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.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Manufacturing Day with Craig Technologies

I'm preoccupied with other things today, but I wanted to quickly recap the fun that was Manufacturing Day on Friday afternoon. I had never attended a Manufacturing Day event before and I'm not directly involved in manufacturing, but it sounded interesting and I wanted to check it out.

A beautiful, windy autumn day in Cape Canaveral outside of the ADMC - Oct. 2, 2015

The event took place at the Craig Technologies' Aerospace and Defense Manufacturing Center in Cape Canaveral. When last I had been to that complex in 2010, it was the United Space Alliance's NASA Shuttle Logistics Depot. USA essentially closed down after the retirement of the space shuttle program, and Craig Technologies took over the facility. I recognized some of the same equipment, though much has been added and improved upon in the last five years.

I would have loved to take more photos of what I saw. However, photography was strictly forbidden inside the facility. They even half-jokingly threatened to confiscate my camera when I asked if I could take a photo of a display booth of manufactured parts that was set up for visitors. I only dared to take photos outside the building, in the lobby, and in the exhibit area.

Our tour guide was the program manager for manufacturing (or a similar impressive title) and was extremely knowledgeable and informative throughout the facilities tour. The tour began in the avionics area where a huge room is set up for cable manufacturing. I wanted to go into the foam wall room where they conduct antenna testing, but our tour group was too big. We were shown a temperature-controlled vibration testing machine quite a bit bigger than the ones I've seen at universities. Although we didn't see the area, we were told about a project testing lighting cycling on the International Space Station.

We were taken to a different area where tubes are created, bent, and assembled. I didn't understand what they meant by “tube bending” until the demonstration. Very similar to how I bend thin strands of metal around circular objects when making or fixing jewelry, an automated machine bends metal pipes around a curved structure quickly and efficiently. In that same area, we were shown a large autoclave for tube creation, a pressure chamber for outgassing, and a laser etching the words “Craig Technologies” into a metal bottle cap opener.

We were then shown a 100,00 class clean room. I smiled when I peered inside the clean room and saw a vacuum chamber bell jar nearly identical to the one I worked with daily for years in graduate school. Only this bell jar had an impressive induction brazing system inside of it.

We were then shown the busiest area: basic manufacturing. I've been trained to use basic machine shop tools: mills, lathes, and drills. I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to use most of the equipment they have: 3, 5, and 9 axis milling machines; coordinate measuring machines; 3D printing machines; water jets, and an electrical discharge machine which I hadn't heard of before. Our tour guide explained that most of the work is manufacturing and reverse manufacturing, not much actual design work here.

The tour ended with snacks, beverages, and an exhibit hall full of manufacturing and technology related organizations. I saw a demonstration of a program identical to the Logo Turtle Graphics that I learned in elementary school, only with Disney's Frozen characters as the cursor courtesy of (I personally don't believe that we should "feminize" gender-neutral things by changing their appearance to try to appeal to girls, and instead we should let girls know that gender-neutral things are made for them, but that's just me.) I got to say hello to some colleagues and learn about new things in the area.

The mayor gave a speech, as did Mark and Carol, the President and Founder/CEO, respectively. I've worked with them during Florida Space Day these past few years and have been meaning to learn more about Craig Technologies. Thank you to Craig Technologies and everyone involved for being such great hosts and putting on a great program!

Sneaking a picture with the astronaut-signed space shuttle mock-up in the lobby - Oct. 2, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

Tip for Students: Follow Up, but in the Right Way

I'm still new to mentoring and I have a lot to learn. I give well-meaning advice to students that I wish that I had been told at their age, but my advice-giving skills need some refinement. I laughed this week as my poor advice-giving accidentally set a student up to fail. I hope that she isn't reading this because I don't mean to put her on the spot, but I will use her as an example. To her credit, she was the only student to follow up from that conference.

Student networking takes a different form than professional networking. Most professional networking is to meet new colleagues, share ideas, and learn how we can help each other in our respective positions. Students are mostly concerned with gaining experience through internships and entry-level jobs. Most don't have business cards but are instead are told to come armed with short “elevator” speeches and resumes in hand, which may or may not be good advice depending on the situation.

Most students collect business cards. I collected a drawer full as a student and even more as a professional. No one told me that a business card collection is mostly useless. Business cards offer short-term ways of communicating and are only worth anything if the recipient then initiates communication. Whenever I meet students at a business card exchange, I always advise them to follow up.

Yesterday, I received an email from a student who I met at the career prep conference that I helped with on Saturday. Her email contained the short message, “This email is just a follow-up to you per your suggestion.” I had to chuckle at my own failings for giving her incomplete advice. Her follow-up email to me was essentially useless. I hadn't properly conveyed why she should contact me to follow up.

First, there was the issue of identification. I met many students over those the conference's two days and I could not remember her just by her name. It would have been helpful for her to give me a short reminder of who she is, what she's studying, and a brief synopsis of what we discussed. Some people can instantly match name, face, and conversation. I am not one of those people unless a meeting was particularly memorable.

Second, there was the issue of her motivation for contacting me. Her email did not tell me what she wanted from me. Did I tell her something that she wanted to clarify or follow up on? Did she want to continue our conversation or start a new conversation? Did she want career advice? Did she want a job? Did she want to establish a relationship? I had no way of knowing without asking.

She responded that she would like to send me her resume. I am surprised that students in their teens and early 20s are still being given the advice that a traditional, static resume is the go-to resource in business settings. She is a sophomore, which puts her likely graduation date two and a half years away. She hadn't mentioned or asked about internships or part-time work as a student, so I assumed that her goal is post-graduation employment. Her current resume would be two and a half years out of date by the time I looked it again. Not that I would look at it again. I do not keep a database of resumes and therefore any resume that I receive is immediately thrown away or deleted (sorry students who have handed me resumes in the past, but it's true).

I responded that rather than send me her resume, she could connect with me on LinkedIn. I noted that she does not have a LinkedIn profile. Surely her generation is very familiar with social media. LinkedIn is a living resume, one that she can update over the years. If I was interested in potentially hiring her in the future, LinkedIn is my database of resumes.

Even that was incomplete advice on my part. It's not enough to simply connect with me on LinkedIn and never contact me again. Establishing a relationship would be the best advice that I can give her, regardless of her age and goals. I don't know her from any other engineering student. What makes her an individual apart from the rest? Who is she, what are her passions, what can I teach her, and can I help her along her journey? These are the questions I really care about, not getting her a job.

There are so many ways to establish this kind of relationship: follow-up conversational emails, follow-up meetings, follow-up phone calls, an informational interview, and interaction via social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or this blog. If I get to know a student over the years, I'm much more likely to help him/her over any other student who I met once a while ago.

Students: please follow up, but don't worry solely about getting a job or widely sending out your resume. Focus on your formation. Contemplate your direction and goals. Think about how you can learn from professions, not how they can help get you a job. Form relationships first and foremost. Everything else will come.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Relativity, Engaging Scientists in Policy, and the US Commercial Space Industry

I've fallen behind in writing about the awesome space and science talks that I've attended in the past week! Now seems like a good time to catch up and let you all know about some cool happenings.


Drs. Jeffrey Bennett and Dan Batcheldor - September 25, 2015 

On Friday evening, unrelated to but coinciding perfectly with a student career preparation conference that I helped with, I attended Florida Institute of Technology's monthly public science lecture series with Dr. Jeffrey Bennett who last year published the book What Is Relativity? I enjoyed conversing with my former professors prior to the talk and ended up unexpectedly taking a front row seat. I'm glad that I did!

Overall, I found the couch-sitting interview-style talk to be informative, entertaining, and even humorous, not what one would expect for a physics talk! I have the advantage of a doctoral-level education in physics and an interest in relativity since high school, so the concepts discussed were well known to me. I could focus instead on the presentation style and perspectives. I was surprised and even amused by the analogous scenarios presented to explain some of the mind-bending curiosities of relativity.

I did not previously know that 2015 is the International Year of Light. It has been approximately 100 years since Einstein's publications on relativity. One of Jeff Bennett's goals is to address the misconceptions about space and relativity. One misconception, a personal pet peeve of mine that my own employer is guilty of, is being too casual with wording by stating or implying that there is no gravity in space. There is always gravity in space, anywhere in space, though gravitational pulls may cancel to a net gravity of zero.

Other misconceptions stem from the fact that when it comes to relativity, we don't have any common sense. We have never traveled at relativistic speeds. Similar to quantum mechanics, it's hard to wrap our minds around something that we don't have any direct experience with. Yet relativity does affect us every day. For example, navigational satellites such as GPS use relativity in their calculations. We've been testing relativity since the Michelson–Morley experiment in 1887. I and countless other physics students have replicated this experiment in physics labs.

One interesting point was that humans don't like being told what we can and cannot do. Relativity tells us that we can't go faster than the speed of light c. We immediately try to figure a way around this. Science fiction writers usually don't even try to break c; instead they speculate about loopholes such as inter-dimensional travel.

The conversation covered gravitational lensing, black holes, determinism, multiverses, and the “theory of everything.” One funny moment came when the speaker stated, “I don't like determinism and I don't know why,” and the moderator responded, “You have no choice.” Ah, geek humor.

I was the first in line to ask a question clarifying Stephen Hawking's latest black hole theory. I was also the only female to ask a question in a long line of curious males. I did see a few female students approach the speaker after the talk, as if they were interested but didn't want to stand up to be heard. Come on ladies, let's show the world that we have brains and mouths!

Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy

On Tuesday I attended an American Association for the Advancement of Science webinar on Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy by Dr. Rush Holt, a physicist, the CEO of AAAS, and former New Jersey Congressman. The title of this talk was mislabeled, or otherwise their wasn't much meat in the talk about the topic at hand.

The majority of the presentation was lamenting the lack of science understanding in the general public, which I can totally get behind. The speaker was preaching to the choir, in my opinion. He would often slip economics understanding into the discussion, which seemed out of place, but was obviously on his mind. One of my PhD economist husband's biggest pet peeves is when non-economists act like authorities on economics while ignoring or dismissing actual experts. It is the same in science.

Two of the speaker's biggest concerns were students and news media. Both are not taught well how to ask for evidence but instead take what is presented to them at face value, blindly believing it. I see this all the time in the general public, even among my friends. A celebrity, a trend-setter, or a seeming authority makes a statement or writes an article (or blog post!) about a scientific topic and, without doing any research of their own, people blindly believe it. It's no wonder that scientific understanding in our culture is so poor when even our own journalists don't investigate to make their own conclusions. This is the information age and the world is at our fingertips – use it!

Approximately five minutes of the 45 minute talk was actually dedicated to what scientists/engineers can do in policy. The advice: take on a fellowship to work a temporary position in Capitol Hill. I've been hearing this advice since graduate school and it's so disconnected from reality. Science-trained politicians and staffers are a fantastic asset to our government and policy-makers, but the vast majority of scientists are not able to pause their lives, disrupt their families, and move to Washington, D.C. for a year (the term period for most of these fellowships). This just isn't feasible for 99.99% of scientists, so what is the advice for the rest of us?

The biggest take-away from the talk was that we as scientists can help others learn to question. Science is within everyone's grasp and isn't just for experts. Anyone can ask Why? How? What is the evidence? If someone has a misconception about science, ask them probing questions about what evidence was used to come to that conclusion. Make them think. This advice wasn't really relevant to the talk's topic, but still very good advice.

US Commercial Space Industry

Dr. Roger Handberg - September 30, 2015

Yesterday, coinciding well with a university mentorship program that I participated in on campus later that day, I hung out with some of my former professors and colleagues at the University of Central Florida for the Florida Space Institute's lecture series. The talk was by Dr. Roger Handberg, a political science professor. The topic: US commercial space industry.

Overall, the speaker gave a good historical overview of the public-private partnerships in the US space industry. More recent happenings and analysis is where the speaker got a little stuck with lack of knowledge and mixed up a few things. His assessments were very pessimistic, which is actually a refreshing counter to the rah-rah advocacy so prevalent in the space industry. I don't agree with all of his negative outlooks, especially in the areas where his information is lacking, but my skeptical scientist side did appreciate the alternative perspective.

He began by speaking about the decline in government funding in the space program and how that decline is stressing private industry, generally speaking and not mentioning any particular government cuts. He didn't give figures, but I'm curious to know what they are. If a reader could point me in the right direction, I'd appreciate it.

He went over some recent difficulties in the industry, such as the Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX accidents. He also discussed the current challenges with politics forcing ULA to replace its Russian RD-180 engine. With ULA phasing out Atlas V and most of Delta IV, and with the Blue Origin BE-4 engine replacement still in development, he worried that SpaceX may become a national monopoly for government launches. I think that this is highly unlikely, but time will tell.

He spoke about some of the more successful space applications, such as communication, navigation, and remote sensing satellites. Historically, I did not realize that denial of satellite imagry to adversaries during wartime was an actually strategy that the US military used. He said that it's harder to do now with so much Earth observation competition. He also touched upon some of the challenges in the satellite industry that I'm less familiar with such as the limited number of receivers and spectrum interference.

The bottom line is that the cost to orbit is still the number one problem in the space industry. Spacecraft reusibility may lower cost significantly but is very difficult to achieve. High cost holds back tourism, as well as safety concerns and the lack of reliable transportation. State spaceports have popped up all over due to increased popularity and enthusiasm after the 2004 SpaceShipOne X-Prize win, but lack of progress and high cost hinders the industry. Space manufacturing and space mining isn't economically feasible due to high launch costs. The economics doesn't work unless the industry is government subsidized, he said. It wasn't a positive outlook on the industry, but probably more realistic than many would admit.