Monday, December 28, 2015

New Beginnings: New Life, New Rocket, New Position, New Professional Goals

The beauty of new beginnings: one week ago, after being discharged from the hospital, I watched space history in the making. As my husband drove the car and my one-day-old daughter wailed in the car seat, I watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch above the treetops and disappear into the clouds. When I brought my daughter home for the first time and was taking her out of the car seat, we heard the twin sonic booms from the upper stage returning to land vertically. A new life beginning, the sonic booms returning to the Space Coast, and a new stage of rocketry beginning. Cheers for new beginnings at the conclusion of 2015!

The new year will also bring new beginnings for me professionally. When I was approached to help establish a space start-up company in Florida, it was an exciting opportunity that I couldn't pass up. Although I don't use the term “newspace,” I find myself swept up in the excitement of the emerging space industry with its promise of new technology and more frequent access to space for a larger segment of the population. I knew full well that many space start-ups don't achieve their goals and fade into history. I don't regret my decision to take the job and I have learned a lot in the past year. I've had experiences that I wouldn't have otherwise had and gotten to know some great people from all over the world. But, it is time to move on. We have closed the Florida office and I have resigned from my position managing Swiss Space System's Florida operations.

I'm not one to be idle for long. Already I've been working on a few projects as an analyst for Astralytical, a space consultancy start-up. I am starting small, especially with a newborn to care for. In 2016, I plan to increase my efforts and try new things. I am a highly educated, highly competent space professional, yet I find it difficult to put myself out there to try new things which I've never done but know that I'm capable of. I fear criticism and failure, yet those negatives help to mold me into a better professional. With Astralytical, I will grow professionally to become what I know that I can be.

A merry Christmas and a joyful and successful new year to us all!

Baby Josephine and I wish you the happiest of holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Newest Addition to the Space Generation: Josephine Claire

I'm interrupting our usual space news and discussions to introduce you to the newest addition to the space generation, my daughter, Josephine Claire. She was born yesterday morning, December 20, 7:25 AM Eastern, 6 lbs 6 oz. Baby is doing well after 24 hours and new parents are recovering and resting. After a long labor, I'm thankful to have gotten some sleep last night.

Josephine the newborn - December 20, 2015
Holding my baby, 12 hours old - December 20, 2015

I'm going to take some time to care for this new life on planet Earth. I'm looking forward to some positive changes and new opportunities in 2016! My professional goal in 2016 is to put myself out there and try new things that I know that I'm capable of but have been too intimidated to try. Watch out new year, I'm ready for you!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Space Commercialization: Small Sats, Launch Costs, and Florida's Future

Twitter is a very useful communication medium, but I sometimes forget its limitations and my limited skill in utilizing it. I posted a couple of summary tweets from a talk that I gave this morning but wasn't able to formulate my opinions well in the limited space. Blogging seems like the better avenue of expression in this case.

This morning I gave a talk and sat on a panel titled Space Commercialization hosted by the Space Coast Technical Council's Aviation & Aerospace Committee. My fellow panelists were Don Platt, the CEO of Micro Aerospace Solutions, and Mike Vinje, Small Business Technology Manager at NASA KSC. I've met both Don and Mike previously and had a good idea of what they might touch upon. And so, I made my talk a general overview.

Where is the profit in space? It's important to note from the start that money in space is not fictional. According to the Space Foundation's 2015 report, the space industry was a $330 billion business globally in 2014. Roughly half of that comes from government spending. This year was also a big year for venture capitalists with several large investments into companies such as SkyBox, OneWeb, and Planet Labs.

Traditional space profit-makers are large satellite constellations used for navigation (GPS, for example), communications, TV, and radio. Many of the companies involved in these sectors are publicly traded with revenues in the hundreds of millions through tens of billions. Many of these ventures began as military applications with government funding. All have branched out to capture the private commercial market.

Remote sensing and specifically Earth observation is also a huge and diverse industry. Applications for military intelligence are obvious, but alternate applications are vast. Weather and climate monitoring, mapping, and environmental monitoring beyond weather (logging, agriculture, water and plant resources and quality, mineral locations, traffic, infrastructure development or disruption, etc.) are just a few examples of how space data can be useful to businesses on Earth.

The launch industry in the United States is almost entirely commercial with government paying for services as needed. There are too many players to list, but some of the current successes are: Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites / The Spaceship Company, Blue Origin, XCOR, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Masten Space Systems, UP Aerospace, and zero2infinity.

Space components needed for satellites, launching, and ground infrastructure are too numerous to mention. Space manufacturing is an area of potential profit but has not reached its time. Material science, fluid science, biotechnology, biomedical sciences, and protein crystals are some areas of research which show promise. Recent advances in 3D printing have great potential in space as Made in Space has recently demonstrated. Space utilization and integration – providing means to allow others to utilize space – is a great niche area, as NanoRacks has shown.

Space tourism remains an area for the very rich. Space Adventures has flown 7 paying individuals (private astronauts, spaceflight participants, whatever term you'd prefer) to the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Sierra Nevada want to enter into the space tourism market as well. Perhaps someday, space tourism will become more commonplace and affordable. I'm hoping to buy myself a ticket someday!

Potential areas of future space commercialization include space mining (on asteroids, the Moon, Mars, or other planetary bodies), rapid global transportation (sometimes called point-to-point transportation), space-based solar power (beaming solar power to Earth's surface), and advanced tourism in deeper space or other planetary bodies. Sign me up for a trip to the Moon.

Panel discussion that I want to highlight has to do with the bottleneck of small satellites needing transportation to space. The small sat and cubesat community is very active in central Florida. Due to the relative ease and inexpensive of building such small satellites, the door has opened for almost anyone to build one, including student groups. But the means to launch these small sats into space is still very limited. For smaller, newer companies who are trying to respond to this market need, there is a large learning curve. Building a spacecraft and operating successfully is a complex, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. I cheer on the small launch community in the hope that soon we will see more frequent access to space for these smaller payloads.

Another area that I want to highlight is the continued high expense of launching to orbit or beyond. Generally speaking, launching has gotten more expensive over time. The old technology of chemical propulsion has not seen many improvements over the decades. More R&D into new propulsion technology is needed. Reusability may bring costs down, but it may not be enough (I apologize for leaving out the word “may” in my tweets). We have yet to see a truly reusable rocket so it's hard to judge how such technology will effect the market. I am a skeptic, and my guess is that it won't be enough to make any major dents in launch costs, but I'd love to be proven wrong. It's certainly a step in the right direction.

Florida's Space Coast remains one of the best areas in the world to launch to orbit because of its existing infrastructure, skilled workforce, and geographic positioning. In a conversation I had at a space function last night, we agreed that more rural areas such as Mojave, Texas, and New Mexico offer better areas for test launches. But to create a transportation hub, a population with establish infrastructure is a better bet. It was slow-going for a few years after the retirement of the space shuttle program, but I had no doubt that this area would bounce back and thrive in the evolving space industry. Florida has a lot to offer and has been making a fantastic effort over the years to evolve with the industry, even lead the industry at times. I'm proud to live here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Planetary Science with Beach Sand and Reduced Gravity Adventures

Beach sand is a decent approximation for other-worldly regolith. I learned this while in grad school conducting an experiment with a team at Kennedy Space Center. Specially made regolith simulants are best, of course. But for simple mechanics, any granular material will do. We live on the Space Coast of Florida. Why not beach sand as a rough analog for the Moon, Mars, or asteroids? Properly sieved to remove seashells and debris and baked to remove excess moisture.

Collecting sand for science at Cape Canaveral - November 12, 2015

A simple instrument for coarse sieving, but it works - November 12, 2015

Larger, commercial-sized jets aren't the only option for flying reduced gravity parabolas. Smaller planes, such as this Piper Seminole at Florida Institute of Technology's School of Aviation in the Melbourne Airport, are also capable of maneuvering the dives and climbs of a parabolic trajectory. Of course, in a plane that small, passengers can't unbuckle their seat belts and do somersaults.

The hanger at FIT Aviation, Melbourne Airport - November 13, 2015

Getting ready for takeoff - November 13, 2015

It was a lovely morning at way-too-early-o'clock today for a quick reduced gravity flight. Although there was room for me in the tiny aircraft and the thrill lover in me was ready to go, my 7.5 month pregnant self decided to remain on terra firma. To become a spacefaring species, we will someday need to conduct studies on fetal development in variable gravity conditions. But not with my baby. If nothing else, I wanted to avoid a repeat of my first trimester's morning sickness.

Waving goodbye to my team before take-off. - November 13, 2015

Being the scientist-on-the-ground has its perks. I set up a beach chair beside the hanger and enjoyed the morning with 40-some planes in front of me: parked, taking off, taxiing, and landing.

Enjoying the warm Florida November morning - November 13, 2015

I won't go into the details about the experiment at this time. This is a very preliminary experiment to hopefully kick off a larger, higher fidelity experiment in the future. The data we collected is a good start and the planetary scientist in me is excited. Also, I got to play with beach sand.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Space Shuttles: Launching my Love of Human Spaceflight

I was a relative late-comer to space shuttle launches. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I didn't see my first launch until I moved to Florida for college. I attended Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne for undergraduate, nearly an hour south of Kennedy Space Center, but still offering clear views of launches.

My first was STS-112. I drove up to KSC with two friends, only to be turned away of course because we weren't badged. We tried a nearby viewing site, but it was full. We ended up on the side of the road by the water, staring up in awe as a car radio blasted the countdown. I remember thinking that someday I wanted to see a launch from inside the space shuttle.

STS-112, October 7, 2002

My second was a month later, STS-113. I was thrilled to be allowed to cover that launch for the university student newspaper from the KSC press site! It was a night launch, my favorite, and the night seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the first attempt was scrubbed, so we returned the next evening. Unlike this year's record breaking hot November, it was cold, see our breath cold. I was surprised at how bright the launch was and how much the world shook. The bright ball of light faded away into a star-like point. I thought that it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

STS-113, November 23, 2002

Space Shuttle Columbia's last flight, STS-107, was the day before my birthday. Unfortunately, a new school semester kept me preoccupied. I figured that since I had seen my first two launches up close, I could watch this one from campus farther away. I was in my car when it launches and I didn't take any photos, though I did take a picture of the Columbia flag at a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex birthday visit.

STS-107 Columbia Flag, January 2003

I was still sleeping in my dorm room on the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003 when I was awoken to the sad news. Our entire university body took the incident hard. We held a vigil for the astronauts that evening. Later that year, as a sophomore, the brand new dorm complex where I lived was named Columbia Village in dedication. As a Student Ambassador and the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, I was a student representative at the dedication ceremony, sitting at a lunch table with Laurel Clark’s sister-in-law and son. It was a very emotional experience.

Columbia Village dedication, Florida Institute of Technology, October 28, 2003 

There was a large gap in shuttle launches until the STS-114 Return to Flight mission. I was fortunate to be attending a NASA internship in Huntsville that summer and I arranged for our internship program to take a trip to Florida in part to see that launch. Thanks to the generosity of astronaut Winston Scott (now of Florida Institute of Technology) who ran the Florida Space Authority, the precursor organization to Space Florida, our student group received bleacher tickets at the Kennedy Space Center Saturn V Center right next to the VIP section. I remember lots of secret service agents in the area watching over First Lady Laura Bush who was accompanying Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The view from Banana Creek was one of my favorite launch viewing locations for its beauty.

STS-114 Discovery on launch pad , July 2005

STS-114, July 26, 2005

Circumstances prevented more launches until a second Return to Flight mission, STS-121, a year later on Independence Day. I had graduated from undergraduate and moved to Huntsville, and that year I was helping to run the NASA internship program. I arranged for another trip to Florida for the student group. A friend of mine who worked on base advised us to park near the Vehicle Assembly Building and climb 100 feet up to watch the launch on top of a mobile launch platform. Because of our height, it was the closest and clearest launch I had ever seen.

STS-121, July 4, 2006

Unfortunately, my move to Huntsville for my master's degree led me to miss seeing in person many launches to come. It wasn't until I moved back to Florida for my doctoral education that I was able to witness the beauty in person once again. STS-130 was my next, another night launch. I watched this one with new friends at Space View Park in Titusville. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my camera in the car and I didn't have a smartphone back then.

STS-131 was an early morning launch, and again, I forgot my camera. I remember it being beautiful in the dark pre-daen sky.

I saw STS-132 again with friends at Space View Park, this time with camera!

STS-132, May 14, 2010

STS-133 was a long time coming. I watched with a classmate at the now-relocated Astronaut Hall of Fame right outside of Kennedy Space Center. We had fun checking out the exhibits while we waited. Astronaut Bob Springer was the guest speaker. It was a beautiful day for a launch.

Unfortunately, the third-to-last space shuttle launch was the last that I saw. I was flying off to Huntsville for a conference when the delayed STS-134 soared. The last launch, STS-135, was pushed back such that I was still in Pennsylvania for family gatherings and a family reunion over the Independence Day holiday when it launched.

By that point, the space shuttle program had become part of who I was. Although I never worked the program, I feel just as connected to the shuttles as those who did. I cried the first three times I witnessed the KSC Visitor Complex's Atlantis Exhibit. I understand and agree with the decision to end the program to move forward, but I still fondly remember the past glories.

Kennedy Space Center's Atlantis Exhibit, June 22, 2013

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to Find an Awesome Space Internship

A student contacted me today asking for advice about finding internships. I previously wrote advice to companies seeking interns, but hadn't yet written advice for students seeking internships. Now's the time. Please keep in mind that I'm writing from my own experience and that this may not encompass every opportunity for students.

With the internet as mature as it is now, it's easy to find internship websites. This wasn't the case when I was a freshman in college looking for my first summer internship. I wrote to the head of educational programs at Kennedy Space Center who responded that there were no non-engineering internships for scientists at KSC and that I would need to change my major to apply (which is completely untrue, but I didn't know that back then). I resorted to “cold calling” to get my first internship that summer, which worked well for me.

Now, every formal opportunity has a website. Whether those websites are kept updated and organized is another story. Don't be fooled into thinking that what's published are the only opportunities out there. Just as networking leads to success in job searches, leverage contacts to find informal or unpublished internships that have little or no competition.

The internet is your friend. Search terms such as “NASA internships,” “space internships,” “aerospace internships,” “astronomy internships,” “engineering internships,” etc. produce a lot of results. You can stay broad in your search or look for a very specific opportunity. Don't forget to browse social media sites as well.

Check out company websites. Almost all of them will post job opportunities. Remember that there are more newspace companies out there than just SpaceX! Be open-minded. Smaller companies or companies that don't post internships specifically usually have a HR contact. It never hurts to ask. If you know anyone in the company, feel free to contact them as well – this is called using your network. Published internships at larger companies or entities tend to be more competitive, so be prepared to see strict deadlines with application requirements such as transcripts and letters of recommendation. Some internships come with scholarships and will be even more competitive.

NASA internship organization has gotten better is still rather disorganized. They've been trying to centralize and standardize the process for years, but opportunities are still spread out over many NASA websites. To add to the confusion, many NASA internships change their names over the years and some are discontinued while new ones pop up. Don't just visit one NASA internship page; keep looking. I highly encourage applying to any NASA internships that you're interesting in, but note that dealing with disorganization and inefficiency is part of the process of dealing with a bureaucracy.

Check out the websites of your state's NASA Space Grant and any student or professional societies/organizations that you're involved in or want to become involved in. These organizations are there to connect students and young professionals with opportunities in the field. Many of these organizations offer internship or scholarship opportunities themselves, but if not, most will offer suggestions of relevant internship opportunities. They may have compiled an up-to-date list for you.

University departments similarly may have compiled lists of opportunities for their students, including local and internal internships. Don't discount the possibility of working for one of your professors over the summer. University career service centers may also have lists based on major, but because they must search for opportunities for all majors, their list may lack content for your particular major. Professors themselves may know of opportunities at the university or with colleagues elsewhere. Again, use your network.

There are no hard rules for obtaining an informal internship. It's a combination of using connections to find opportunities (networking) and luck. Be prepared for these opportunities to be unpaid/volunteer. If fortune really works for you, you may find that funding is available for you even for an informal internship. Student interns are very inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. Talk to your professors, your connections in your field, anyone who you've met or even professionals who you have not met who may know of a short-term work opportunity that fits you.

Although most formal internships are paid, some are not. It's up to you to determine whether accepting an unpaid internship works for you. Most internships are on-site and may require you to temporarily move, and not all internships will assist you in finding temporary lodging. Some internships allow for remote work from your home, school, or a satellite office. Some internships are highly structured and some are much looser. Keep in mind the requirements, especially if you're an international student.

If you wish to get university credit for your internship experience, speak with your university about the requirements. Each university is different. Keep in mind that the experience gained during an internship is vastly more important and beneficial than any university credit that you may receive, so don't let university rules or tuition fees stop you from accepting an internship that you really want.

As I stressed in my advice to companies, interns are students but also professionals, regardless of age. Expect to be treated as a professional even as an intern. Insist on it. Act like it. You may not have the experience, clearance, or authority of a full-time employee, but you are an employee-in-training and a potential star employee for the company. Internships are test drives for the students as well as the companies. Make your test drive count.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Science and Sights around Kennedy Space Center

What a better way to wrap up a week and a month than to share with you some cool sights around Kennedy Space Center I've seen in the past week? Sometimes I don't know what I'll spot.

The Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), where I worked for a summer a few years back, hosts many interesting projects and labs, many of which have nothing to do with the International Space Station. I visited a scientist who is interested in flying NASA life science payloads on various microgravity missions, including parabolic flight. While I was in the building, I met with an engineer who is diving into the world of geology, planetary science, and plant growth and loving every minute of it.

Vials of Mars regolith simulant

A diversity of rocks from the Mojave Desert

Lettuce and cabbage grown in various Mars regolith simulants

Our mutual colleague in the same group allowed me to play with his pocket vials of Mars regolith simulants (fake Mars dirt) JSC-Mars-1A and sand from the Mojave Desert in California. While conducting experimentation for my doctoral research, I played with JSC-Mars-1, but not the other. NASA is resurrecting long-shelved research to grow plants in Mars regolith simulant in preparation for future human missions to Mars. Anyone up for growing potatoes on Mars?

Mars mania at the NASA SSPF gift shop.

Above the S3 Florida office in the Space Life Sciences Laboratory is a scientist who specializes in Martian life conditions, Andy Schuerger. In his lab, he is able to recreate Martian conditions such as temperature, atmospheric pressure, and radiation levels. He also has the largest collection of Mars regolith simulant that I've ever seen. For anyone wanting to know about the survivability of life on Mars, he's one to talk to.

Chamber for replicating Martian conditions

Mars regolith simulant galore!

On one rainy afternoon, I caught sight of a low rainbow on the water horizon not far from the giant Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) while driving on NASA Causeway. So pretty!

Rainbow on the horizon

I had wanted to end this entry with a photo of a rocket launch, but that will have to wait. Go Atlas!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Space is for Boys? Sexism Starts in Infanthood

In my final months of pregnancy with my first child, I've been very focused on preparing for our newest addition, including registering for and purchasing baby items. A month ago, I was casually browsing through a Toys R Us / Babies R Us location in Orlando. I was not looking for anything in particular. Being a space geek, space-themed merchandise grabs my attention. Unfortunately, so does sexism. I was so surprised to see a space-themed bib by Muchkin, Inc. labeled as a boys bib that I immediately tweeted a picture.

My tweet was ignored, so the next day I wrote a letter to Toys R Us, Inc. in Wayne, New Jersey.

To whom it may concern,

I am a mother-to-be with my first child, a girl. I have created a gift registry via Babies R Us. Yesterday, I was browsing the Babies R Us location in the Waterford Lakes area of Orlando, Florida and noticed something unexpected in the labeling of your merchandise.

My education is in astrophysics and planetary science and I work in the space industry in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Although my astronomy and related classes were nearly 50% female, the space industry as a whole is largely male-dominated. I mentor young women pursuing science and engineering careers. One of the largest battles still being fought is equality in the industry. I'm happy to note that with each generation, the prevalence of sexism decreases, but it's still present and a hindrance to myself and other females in the space industry.

This is why I was surprised to see a space-themed baby bib by Munchin, Inc. at Babies R Us labeled as a boys item. The bib features rockets, planets, and stars. Having studied rockets, planets, and stars, I can tell you that there is nothing gender-specific about any of those images or concepts. There is nothing about this bib that makes it a boys item except for the Babies R Us labeling. I did not extensively examine other Babies R Us merchandise to note if other space-themed items were labeled in such a way. I would be greatly disappointed if they were.

If Babies R Us continues to sell space-themed merchandise as boys items, subtle messaging for parents and children alike, is it any wonder that boys will grow up thinking that space-related aspirations are for them and that girls will grow up thinking that space pursuits are for boys and that girls are meant to strive to become princesses? Both children and parents are susceptible to these kinds of labels that subtly discourage girls from a path that is marketed to boys. Why is Babies R Us promoting this kind of sexism in space-themed merchandise? Why is Babies R Us promoting any kind of sexism, including blue and pink color gender identifications? My daughter's beach-themed nursery is turquoise.

I kindly ask that Babies R Us in Orlando and other locations reevaluate its gender-specific labeling policies. In this area, your competitors are ahead of you. As a woman in the space industry who guides younger woman in the space industry and who will raise my daughter to believe that she can strive to be anything she wants to be, please stop promoting the limitation of girls by sexist labeling practices. Please help me in my goal to raise my daughter and others' daughters in a society that raises them up to limitless aspirations as we raise them.

Thank you for your time,

Laura Forczyk

Unfortunately, Toys R Us has also failed to respond to my letter. I did not set out to find sexism in their stores. Sexism jumped out at me and I had to respond. The Munchkin Roll and Go Bib that Babies R Us has labeled for girls has a pattern of pink, purple, and red fruit. In no one's mind is fruit gender-specific to girls, yet that's their label. Why?

Although I would love it if Toys R Us followed in Target's footsteps to remove gender labels from all toys, but I don't expect that. What I do expect is that space-themed merchandise should be marketed to girls as well as boys. And I don't mean that Munchkin should recreate their space-themed bib in pink. Their current bib is just fine for boys and girls, just remove the sexist label.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Daytona Beach - Suborbital and Commercial Spaceflight? Oh Yes!

A new wave of commercial space companies are emerging and changing the status quo. The next generation of university graduates should be trained to work in such a new and diverse field. That's the line of thinking that went into the creation of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Commercial Spaceflight Operations (CSO) program. Currently in its third year, the program has exceeded expectations with three times as many students enrolled as was projected, undergraduates only for now.

I was at ERAU's main Daytona Beach campus all day Wednesday for a meeting of the CSO Advisory Panel. The program is heavily influenced by the space industry. Our input is solicited to improve the program. We also received updates from the faculty and students. The panel present on campus also spoke to a CSO freshman class about our experiences and answered their questions.

One topic that got me thinking was how to classify such a program. Multidisciplinary studies by their very nature don't fit well under one category. The curriculum involves a lot of science, engineering, and business, but it's not a science, engineering, nor business degree. The term “operations” also means different things to different people and may not represent the program as a whole, but we couldn't immediately identify a better word to substitute. Are employers looking to hire interns or fresh-out employees influenced by a degree name, or do they look at the bigger picture?

The multidisciplinary nature of the program also makes hiring faculty a challenge. A search for full-time faculty is on-going now. The program coordinator described to me the ideal candidate: a PhD in physics, a PhD in space law, experience teaching, and experience in commercial space industry management. No such candidate likely exists, but if anyone has any leads as to a potential good candidate, have them apply.

A recent addition to ERAU's campus is the suborbital spaceflight simulator. ERAU student Hayley and astronaut Nicole Stott had both given me advice about flying the sim and I was looking forward to trying it! I took off from the runway just fine, but immediately went into a spin. I was not used to the joystick controls! Once airborne, I stabilized and flew my craft like an airplane, but I was too low to get to suborbital space. I had neglected to raise my landing gear and I was out of fuel. So, I turned around to land. On my second pass, I was in good shape to land on the runway and was looking like I was going to land without a hitch, but I must not have pulled my nose up fast enough because I crashed. Tough ride, but not bad for a first timer! The sim is still being perfected. I think it would be even better in a centrifuge with some G forces!

The ERAU suborbital spaceflight simulator - October 21, 2015

In the sim before I flew and crashed my bird - October 21, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kennedy Space Center Businesses Take Over Port Canaveral

Just days after the more general public-oriented Kennedy Space Center Innovation Expo, I enjoyed a lovely autumn morning at Port Canaveral for the KSC Business Opportunities Expo. Although this expo is an annual event, I hadn't been previously aware of it. A colleague in the small satellite community forwarded me the invitation. I'm not familiar with the terminals at Port Canaveral and I enjoyed viewing the boats as I drove by.

Smaller boats docked at Port Canaveral - October 20, 2015

Terminal 10 at Port Canaveral - October 20, 2015

I love living here! - October 20, 2015

I'm not sure what I expected, but I didn't expect the expo to be so large and diverse! Exhibitors ranged from the traditional space names (ULA, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin) to manufacturers and construction firms to painting companies to legal consulting. Any business that could possibly relate itself to NASA was present. When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, a lot of local businesses were affected that were not directly involved in the space industry. It's been a pleasure to watch the Space Coast bounce back from the economic downturn into the growing and thriving location it is now!

NASA KSC Business Opportunities Expo - October 20, 2015

An event so close to Halloween meant that half the booths were giving away candy, some even using Halloween decoration to do so – quite a temptation! I also snatched up another space shuttle-shaped pen and a space shuttle orbiter Atlantis pin. SpaceX was also getting in on the “remove before flight” red tag keychains, so I added it next to my Sierra Nevada and United Launch Alliance keychains on my purse.

I got caught up in the expo booths for longer than I anticipated. A favorite that stands out was a 3D printing company that had brought in a small 3D printer and was making an expandable bracelet in front of us. What initial caught my attention at that booth was the model of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover that they printed from CAD models. The science geek in me just had to stop at the table full of scientific instrumentation. I laughed when I asked what liquid the pH meter was analyzing and the response was, “Mountain Dew.”

A 3D printed Curiosity rover model - October 20, 2015

3D printing jewelry - October 20, 2015

Mountain Dew is very acidic! - October 20, 2015

I spent a good long time at the NASA SBIR/STTR table understanding what they do to encourage small businesses and universities to develop and commercialize their technology. I said hi to my colleagues at the Craig Technologies table. I seemed to make new colleagues everywhere I walked with so many people asking about my baby. Who knew that pregnancy is such a conversation starter?

The KSC Business Opportunities Expo was a great place to meet up with technology or related businesses that I otherwise wouldn't even know about. I look forward to attending again next year!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Spacey Halloween Fun at Kennedy Space Center

Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending the National Space Club's Celebrate Space dinner with two young ladies, Sarah and Kelly, as my dates. We dined under the space shuttle orbiter Atlantis, danced the night away with KSC director Bob Cabana, and walked barefoot around the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex grounds after the party had ended. Much fun was had!

Sarah, Kelly, Bob Cabana, and me - October 19, 2013

On Saturday, we three once again attended the NSC's Celebrate Space party. Only these year, it was Halloween themed! Costumes were optional, but I couldn't resist. The day I bought my ticket, I already knew what I would dress as. My belly bump is around, most celestial objects are round – perfect!

The now iconic Pluto heart surface feature photo was fresh on my mind. I ordered a print-out of that image on a large piece of fabric which I then pinned to a scarf to tie around my waist. On the day of the event, it took a lot of pins to smooth a flat Pluto image around my pregnant belly! My daughter Josephine transformed into the dwarf planet Pluto for the evening.

My torso was to be the New Horizons probe, basically a gold foiled box with a large antenna dish. My human analog consisted of a gold sequin top, a glittery gold foam antenna dish hat, and lots of glittery gold make-up. To set the scene in space, I ordered little gold star hair accessories and attached them to a black skirt.

Pluto & New Horizons - October 17, 2015

Throughout the evening, a few people recognized Pluto and loved it. Many more people asked me what I was, then loved it. A few people asked me if I was Glinda the Good Witch – not even close. Three people asked me if I was really pregnant. Yes, yes I am. Josephine's frequent kicking was a constant reminder that Pluto is alive and active.

Adorable Kelly dressed as a 1950s astronaut wife, one of the Mercury 7. Commander Sarah looked sleek in her futuristic spacesuit. Many others dressed in space-related or other costumes, and still others came in cocktail attire. Even Bob got in on the costume fun and danced the night away.

My shoes are not meant for dancing these days, but that didn't stop me from getting on the dance floor a few times. Astronaut wife Kelly, Pirate Bonnie, and I posed for a photo in front of Atlantis. My shoes came off by the end of the evening as the party winded down. Our plan to walk the grounds barefoot again was foiled by construction - next time! A good time was had by all. Kudos to the National Space Club for a fun event!

Bonnie, Kelly, and me - October 17, 2015

Friday, October 16, 2015

Inspiration at the Kennedy Space Center Innovation Expo

Each year, Kennedy Space Center hosts an Innovation Day to bring together the neat things that NASA scientists and engineers are doing. This year, it was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. I met up with my friend Stephen this morning to check it out. Fun times!

Our first stop was the industry booths set up outside one of the buildings. I spent quite a bit of time at the SpaceX booth chatting with colleagues and got a new nifty Dragon floater pen, this one traveling to the International Space Station instead of Mars. Boeing was giving away little foam CST-100 Starliner capsules, though they were made before the Starliner name was released. I met former astronaut Bru Archambault (astronaut #45 I've met) at the Sierra Nevada table along side a Dream Chaser model.

Posing with the inflatable capsule at the Expo booths

Astronaut Bru Archambault and me with Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser model

We ate an early lunch before our colleague Dr. Phil Metzger took stage at noon. I had the privilege of working with Phil for a summer in 2012 and just caught up with him over lunch a few weeks ago, so I had some advanced knowledge of the topics presented. Along with lots of pretty New Horizons images of Pluto, he spoke about robotically mining regolith on other planetary bodies and utilizing that material (in-situ resource utilization) to create products such as water, fuel, and building materials. Through long-term thinking, we can eventually build up infrastructure in space around the Moon to collect and beam solar power to Earth (space-based solar power) for all of Earth's energy needs. “I wake up every morning thinking that this is so audacious, but it works,” he said.

Phil Metzger showing off amazing Pluto imagery

Unscheduled, I was pleasantly surprised to see colleague Stephanie Bednarek speak about SpaceX next. The backlighting and ambient noise made it difficult to watch the videos that she was playing, but I had seen them before and knew that they were awesome. She showed an image that I hadn't seen before of Mars as it is now versus a projection of Mars terraformed. I'll have to look up the source of that research!

Stephanie Bednarek giving an overview of SpaceX

I returned to the booths next to browse more of NASA and industry's innovative work. I had seen robotic astronaut torso Robonaut 1 at Johnson Space Center a few years ago, and today I met its newest sibling R2. I admired the healthy lettuce being grown in the Earth ground-based version of the Veggie experiment on the International Space Station. I cheered on the team for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN) which I saw launch in 2013.

NASA's Vegetable Production System Veggie

In another area of booths, I got into a very interesting conversation with a young engineer who works on self-healing metals, metals alloys that revert back to their original state and fuse together when heat is applied. I'm a big fan of the LVX System lights since I got a tour of their facility a couple of years ago and was happy to hear of their recent successes. I replaced my old “remove before flight” red tag that I carry on my purse with a bright new one from United Launch Alliance. I said hello to colleagues at Craig Technologies who I had just seen at Manufacturing Day.

The booths were so interesting that I lost track of time and arrived 15 minutes late for a talk by astronaut Nicole Stott, who I had met in the bleachers earlier (astronaut #46). At that point, she was talking about the importance of art and the STEAM movement (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics). She took audience questions which included many popular astronaut inquiries such as what it's like to train to be an astronaut and did she experience sickness in microgravity. I did note an interesting comment when talking about bone degradation in microgravity: “To travel to Mars, I'd prefer artificial gravity, but if we can't do that, we need to keep learning to adapt our bodies to microgravity.”

Nicole Stott answering audience questions about being an astronaut

Meeting Nicole Stott in the audience bleachers

Knowing that I can spend a fortune in space gift shops, I usually avoid the temptation. But I've already learned that spending for my child is a different category of spending. I couldn't resist browsing the baby items in the KSC gift shop. So many cute things to choose from! Josephine will grow up to become whatever she wants to be, but her mama is a space geek. Knowing how fast kids grow, I opted for a one-size-fits-all spacesuit bib and a bath toy rubber ducky piloting a space shuttle.

Astronaut baby bump!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Physics Students: "Hidden Physicists" Aren't Hidden If You Know Where To Look

Yesterday I stumbled upon one of those articles aimed at helping physics students identify jobs and careers post-graduation. I knew from the start of my higher education that I did not want to become a professor and therefore was not on the “standard track” for physicists. I always appreciated those “hidden physicist” stories that highlight professionals using their physics skills successfully in non-traditional jobs. Not all jobs employing physicists have the word physics in the title.

I have almost three degrees in physics – BS, MS, and PhD-dropout-ABD. My jobs titles don't have the word physics in them. I sometimes don't use my actual job title on my resume or in job applications because some titles are nondescript. Instead, I substitute appropriate titles that clearly state what I did. For example, “research assistant” becomes “astrophysicist” on my resume, but “research assistant” was the posted title when I was applying for the position. Knowing what terms to search for or knowing which jobs are actually open to physicists can help students immensely when applying for positions.

My actual job titles (excluding volunteer positions) and what I really did/do:

Research Assistant/Associate/Fellow
I held this job title in various forms throughout my academic career. I worked for universities and university-like organizations conducting scientific research in the fields of astrophysics, chemical engineering, and planetary science. This is a very common title for student researcher positions.

In one position, my simple official title of Analyst entailed managing the analyst team for a small space industry analyst company, interviewing, researching, and ranking companies within the industry. In another position, my title was Scientific Research Analyst which entailed seeking scientific proposals, evaluating proposals, analyzing scientific research areas, and communicating with scientists. Two very different positions, same job title.

Operations Manager
More fully, my title is Manager, Florida Operations. In this position, I manage everything that the company does in Florida and more, including assisting with operations in other North American locations, working with international partners, and preparing for scientific payloads.

I used my skill set to contribute to whatever needed to be done.

Out of curiosity, I browsed my LinkedIn connections to find listed job titles used by professionals working in technical fields who have at least one degree in physics. This is not an extensive list, but it gives us some idea as to the diversity of terms used.

  • Author
  • Associate Administrator/Chair/Chief/Director/Head/Program Manager/Section Manager/Vice-president
  • Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director
  • Chief Technical Officer/Chief Science Officer
  • Editor
  • Engineer (Aerospace, Design, Electrical, Instrument, Launch, R&D, RF, Project, Quality Assurance, Safety, Software, Spacecraft, Systems, Technology, Test, Validation)
  • Flight Controller
  • Operations Associate
  • Payload Specialist (Astronaut)
  • Postdoctoral Associate/Researcher/Fellow
  • Professor/Faculty
  • Programmer
  • R&D Manager
  • Recording Artist
  • Researcher/Research Scientist/Research Fellow/Scientist
  • Safety Officer
  • Sales/Account Manager
  • Science Operations Coordinator
  • Speaker
  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Systems Administrator
  • Teacher/Teaching Assistant/Instructor/Tutor/Educator
  • Technical Specialist
  • TV Host/Personality
  • ZeroG Coach

I remember being told in undergraduate that physicists can do anything. I didn't understand the extent of that statement until I entered the working world and discovered that physicists have the mindset and skill set to pursue anything we put our minds to. One former classmate took her physics degree and went on to culinary school to become a pastry chef. Another former classmate continued his theology education after his physics PhD and is both a Jesuit brother and a scientist at the Vatican Observatory.

Physics students – pursue your dreams and don't let any nay-sayers stand in your way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Journey to Mars... Why? And Where's the To Infinity and Beyond?

Hanging out with my celestial buddy Mars - Oct. 2015

"Why Mars? Mars is the horizon goal for pioneering space; it is the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence.”
- NASA's Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration

I hadn't even finished reading the document NASA released last week when questions popped into my head that the report couldn't answer. Why are we so focused on Mars? What is a horizon goal? And why the sudden shift to the word pioneering? (I still don't have an answer to that last one – anyone have an insight?)

The term “horizon goal” comes from the National Research Council's 2014 report: Pathways to Exploration.

“The technical analysis completed for this study shows clearly that for the foreseeable future the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Among that small set of plausible goals for human space exploration, the most distant and difficult is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars; it would require overcoming unprecedented technical risk, fiscal risk, and programmatic challenges. Thus, the 'horizon goal' for human space exploration is Mars. All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, for human space exploration converge on that goal.”

The report expands upon this reasoning in a later section. Within their interpretation of feasible for the foreseeable future, there are two destinations with gravity wells, and we should pursue the farther and more difficult one: Mars. Is it just me, or does this seem arbitrary and unnecessarily limiting?

It has been a slightly Mars-centric year for me. For Christmas last year, my husband gifted me Mars and a few other solar system body plush toys which made an appearance at my wedding in January. Early in the year I read Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (which I strongly disliked – heresy, I know). I read Andy Weir's The Martian mid-year and caught the excellent movie on opening night. With the Hollywood celebrations, hyped-up NASA Mars water findings, and the unrealistic but much promoted NASA Journey to Mars report, it's no surprise that Mars is on everyone's mind and lips.

I have nothing against Mars. I support human and robotic exploration of Mars just as much as the Moon or any other location. I greatly prefer this turn of direction over the humans-to-asteroid silliness that even the creator of the idea couldn't convince me was a good one. My doctoral research had just as much to do with Martian regolith as it did lunar, asteroid, planetasimal, and any other solar system regolith.

Mars regolith simulant under a microscope - summer 2012

I do have a strong personal bias toward the Moon. The Moon is right there, our closest neighbor, just waiting for us to explore and study in in the ways we didn't and couldn't do in the decades past. The third grader in me that wrote a story about being an astronaut on the Moon still wants that reality. The explorer in me wants to walk on another world, a world truly accessible within my lifetime. The planetary scientist in me wants to examine all of the questions that we can't answer any other way than field geology.

In comparison, I have little interest in being an astronaut on Mars or on a space station. I won't say no to either of those pursuits, but my heart is elsewhere. I have interest in suborbital spaceflight because I believe that it is the most obtainable goal for a private citizen such as myself. I have a great deal of interest in companies such as Golden Spike who work toward private lunar missions, even if it seems like a dream goal.

But that's just me. Others have their favorite destinations, their callings, their dreams and pie-in-the-sky goals. My personal dream should not limit anyone. The personal dream of others to land humans on Mars should not limit anyone. Why should the NRC, NASA, or anyone else define a horizon goal and stop there? Let's say we humans plant our flag on the Martian surface – what then? Do we stop, as we did with Apollo? Do we settle? Do we explore on? If the latter, what makes Mars a horizon goal any more than the Moon or low-Earth orbit or any other destination or achievement?

Mars is a goal, without a doubt. But it should not be the goal. No one has the right to define and scope what the future objectives for humanity are or could be. That's up to all of us collectively and it's up to the generations that will come after us. Why should we let the hype of 2015 limit us? It's all arbitrary anyway. Moon last week, asteroid yesterday, Mars today, what tomorrow?

Our robots explore Mars currently, such as MSL Curiosity - JPL, July 2010

“There is a consensus in national space policy, international coordination groups, and the public imagination that Mars is the horizon goal of human space exploration,” wrote the National Research Council in 2014. No, there is no consensus, and that's the point. We humans change our minds, we debate and disagree, we hold different perspectives, we challenge each other, and we accomplish more that way.

"Today we are chasing our tails because the space experts debate destinations: Moon, Mars, or asteroid? O’Neill and I say do them all. The ‘horizon goal’ isn’t Mars, it is the entire solar system. When we have built colonies on every habitable niche, then maybe we will find a way to go to the stars. I didn’t say bankrupt the treasury. Don’t squander other people’s money; figure out how to do it anyway. Nobody said that it would be easy. But what is our choice?”

I concur. Let 2015 be the year to celebrate Mars (and Pluto!). But let's not limit 2016 and beyond.