in me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, let’s talk about what you work on, because we have all seen astronauts on treadmills in space.


IRA FLATOW: Or up in the space station. How much do astronauts have to exercise?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Currently, they have three machines in space. It’s a treadmill, it’s like a bicycle type thing. And then a resistance device they call Red. And they have to split up their time about 2-1/2 hours a day working on these machines.

IRA FLATOW: And if they don’t do it, what happens?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: A lot of negative effects happen to our body when gravity is taken away. We have orthostatic intolerance, for example, bone loss, muscle loss. And so exercising has proven to one create plasma, which red blood cells live in plasma. And red blood cells help move oxygen through the body. Also when gravity is present, you have this natural resistance on your body, so you’re exercising without even knowing it. So when you take that away, our bones, they don’t have to really support anything. So they don’t need to be strong.

And our muscles, again, you don’t need to be strong because they don’t have to hold me up, they don’t have to let me sit, or stand, or grab things, carry things. And so the issue really becomes when you come back to Earth. So many things, negative things, happen in space. So right now we have lots of different machines to fix all those issues. Well, it’s not really ideal. I’m sorry, if I’m an astronaut, I don’t want to spend 2-1/2 hours a day exercising. I want to explore. I want to go float around and have fun.

IRA FLATOW: There you go.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: So we created a very simple linkage system. And then I followed kind of the method that Nautalis has. When your arms are completely extended, you could hold a lot more weight than you can when they’re about here. So on the system that I invented, I’m using a spring that you compress. So when your leg pushes on the peddle, you can start to push more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more, right? So that spring is condensing. And you can have the max force push all the way out. Why is that important? I don’t want to spend 2-1/2 hours. So let me do a lot of work and be efficient in a short amount of time. So it starts out maybe at 5 pounds, but then could and that about 15.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you talked about a negative pressure chamber.


IRA FLATOW: What is that? Suction pants?



CHRISTINA BAILEY: It’s kind of like that, actually.

IRA FLATOW: You put them on like pants?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: No, Russians have that though. They have stiff pants that you squeeze into and you sit there, and then this negative pressure or gravity starts to suck on you. So your fluid– on Earth, our fluid, and a lot of the blood and everything, it’s getting pulled down to our feet. So we have lots of pressure down towards our lower extremities. And when you take that off, this fluid starts to float up. And it becomes completely neutral. So nothing pulling on it or sucking on it. And it causes negative effects. It starts to build pressure around our hearts that we’re not used to. Behind our eyes, it pushes our retinas out. So these pants, or the chamber, sucks that fluid back down, acts like gravity, and gets rid of a lot of those negative effects.

IRA FLATOW: Are you doing that little exercise that you showed us? Are you doing it inside that chamber at the same time?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Yeah, so that’s the best part. So now you don’t have to do all these separate machines. You have this exercise device inside of this chamber, and you squeeze in, and you have a little strap to hold you. And then you have handles. And you start using the pedals, right? Kind of almost like an elliptical type thing. And the pressure is activated at the same time. So you’re pulling the fluid down and you’re exercising. You get the resistives for your muscle. You get the pressure for your bones. It’s wonderful.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You have one at home?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: I have the prototype at home.

IRA FLATOW: You have a prototype at home?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Yes. When I first started the Naval Research Lab, I had told them I was working my masters and that this was the project. And they said, well, we want you to get used to our lab. And in the lab, we have all this stuff that you would find in a normal machine shop. And one of the things that I needed to learn when I first got there was welding, because at the Naval Research Lab, you don’t want to outsource anything. If you come up with an idea, and you want to pitch it, go build a quick prototype real fast and see if it works. So I wanted to see if this worked, and it worked. So yes, I do have that at home actually.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have guests that come over and you say–

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Oh, they use it all the time. They’re like, oh, I’m getting lean, it’s good. No.

IRA FLATOW: No. You ever thought about marketing it?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: So the best part about my job, and I think just me, in general, is I am good at a lot of different things, so I kind of bounce. They had a problem, I came in, I fixed it for them. We did our test, and then I said have fun with it, do what you want, goodbye.

IRA FLATOW: But I know you get to work on all kinds of interesting things.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Tons of different things. Not one day is the same, which is great.

IRA FLATOW: And we have this big metal object here up on the screen. It looks kind of like a many– like a pyramid, like a many faced triangle. What’s going on with this thing? What is that thing?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: So that is called a corner reflector and that is one of the original back in the day type of corner reflector. When you shine a laser beam at a wall, at a corner, it refracts. Well, this works kind of like that but it uses radar. And it is a big, here I am type object. So if you are searching for something, this tiny corner reflects in such a big way that it could look like a bigger object.

IRA FLATOW: Like you show up is a big blip on the radar screen.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Pretty much, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s wrong with that?

CHRISTINA BAILEY: So that’s huge. So say if we wanted to use it in an application like sailboats. Sailboats are mostly made up of wood and–

IRA FLATOW: Fiberglass.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Exactly. They’re made up of materials that are not reflective. They’re more observant, right? And if you are in that sailboat, and say you get lost, and the Coast Guard is trying to find you. They have radars that they send out. And they’re trying to look for some kind of signal return that is large enough to say, hey, that is our boat, that’s what we’re looking for. So you need to have some kind of reflector, corner reflector, on your sailboat. OK, if I’m sailing, I do not want to sail with a gigantic metal corner reflector attached my boat. It’s not going to happen.

IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: I know. It’s like this ugly eyesore, and it’s heavy, and it’s just awful. So engineering came in, and materials science, and instead of using hard metals, they use, or we now use metalized materials. And to keep the metalized materials straight or tight in the right geometry formation that gives you that large return, you strap an inflatable around it. And that inflatable, it keeps it light, and it keeps it more– the stowage package is much smaller. So it’s efficient. There are many applications to where you can use that, but a sailboat’s a good reference.

IRA FLATOW: So you get to spend a lot of time on boats. You work at the Naval Lab.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: I did get the– it was such an honor to spend a couple of weeks out on a DDG. And it was amazing. We were doing some testing out there I actually got to teach a PT class on a flight deck, which was awesome.

IRA FLATOW: We have one picture left though, we haven’t shown anybody. It’s a picture of you on the Vomit Comet.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Yes. It was another thing that’s completely different. This was an experiment done on fuel slosh. And I got to take my experiment to do all of the testing, which required a microgravity environment on the NASA’s Euro G plane.

IRA FLATOW: So you do go up there and do the loop to loops on the plane.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Complete kid coming out here. Yes. After we were done with the experiment, and collecting all the data, and all that good stuff, and we proved it worked, they gave us a couple of loop to loops pyramid things that they do. They gave us a few to play around in. And I got to you like somersaults. And we were doing like push up things, where you just like tap the ground and you fly backwards. And it was really cool.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not one thing you to fell into, finally.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: I thought it was very good. It was a success.

IRA FLATOW: Well, good luck to you on your PhD.


IRA FLATOW: Chrstina Bailey, PhD student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and mechanical engineer Washington Naval Research Lab. Thanks for being with us.

CHRISTINA BAILEY: Thank you so much for having me.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they happen to have an audio recording of their research findings.