Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bouncing, Floating, and Being Sick: Adventures on Parabolic Planes

In my line of work, I'm asked about my “zero G” reduced gravity parabolic flight experience often. I've been privileged to fly twice so far, both times as a researcher. It was one of the coolest, most exciting things I've ever done. I'm looking forward to flying again! I highly recommend it to anyone, as a joy ride or as a microgravity experience. It was exhilarating.

Graphic courtesy of my company, S3

As a physicist, I can't bring myself to ever call these flights “weightlessness” and I hesitate to even write “zero g.” I commonly use the term “microgravity” when discussing payloads and experiments, but even that can be inaccurate. NASA uses the term “reduced gravity” and ESA uses the term “parabolic,” both of which are more accurate. Companies such as my own who cater to a more general public tend to use catchphrase Zero G.

During these flights, the aircraft is in a state of temporary freefall. To gain perspective, human-made satellites including the International Space Station, the Moon, and everything that orbits Earth is in freefall around Earth. Earth's gravity always exists but can be canceled out, so it's more accurate to speak in terms of net gravity. We drop the word “net” for convenience.

Weightlessness or zero g (0 g) can only be achieved in perfection. Near to perfection, microgravity (0.000001 g) conditions may exist in space, but not on aircraft flying through Earth's turbulent atmosphere. The most these flights can hope to achieve is centigravity (0.01 g), or if they're really good, milligravity (0.001 g).

“Reduced gravity” is accurate and accounts for lower gravity analogs such as lunar gravity or Martian gravity, but ignores the hypergravity conditions when the plane is flying upward at nearly double normal gravity (1.8 g). “Parabolic” is the most accurate term of them all because it describes the motion of the aircraft as being large parabolas or arcs.

My first flight was on a Zero G Corporation plane here in Florida in November 2011. At the time, I was studying for my doctoral candidacy exam and preparing our experiment for flight, so I was preoccupied with technical details and not focused on the flight itself. The closest I got to contemplating my upcoming adventure was riding a theme park ride that threw around my body and thinking, “Wow, these sudden G force changes are good practice for next weekend.”

There is no sideways, not on this plane! - November 2011

It was very cold on the plane. I soon learned that this was done on purpose to minimize overheating which can lead to being sick. These aircraft weren't given the nickname “vomit comet” for nothing. My flightsuit was huge on my petite frame, but I pinned it well enough to be able to move in it. I quickly learned that agility was beneficial while floating around nearly uncontrollably as a first timer.

Microgravity isn't like flying. It's not like swimming or scuba diving, even though astronauts practice underwater to train for it. It isn't like being at the top of a roller coaster. It was like someone flipped a switch and gravity just turned off.

I had very little control over my movements. Each move I made was exaggerated and counter-intuitive. I felt like a rubber ball that had gone out of control and was bouncing off of the floor, ceiling, and walls, only in this case there was no difference between the floor, ceiling, and walls, all were the same. I expected to fly like Superman or do somersaults or just hover, but those maneuvers take practice. It was all I could manage to keep control of my movements. I had a blast!

Houston, August 2012
About to board the plane - August 2012

My second flight was in August 2012 at Ellington Field in Houston with NASA's Reduced Gravity Program. I felt a lot calmer right off the bat because I knew what to expect and how to react to reduced gravity. I was like a flag blowing in the wind, only without wind. I held on to the experiment with one hand while my legs stayed together and swayed horizontally (for the most part) and my other hand worked.

Unfortunately, I personally learned about the nickname “vomit comet.” I had declined the optional anti-nausea medication for both flights, and this time, the changing gravity caught up to me. By parabola 22 of 40, I was down and out. When we landed and I finally escaped the plane, I literally got down on my knees and kissed the ground! But, as sick as I was, I would sign up to do it again in a heartbeat.

Whether you're a scientist or an engineer with an experiment or payload to test in microgravity conditions or an average person with an adventurer's spirit, I highly recommend signing up for a flight if you get the chance. I'm so grateful for my flights. It'll be an experience you'll never forget!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why This Planetary Scientist Won't Sign the Petition to Declare Pluto a Planet

Graphic from the Declare Pluto a Planet petition

Last week, I was invited to sign a petition on asking the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reclassify Pluto as a planet. As a planetary scientist, my opinion is that Pluto is a planet. I've previously written that I consider the IAU classification criteria for planets to be deeply flawed, as does every single planetary scientist I've ever spoken to about this issue. But I will not sign this petition.

Science is not a democracy. The opinion of the majority does not change the principles of the Universe. Pluto doesn't care whether we call it a planet or not, nor did its nature change when the IAU declared it not to be a planet. The Universe is entirely indifferent to what we think of it. The Universe is formed on objective truths that don't change with human language or opinion.

Our understanding of science changes all the time. It is both evidence-based and theory-based. We can gather evidence to form theories based on the evidence, or we form theories and gather evidence to prove or disprove them. Scientist make conclusions based on the evidence or the soundness of a theory. Scientists can disagree on conclusions because of differing interpretations or seemingly contradictory evidence. Scientists do not form conclusions based on popular public opinion.

I remember a story I was told during my first NASA internship when I was an undergraduate student studying astrophysics. I was studying gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) from scientists who had been studying this phenomena for years. At an early conference on the subject, the question was posed as to whether GRBs were galactic (originating close to us, within our galaxy) or cosmological (originating far from us, in the cosmos). The majority decided that because GRBs were so very energetic, they must be close to us, they must be galactic. Only a couple of years later, new data from a new space observatory added proof to the theory that GRBs were cosmic, not galactic. The Universe didn't care that the majority of scientists had decided incorrectly. The truth is what it is regardless.

It doesn't matter that the IAU in 2006 voted that Pluto is not a planet. It doesn't matter if they change their minds in 2015, five years from now, fifty years from now, or never. Pluto doesn't care. The Universe remains unchanged.

My biggest issue with the petition is that science is not determined by majority vote. Voting and public opinion is not part of the scientific method. If tomorrow, a study is published stating that the majority of people have voted that the Sun is a planet, their vote will not make it so. Petitions and meeting polls are fun and interesting, but not scientific.

If the petition had asked the IAU to reconsider the classification of Pluto or reconsider its definition of a planet, I would sign it. Such a request should ideally come from the IAU membership and not from the general public, however. The IAU membership is the deciding body at IAU meetings and a request to reopen the discussion should come from them.

As the petition is worded, “Declare Pluto a Planet,” I cannot get behind. Making a scientific declaration via an Internet petition of the general public is not thoughtful, accurate, or sound. I can appreciate the enthusiasm of the petition creator and backers. I can agree that Pluto should be classified as a planet. But I feel that I would be bending my scientific integrity to lend my name to such an initiative. I very much hope that if IAU leaders and membership come across the petition, they will take it in the spirit of a request for further discussion on the issue.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Workplace Bullying in the Professional World of Space Sciences

Bullying is commonplace, almost expected sometime in childhood. Numerous anti-bullying awareness initiatives exist in schools and communities. But what about bullying in adulthood? Do we ever expect to experience a bully in the workplace, in our professional lives?

The most common stereotype is the bullying boss. Unfortunately, this was my first experience with a workplace bully. It began with good intentions. She saw me as an apprentice. I was grateful for her interest in me and the opportunities she gave me. We had a good first couple of years.

The trouble began when my professional interests began to diverge from hers. She began to get more controlling about what I did with my time. I remember her getting upset with me when I attended a guest lecture because it wasn't about our specific subfield of physics. She wanted me to quit all of my extracurriculars and hobbies. She wanted to see me at work in the evenings and on weekends. Who was she to tell me what I could do with my spare time? Grad students are only paid for 20 hours per week, so technically speaking, I was already working tons of unpaid overtime.

She had my future planned out for me. She wanted me to start working on a new project that wasn't part of my doctoral research plan and wasn't directly applicable to my dissertation. I had my own funding at that point, a NASA GSRP fellowship, with a set research plan. Had I been interested in the new project, I would have jumped on the opportunity, but I simply wasn't interested. Only later did I realize that she was trying to get me to work on her new pet project at no cost to her.

She decided that after I graduated, she was going to send me to her colleague's university in Europe to work as a post-doc. Some graduate students would be thrilled to know that they already had a post-doc opportunity lined up for them. I was not. I had no interest in doing a post-doc in that field of study and moving to Europe. I felt that she was trying to dictate my life even after I was no longer her employee.

Once she realized that I had a mind of my own, she gave me the “it's my way or the highway” ultimatum. I was an emotional mess. I felt that she had her thumb pressed down on me and was pressing harder and harder. I felt trapped. When I finally decided to take “the highway,” I felt free! I later learned that she slandered me to my fellowship program, but that did little damage.

The next workplace bully I encountered was a colleague, a peer. She and I were at the same level and worked together in the same lab, but we had different roles and different students who we were supervising. She was hired to take some responsibilities off my plate so I could focus on other things.

She hated that she wasn't my supervisor. She wanted to be in charge of the whole lab. It drove her nuts that we were equal. It bothered her even more that I wasn't intimidated by her. She tried many methods of intimidation to try to “win” what she saw was a battle against me. What bothered her the most was that she never won. I always held firm and refused to compromise my integrity.

She yelled at me and insulted me to the point where, instead of responding, I had to drop whatever I was doing and leave the room (mostly so she didn't see me cry). She spread lies about me to the other students and told me lies about what the other students allegedly said about me. She turned one of my students against me, but he got egg on his face when he realized that he made a mistake with our experiment, not me. She made the workplace a toxic environment.

My supervisor at the time is a wonderful, supportive man, but he's not a fan of confrontation. He sat us down for a meeting together and tried to get us to reconcile, but by that point, extensive damage had already been done. I was at the point of creating documentation to report my work bully to the university's human resources department when I learned the happy news that she was leaving. Something switched in her mind at that point, because she was actually a decent human being to me at the very end. Go figure.

My third workplace bully was an administrative assistant, an older lady. She was the admin assistant to the big boss of the company. Because she held this role, she thought herself superior to all, as if she was the actual assistant big boss.

We rarely worked together. Once I needed her assistance to get some signatures from the big boss for a project. Another admin assistant and I approached her on a Friday early afternoon for her help. All she had to do was give the papers to her boss to have him sign them, then hand them back to us, a five minute job. She decided that she didn't like how we had printed the papers, so she reprinted them to her liking, which took her approximately half an hour.

Little did I know until months later that this bully held a grudge against me because I asked her to (gasp!) do her job on a Friday. She waited until I was on travel attending a conference to ask me a question via email on an afternoon, a non-urgent question that I did not know the answer to because it wasn't my job to know. When I didn't answer her first thing the next morning, she wrote back to me CCing my boss and the big boss demanding to know why I hadn't answered her.

Unfortunately, my boss at the time operated out of fear and thought that any negative confrontation with his employees reflected poorly on him. Before I had even gotten a chance to form a response to the email, my boss contacted me demanding that I apologize to the bully and do whatever she wanted, immediately. He took it a step further by concluding that because I hadn't answered her email immediately, I wasn't responsible with my time during conferences. I hadn't taken any action at this point, all of this mess was being done to me, and I felt like a hit-and-run car victim. Just as the bully had planned.

The bully continued to escalate the issue when I returned from travel. Things were said about me behind closed doors. I learned that she claimed that I dropped a project on her on a Friday afternoon and made her work late doing it, and I never apologized for it. My boss didn't care about the actual issue, he only cared about the conflict, so he insisted that I apologize to her. But I don't appease bullies. I knew that she wanted to, “put me in my place,” and demonstrate that she had power. I was not going to give her that satisfaction.

Finally, to appease my boss, I approached her and asked, “Do we have anything to talk about?” “No,” she responded. When my boss asked if I had talked to her, I could honestly answer yes. Thankfully, I never had to work with her again.

What do all of these bullies have in common? One: they're alpha females. I've noticed a tendency for strong females to become adversarial with other strong females who they see as competition. Two: they aren't used to people standing up to them. Three: they all rose to positions of authority in professional environments.

Bullies don't just exist on schoolyards or blue collar jobs. My biggest misconception was that all professionals act professionally in professional environments. This is not always the case. I've had to learn that, with this and everything else, I can only control my own actions. Others can act as they please, but my goal is to remain professional even in the face of the harshest workplace bully.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Losing the Forest for the Trees in NASA Exploration Systems Development

NASA's Bill Hill discusses previous space exploration achievements - July 14, 2015

Sandwiched between Pluto celebrations today, I attended the monthly National Space Club luncheon. Today's guest speaker was Bill Hill, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development.

We all know that engineers aren't always the best public speakers. Sometimes the people with the best technical knowledge have difficulty translating that information to an effective presentation. The experts in the room probably didn't learn anything new from today's talk, and in fact a few of us caught some errors. (This Jupiter/Mars mix-up caught by my friend Ryan was my favorite.) But we made the best of it.

Although NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto got a brief mention in the beginning, the talk stuck to NASA's current exploration talking points, especially the “journey to Mars.” Science enables exploration and exploration enables science, he said. But we are limited by the top line, that is, funding and budgets. Along those lines, international partnerships are the key to sustainability.

The speaker briefly mentioned the major lesson of the International Space Station (really, all space missions): what works on Earth doesn't work so well in space. We are building capability and experience. He focused on the Orion exploration vehicle and NASA's work to build a better booster. In an audience question about how well Congress responds to NASA, he stated that we need to prove our worth every day.

One thing that struck me about this talk is that we can get lost in the details about what we're working on and forget the bigger picture and purpose. Today should be a day when every NASA employee should be celebrating the success of a NASA mission to explore the solar system, especially someone with the word exploration in his title, and yet he sounded like even mentioning it was an obligation. He wasn't excited about Mars either, it seemed like he was forced to mention it because “journey to Mars” is the current NASA buzzphrase. The only thing that seemed to excite the engineer was talk about the Orion test launch last December and the rocket booster testing.

But why do we care about a new spacecraft or a new rocket? What good is a new exploration system without the spirit of exploration? In pure engineering thought, his concern is: how do we get this system to work the way we want it. I come at it from scientist thought: what do we want this system to do, and why? His colleagues may only care about the how, but the rest of the world wants to know the what and the why. And so do I.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Godspeed, New Horizons! Hello Pluto! And Thank You, Alan Stern!

Credit unknown. I stole it shamelessly from Twitter.

Love is in the air! There's nothing quite like tuning into CNN to get my usual news fix and seeing friend and colleague Alan Stern talking about New Horizon's Pluto fly-by tomorrow. Way to go! (Alan and I were interviewed on CNN's little sister network HLN a few years back about planetary exploration, but CNN is the big leagues and way cooler.) The news media seem to especially love Pluto's newly imaged heart-shaped surface feature, and so do I. It's like Pluto knew that its controversial image needed a make-over and became adorable to us again. Kidding, of course.

It's impossible to talk about New Horizons without mentioning Alan. He is the mover and shaker, the champion, the frontman for the mission. He has a tremendous talent to start conversations and get us excited. When I met him five years ago, my immediate reaction was to ask him how he got to do such cool things! I was so impressed. He still is involved in many cool things, some of which I've had the privilege of participating in. I had no part in New Horizons, I just think it's awesome.

My experience with New Horizons began before I met Alan. I saw the Atlas V rocket launch during my last semester of undergraduate at Florida Institute of Technology in January 2006. We were allowed to gather on the roof of the new Physical Sciences Building to watch it together as a department. Surprisingly, it was the first rocket launch I viewed from campus. I don't have a photo of the launch. I didn't own a smartphone back then; I had a Motorola Razr flip phone (remember those?), so snapping photos was less convenient.

Not my photo. My Razr couldn't take this shot. - January 19, 2006

To be honest, New Horizons wasn't on my radar until I coincidentally ran into Alan in Washington, D.C. last July when I was in town for a conference and heard him give a talk at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. It was only then that I realized that closest approach to Pluto was only a year away! I also then realized that many of my former planetary science classmates and NASA interns had been snatched up as part of the science team, and I had fun catching up with them that evening. Small world in the planetary science community!

Since last July, I've been psyched to see what Pluto has in store for us. As any planetary scientist will tell you, Pluto is an interesting dwarf planet, no less worthy of study since the debate over its classification or perhaps even more worthy of study because of it. Science isn't a democracy and nature doesn't care what words we assign to phenomena. Pluto is just as fascinating and scientifically important to us now as it was when New Horizons was proposed.

Much has been written about how the International Astronomical Union's 2006 definition is bizarre and fundamentally flawed. I don't know a single scientist who uses that definition. As a trained planetary scientist and astrophysicist myself, I could never use a definition of a planet that can be disproven with Earth as an example. That definition was simply bad science that got a lot of public attention. Science is never decided by vote, only by logic and evidence. Science is never decided, actually, it is always in flux as we learn more about the world around us. New Horizons is giving us so much new information on the Pluto system.

I had hoped to join Alan in Maryland this week for the official fly-by celebrations. I was supposed to be in California this week, but alas, some things don't go according to plan. And so, I watch the internet as so many others are doing, hanging on to every new announcement. Tomorrow I'll join a local PlutoPalooza celebration and party with the rest of the Pluto-loving Space Coast. Godspeed, New Horizons! Hello Pluto! And thank you, Alan Stern!

Pluto and one of its moons, Charon - July 8, 2015

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why Quitting Grad School and Becoming ABD Was Right for Me

One year ago, I quit grad school. In retrospect, it was the right move, and I don’t regret it.

I’ve started and stopped this entry several times. What’s right for me isn’t right for everyone. Quitting grad school just before the final step of writing and submitting my doctoral dissertation was the right move for me. I feel compelled to explain why. Someone reading this might be in a similar circumstance making a similar difficult choice, or know something who is.

I spent 12 years in higher education: 4 years for my bachelor’s degree, 2 years for my master’s degree, 1 year conducting doctoral research on high-energy astrophysics, took a few months off to work at NASA MSFC, 1.5 years of graduate coursework in planetary science, and 3 years conducting doctoral research in experimental planetary science. Somewhere in there, I passed the most difficult physics exam of my life: the doctoral comprehensive exam. I was at the end of my academic journey.

Graduating with my Bachelor of Science in astronomy/astrophysics

Why did I stop? Well, why did I start? When I was exploring careers in high school, I knew that I wanted to work in the space program. I loved my math and physics classes and I was captivated by astrophysics, especially cosmology. Everything I read described an astrophysics education ending in a PhD, so that’s what I thought that I needed. I didn’t know of any other way.

It wasn’t until well into graduate school that I began to recognize that my career options were more open than I initially thought. Professorship is the goal of the vast majority of physics doctoral students, and most professors are in the mindset of training their future colleagues and replacements like an apprenticeship. I knew very early on that I was separate from my classmates in that my goal was not a professorship. I didn’t even want a post-doc if I could help it.

Instead, I explored the option of becoming a researcher for a national lab. At first it was thrilling to research astrophysics at NASA! My goal was to work for NASA, and there I was. As the years went on, I realized that I needed to be especially passionate about my tiny sub-subfield in order to dedicate a large part of my life day in and day out to researching it. I enjoyed my research but I hated programming, and my interests were becoming broader. I recognized that I wanted to move on to a position that was more hands-on. I also wanted to get involved in space policy and the commercial space industry.

Graduating with my Master of Science researching high-energy astrophysics

I had a professional crisis when I experienced my first workplace bully: my master’s degree advisor. I had already passed my doctoral entrance exam, obtained my master’s degree, and was a year into my doctoral research. She saw our relationship is mentor and apprentice. She had the next several years of my life planned for me, including a post-doc with her colleague at a university in Europe, never mind what I wanted. When I began exploring my career interests, broadening my scope within physics, our relationship became toxic. Finally, she gave me an ultimatum: my way or the highway. It was a very difficult decision, but an important one. I decided not to let anyone limit my career options, but instead to pursue my interests where they would lead me.

My doctoral advisor at my next university was the opposite of my previous advisor: supportive, encouraging of my own path, and even broad in interests himself. I learned more applied physics and engineering skills in the lab, which was a refreshing change. Through him I was introduced to several contacts who have helped me enter the world of NewSpace and space policy. He always encouraged my growth. The more my world opened to the possibilities that lay in front of me, the less important my PhD became. For the first time in my life, I recognized that I didn’t need my PhD to achieve my career goals and become successful. But I still wanted the title.

Conducting lab work as a doctoral student

I’ll admit it: I used to look down on people who quit grad school. I used to think that they just couldn’t cut it and that I was superior to them for sticking with it. It didn’t occur to me that they had found a better path for themselves. The experience of quitting has humbled me. I didn’t fail out, I could have continued on and graduated, but I chose not to. My choice doesn’t make me inferior to anyone, just different. I had to get over that pride of losing the title of Doctor before I was able to make a clear decision about my future.

Many well-intentioned people counseled me not to quit. One colleague remarked how much respect he got from his colleagues after obtaining his doctorate. But really, I simply have to say the words “astrophysics” or “planetary science” and people look at me differently. I know that I’m competent in my field and others see that as well. I don’t need a title to gain other people’s respect. I already respect myself.

Another colleague warned me that I was disappointing those who had gotten me this far and that it was unfair of me to quit now. I was most concerned about this. I asked my doctoral advisor on two separate occasions if he is disappointed in me for quitting. He assured me that he isn’t. Me quitting grad school was his suggestion, after all!

Why would my advisor recommend that I quit grad school? He saw that I had already moved past it, but I was too stubborn to let it go. As I was approaching the end of my studies, I began my job search. I was told that it could take over a year to find employment, but I was offered a job within a month! A colleague recommended me to a local company that was looking to hire a space scientist, and there I was. Networking pays off. I had wanted only part-time work while I finished my dissertation, but the offer was for a full-time position, so my dissertation became a hobby to do in my spare time.

Transitioning to a professional in my day job, right before quitting grad school

I was surprised when I attended a party with my advisor and fellow grad students a few months after taking the job. I was feeling shame for making very little progress on my dissertation. They were so proud of me for landing a full-time job in my field before even graduating. The girlfriend of a grad student even remarked that she wished that her boyfriend would do the same. Everyone was happy for me.

My surprise continued when I visited the university department nearly a year later. I had expected my former professors to be disappointed in me and perhaps even feel betrayed that I had left them. The opposite was true: they were proud of my success and saw me as a peer. As a student, I had never felt that level of respect from them as I did when I visited them as grad-school drop-out professional.

I’d be neglectful if I didn’t admit that money was a factor. Almost all scientific research is conducted mainly by graduate students who work greater than 40 hours per week, but who are paid peanuts for 20 hours per week. When I took my first professional job, my salary nearly tripled. My current job pays nearly quadruple what I made as a graduate student. I never got into my career for the money, but now that I have a house and a family, money matters.

Grad school became a financial burden after I took my full-time job in industry. Although my salary tripled and I’m a frugal and financially responsible person, my school expenses became too much for me to handle without taking on student loans, something I hadn’t done since undergrad. I managed to avoid student loans by depleting my savings.

After I left my university department’s employment as a graduate research assistant, I was responsible for my tuition payments. I was only enrolled in 3 credits per semester for a doctoral research course, basically, a symbolic class for the privilege of calling myself a doctoral student. Unfortunately, once I left my department’s protection, the university saw me as a dollar sign instead of a person. They used a loophole to unfairly charge me over triple the tuition rate, and even my protest to the university president landed on deaf ears because universities are all about profit (and I attended a public university!).

Had I been charged a fair tuition rate, I would have been able to afford to stay enrolled in grad school indefinitely and may have eventually finished. The greed of the university forced me to make my decision to quit when I did, which may have been a good thing in the long run because I didn’t drag it out too long. To this day, I regret paying that last semester’s tuition, as that money would have served me much better in my savings account.

When my advisor approached me about quitting grad school, I was busy with my day job and my other responsibilities, I was nearly broke from educational and housing expenses, and my dissertation had only progressed slightly in the year since I took a full-time job. After the initial punch in the gut that was my pride saying, “I am not a quitter!” I recognized that he was right. He said that trying to finish my dissertation when my heart wasn’t into it was making me miserable. At that point, I was satisfied with my academic and research work, my career had moved on, and I no longer needed to hang on to my past. When I finally quit, I felt free.

Will I ever go back to school? Maybe, but not now and not in the same field. I’ve played with the idea of getting a second master’s degree in space policy or commercial space, but I’ve been told repeatedly that those degrees aren’t necessary for me. Colleagues have even suggested that I could teach courses in those programs. I don’t need formal education to learn something new. The title of Doctor is no longer important to me, but if I ever change my mind and want to become a professor, I’ll need that credential. What I’d get my doctorate in, I don’t know, but if it’s meant to be, it will become clear. For now, I’m satisfied with my path, moving forward in my own way! I’m ABD and happy with it!

Posing in front of my office building right outside of NASA Kennedy Space Center

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pluto Next Week, But Today: Saturn!

The 6th planet from our Sun.

Everyone's excited about the upcoming New Horizon's fly-by of dwarf planet Pluto next week. I'll jump on the Pluto writing bandwagon in a few days. But first, I wanted to share the surprise I came home to today.

If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it.

My husband put a ring on me close to a year ago. Last week he ordered me another ringed gift which arrived today: Saturn! Isn't he cute with his ring visor and band pattern?

The ring on this Roman God of Agriculture planet is the same color as the ring I put on my husband.

So far I have six Celestial Buddies: the Sun, Earth, the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Saturn. Which planetary body will invade our living room next?

Our Celestial family.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Let's Remove Elitism from Space Travel and Make it Commonplace!

Last night I came across a contest to promote a Rising Star winner to fly to suborbital space on an XCOR Lynx and introduce to “influential” celebrities. (You still have time to enter – deadline is July 3!) I’m very unlikely to win because I was bluntly honest in my answers to their application essay questions, I’m completely unimpressed by celebrity, and I’m probably more experienced than what they’re looking for, but I decided that it didn’t hurt to try.

Two of their application questions really got to me: how having a spaceflight experience would change me and how I would use the experience to inspire others. I know the answers that they were looking for: inspiring children to choose STEM educations, the astronaut overview effect, environmentalism, global unity, encouraging public and political support, etc. For me, those answers are cliché and insincere.

I think about air travel today. I’ve been flying on planes for my entire life. Air travel has changed my life by making it more convenient for me to travel distances. Do those experiences change me as a person, make me more of an environmentalist, inspire me to inspire children, etc.? No, of course not. And I would imagine that only individuals raised in societies where modern technology is rare would be inspired by another’s airflight experience.

I think about air travel 100 years ago when the first commercial passengers experienced flight. I’ve never read anything about early commercial air passengers developing a greater sense of purpose. Did the experience of those passengers inspire others? I very much hope that all of them inspired at least someone to buy a ticket. Early adapters of technology promote the acceptance of that technology. The growth of paying passengers created the industry that has allowed air travel to become as common as it is today.

I think about something I’ve done that’s uncommon: fly in a parabolic “zero G” aircraft. Reduced gravity flights have existed since the 1950s. I’ve had the privilege of flying twice so far. Did my experience change me? No. It was awesome and I highly recommend it, but it did not change who I am, what I believe in, or what I’m inspired to do. Did my experience inspire others? Not to my knowledge. Anyone who thought, “Wow, that’s cool, I wish I could do that!” could buy a ticket. Not everyone can afford a ZeroG ticket immediate, but the vast majority of us could save up for it if we chose to. The experience is open to almost all.

If we continue in the mindset of “right stuff” astronauts, incomprehensibly rich space tourists, and the occasional lucky contest winner, the commercial human spaceflight industry will never grow. Do we want to equate space travel with adventure tourism such as climbing Mount Everest, deep ocean submarine exploration, or Arctic expeditions? Do we want space travel to be seen as only a luxury that few can afford, only the lucky can experience, and the rest can only dream about and be inspired by? I don’t want that. Joy rides and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are not what I’m working in the space industry to develop and promote. My company’s motto is, “Space for all,” and I believe in that.

Married to a PhD economist, I’m no stranger to skepticism about the commercial space industry. The satellite market is profitable and sustainable because it has a wide market purpose. What is the wider purpose of human space travel for the general public that will make it profitable? Transportation is an obvious application, global transportation followed by transport to space outposts or planetary bodies as the infrastructure develops. If many years down the road we discover that planetary body mining or other planetary surface operations are profitable, and if there’s a benefit to having humans in the loop, there’s a potential application. Many, many, many years down the road, when we can extend human civilization into space beyond low-Earth orbit, there are more opportunities.

I’m a passionate space geek, but most of the population isn’t. Do our current astronauts inspire others? Yes, they inspire a tiny percentage of the population who are already inclined to think that space exploration is worthwhile. How many people in the general public know the name of a single current astronaut? How many of us in the industry can name a single current astronaut?

Astronauts inspire me in the sense that I want to fly in space as well, without being “right stuff” perfect. Space inspires many of us because we can imagine ourselves in their place, not as flawless humans or even in the top 10%. The involvement of the average person means progress.

When I fly in space, I want the experience to further normalize space travel. The last thing I want to do is to emphasize the specialness of it, to promote how elite the small group of astronauts is, or to put the experience up on a pedestal so high that the general public can’t touch it except in their dreams. The private space industry is doomed to failure if we take this route.

My goal is to take our industry out of the realm of the elite and make it more open, more inclusive, and more able to change the world that we live in by making it available and even commonplace for the average citizen. I don’t want my future children to dream of floating in space, I want them to experience it first-hand. I want to tell my grandchildren stories about how space travel used to belong only to the elite as we fly on a suborbital vehicle to take a family vacation across the world. I want to inspire others to buy a ticket for themselves.