Friday, January 29, 2016

Purpose and Community - What Drives You?

It's not often that a simple question stops me in my tracks and makes me really think. "What are some things you have liked from your experiences so far?"  I have had varied experiences over the years, many good, some not so good, some extraordinarily fantastic. What stands out in my mind?

In my previous job, I found it exhilarating to be part of a new space venture. The goal was exciting and new. I loved getting in at the beginning and being able to influence the direction and make things happen. I enjoyed being part of the larger conversation with people who make a difference at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation members meeting. I got a kick out of the uniqueness of attending a Swiss Embassy party. I felt like I had a purpose when I was bringing people together to assist in getting a new space vehicle off the ground and experiments and passengers within it.

In my job before that, I found satisfaction in being part of something bigger than myself, the International Space Station. I enjoyed being exposed to a diversity of science and engineering experiments ranging from research I was familiar with to research I had never imagined before. I felt comraderie in reaching out to scientists to understand their fundamental questions and assist them in attempting to answer them in space.

In another job, I loved examining the space industry as a whole and understanding how everything is interconnected. In another job, I loved the hands-on science experimentation that I was able to perform, including two microgravity campaigns in parabolic aircraft. I was also privileged to undergo centrifuge and altitude chamber training to simulate suborbital space. Although I was miserable camping, I enjoyed climbing down a meteor crater with an astronaut as our guide. In leading space-related organizations, I loved bringing people together and accomplishing things that bring others enjoyment. From my very first job in the field, I was excited to be doing real science!

Nothing beats watching the flames light beneath a vehicle heading toward the stars, or at least to the Karman line, and hearing the roar as it goes. I've watched a Mars rover testing and a future space observatory just being built. I've touched space hardware and I've longed to travel with it. I've held dust from another world. I've been on teams dreaming up Moon bases and Mars bases and various ways for humanity to travel beyond.

On the interpersonal side, this extrovert gets a thrill from discussing plans and ideas with colleagues and strangers alike. Presentations at conferences can be stimulating and the travel is fun, but I really prefer one-on-one or small group conversations where ideas flow. I enjoy meeting lawmakers and associated movers and shakers and articulating why space is such an important topic to me, to them, and to the country. I enjoy meeting strangers at a party or on an airplane and conveying to them why they should care. I especially enjoy speaking to students of all ages but especially older students who can ask great questions and convey their own enthusiasm for the subject. Inspiration is everywhere.

What do my favorite experiences have in common? Purpose and community. If I can find a true purpose in what I'm doing and belong to a community of like-minded people working with me to achieve it, I'm happy. And of course, lots of fun!

Astronaut Laura ready to leap - July 2007

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Astronaut Celebrity: Do You and I Have What it Takes?

I've never been starstruck by celebrity. People are people. I don't value fame nor rubbing shoulders with the famous. I value people for who they are. I've been this way for as long as I can remember.

In high school, I was starstruck by astronomy and the space industry in general. I had almost no interaction with the field, so I valued those who were my connection between the world I was in and the world I wanted to enter. For Laura the high school senior in suburbia Pennsylvania, that was astronaut Sally Ride.

I don't remember how the interaction was arranged. Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, was visiting our all-girls kindergarten through twelfth grade school which was undergoing a STEM education push. It was well known that I was a space geek, the only one among my peers. I was to be her student guide and travel with her on her tour of the school throughout the day.

I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but my memories of that day are not positive. I had no experience with celebrity and had never been used as a photo prop before. But there I was, standing next to a person who caused me to be starstruck not because of who she was but what she represented, cameras capturing the moment and reporters interviewing us both. When the cameras were on, she was all smiles.

When the cameras left, I no longer existed. She responded to my excited questions with dismissal. She had heard all the questions before, many times before, but in my youth I didn't know that. I took her snub personally. As people, we all have our good and our bad days, and that may have been a bad day for her for all I knew. As I escorted her to my AP Physics class, I slumped into my desk, dejected. Short of being her guide, I was not invited to join her for the rest of the day, and I had not yet developed the boldness to go anyway.

Press shot from my physics class, back when I had short hair and wore a uniform - November 2001

She was among the first of the nearly 50 astronauts that I've met. There are times when I feel a bit starstruck, especially when meeting some of the originals, but I step back and check myself. These are people, just people, not too different from me. They have achievements and they have flaws. They are intelligent people who have done extraordinary service to their countries and to humankind, but at the core, they are just like you and me.

My former employer's motto is “space for all” and I'm rather fond of it. What is it about the “right stuff” mentality that makes us think that human spaceflight is only for the elite? I hope to fly someday. I hope my infant daughter flies someday if she chooses to. I believe in the concept of opening space up for the average consumer to book a flight and introducing space settlement for the general society.

The firsts deserve celebration and respect. They paved the way for the rest of us. But there is a “rest of us” that will follow. They were capable, and we are capable. We're dreamers, we're doers, and we're explorers. We'll all people. It's in our blood.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Mars Mission Imagining with the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute

Last August, my undergraduate alma mater Florida Institute of Technology announced the creation of the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and his son, Andy Aldrin. On Monday and Tuesday this week, I was excited to attend the inaugural Buzz Aldrin Space Institute Workshop with approximately 40 Florida Tech professors and invited guests. The topic of the workshop was the Aldrin Earth-Mars Cycler concept and, more generally, a human mission to Mars.

Buzz Aldrin opening up the workshop. - January 18, 2016

Buzz opened up the workshop on Monday morning discussing his cycler and his thoughts on spaceflight in general. I met Buzz three or four times previously and had heard him discuss the cycler, but this was the longest and most comprehensive talk I'd seen him give. His plan, Cycling Pathways to Occupy Mars, has evolved over the years and continues to evolve. I've read a few of the studies done to detail and analyze the plan, but I have more research to do in order to understand it all.

In brief, the cycler is a continuous motion spaceflight plan to periodically send cargo and crew to and from Earth and Mars, and also potentially tying in cis-lunar space, the Moon, and Mars' moon Phobos. The timeline, number of vehicles, number of astronauts, and even the types of vehicles used all seem to be in flux depending on studies being done. Buzz seems to be moving away from NASA's Space Launch System SLS (which he sees as a drain of money and wants to see defunded along with the International Space Station) and more toward commercial space industry utilization. Specifically mentioned were Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats. International co-operation also seemed to be a key component. The eventual plan is to establish settlements on Phobos and Mars.

The technical details don't appear to be fleshed out well enough to be a true mission architecture at this point. The concept is early-stage and needs refinement. Therefore, the current timelines stated are very optimistic. It's all a good start. In order for this concept to become a proposed mission, more work needs to be done. I look forward to seeing the concept progress.

The international relations need a lot of work. The presentations had countries closely partnering who hate each other (China and Japan, North and South Korea), close partners not working together (Japan and USA, Japan and Europe, China and Russia), and a Mars-interested country forgotten entirely (India). There was also a curious statement that the United States can't go to Mars without China. We've send robotic missions to Mars without China. We'll very likely need international partnerships for a human mission but not necessarily China. China would be a great space partner but I'm not seeing that happen anytime soon.

Most of the rest of the workshop were talks related to the theme in four categories: in-space systems; surface systems and operations; human factors, health, and safety; and international cooperation and public support. Talks included topics such as trajectories, regolith flow due to rocket plumes (similar to a project I did while in grad school), propulsion, autonomous maneuvering, magnetic shielding, habitat analogs and simulators, biomining, Martian terrain, teamwork, mental health (in Buzz's opinion, the #1 human factors concern), costs, and public outeach. Some discussions took unexpected turns. Regarding the mental health talk, I've never heard prisoners of war discussed at a space talk before!

The last few hours of the workshop were break-out session discussions in small groups. I took notes and ended up later presenting for the surface systems and operations group. We covered a lot ground but there's so much more to discuss! It really got me thinking.

The workshop also included dinner on Monday evening. My husband took care of the baby all day Monday and Tuesday, so I took Josephine to dinner with me. She met her first two astronauts: Buzz Aldrin and Sam Durrance. Buzz's 86th birthday is today so we celebrated on Monday (the day after my birthday). It was a great opportunity to get to know everyone and exchange ideas. I'm pleased to have been involved and look forward to what BASI creates in the future.

Happy birthday, Buzz! cheer Josephine and I from the back - January 18, 2016

Josephine meets her first Moonwalker - January 18, 2016

Friday, January 8, 2016

Why I Took My Baby to a Professional Networking Event

I wasn't looking to make a statement. Initially I wasn't going to take her to the Florida Space Day pre-event reception. It's a professional event and bringing a baby would be seen as unprofessional, I concluded. My newborn is not yet taking a bottle, so for survival, she needs to be with me at all times. If being away from me isn't an option and taking her would seem unprofessional, then I would need to skip the event.

But then I began to question my own assumptions. Why would taking my baby to a professional event be unprofessional? When she is wrapped around my chest in three layers of what is essentially a very long scarf made to carry babies, she doesn't cry or fuss, she can barely be seen unless I uncover her. She silently eats and drifts off to sleep. She herself is not a disturbance. But her presence is a disturbance, one can say. Babies are a nearly universal conversation starter and many parents love sharing stories about their experiences. Baby talk when a baby is around is inevitable.

But that's no different to the disturbance my pregnancy caused. I didn't stay locked away when I was visibly pregnant. I was professionally active up until a week before the birth and even gave a talk 10 days before she was born. Anyone who saw my giant belly connected me to motherhood and baby talk was plentiful. No one deemed it unprofessional to attend professional events with my baby in my womb.

I polled social media, looking for outside opinions. Three men and two women thought that I should skip it while seven women thought that I should take her. Even my own mom the attorney mentioned that she brought me to hearings when I was a baby. I wasn't looking for consensus or majority opinion, I wanted perceptions and points of view.

In the end, I decided to attend. I sacrifice a lot for my child. I shouldn't sacrifice something that I want to do because of someone else's opinion of my child. The venue was a restaurant and the event was casual and celebratory. Nearly everyone in attendance had known me for years and had seen me pregnant over the months. Some were genuinely excited for me. Josephine was a big hit and did take up a lot of the conversation. But I also got to talk shop and be part of the Space Coast space community that I so very much love.

This is my first child but not the only child I hope to have. Should I as a mother be banished from professional society each time I have a little one? Although no one said anything negative, I'm sure that there were people in attendance who disapproved of my decision and think less of me professionally because of it. I'm unconcerned by their bias. My mind and my professional capabilities are not diminished because I reproduced.

More importantly, several people, mostly women but also one man, were grateful that I had brought the baby with me. One young lady a couple of years younger than me made a point to thank me twice throughout the night for being such an inspiration. It seems to me that babies at an event like this may seem unprofessional because it's uncommon. We just aren't used to seeing it. Although I did not set out to normalize it, I'm glad that my action may have contributed positively. Professional women should not be ashamed to also be mothers.

Florida Space Day kindly welcomed my little Josephine on their social media accounts with this photo.

Josephine and me at the Florida Space Day pre-event reception - January 7, 2016

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Cape Canaveral Not Busiest Spaceport in 2015, but Did Make History

I was in the room on January 13, 2015 when Col. Thomas Falzarano, commander of the 45th Space Wing's Operations Group, told the National Space Club Florida Committee that with 24 launches scheduled in 2015, Cape Canaveral may be the busiest spaceport in 2015. I very much wanted this to be true, but I was skeptical. Launches often face delays and space plans usually aren't executed on time. Now that 2015 is completed, how did the year's launch manifest pan out?

Short the 24 scheduled launches, there were 17 launches out of Cape Canaveral in 2015, one more than in 2014. Of those, 7 were SpaceX Falcon 9 launches, 8 were ULA Atlas V launches, and 2 were ULA Delta IV launches.

Russia's Baikonur launch site, which was the busiest site in 2014, again was the busiest in 2015 with 18 launches.

Not all launches were successful. I saw the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure from fairly up close on a boat on the lagoon. Two of the Baikonur launches failed. Looking at it another way, Cape Canaveral and Baikonur tied for the number of successful launches in 2015.

I watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch out of Cape Canaveral a week and a half ago, the last launch of the year out of the Cape. I heard those sonic booms as the rocket first stage returned to Earth and landed. Although Cape Canaveral didn't meet its goal of 24 launches and wasn't the busiest spaceport in the world in 2015, it made history last year. I'm looking forward to more successes in 2016.

My shot of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch out of Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015