Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Pseudo Geologist Among the Rocks at Barringer Meteor Crater, Arizona

Around 50,000 years ago, a nickle-iron meteorite approximately 50 meters long hit the Earth in what is now Arizona, creating what is known as Meter Crater or the Barringer Crater. Four and a half years ago, I got to explore it. I was one of 16 graduate students who participated in the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Meteor Crater Field Camp in September 2011. It was quite an experience!

On the rim of Meteor Crater - September 2011

I'll start out by admitting that I was not exactly a happy camper during the eight day field camp because I am not a camper at all. I enjoy comfortable beds, temperature controlled rooms, clean bathrooms, vehicles that can take me long distances, and other modern conveniences. To be fair, camping at Meteor Crater isn't fully camping. They had bathroom facilities with decent showers, electrical outlet ports outside, and wifi. I brought my laptop and connected to the internet every morning and evening. Even so, eight days is a long time for a non-camper to camp.

The Meteor Crater camp site - September 2011

I was also quite out-of-place with my peers. Although the program was open to geologists and planetary scientists, it heavily leaned toward geology. I had taken a graduate-level geology class and was studying lunar impact craters, but it was soon clear that I was the least knowledgeable about geology in the pack. Additionally, my fellow classmates seemed to love rocks and their excitement to stare endlessly at rocks was genuine. I think rocks are cool, but my interest in the minutia is short-lived. The program leader quickly identified me as a geologist fraud and took a disliking to me. We didn't see eye-to-eye on space policy, either. Despite my inadequacies, I learned quite a bit of geology from my peers and became the group's photographer with my DSLR.

Group at work - September 2011

Someone else took this one. I'm the short girl in purple - September 2011

The landscapes in the desert are gorgeous and plenty photogenic. We hiked around the crater rim, down to the center and back up again, around the crater ejecta blanket, and in an old quarry. Abandoned mining equipment and infrastructure littered the field like an archaeological site. Recent rains caused wildflowers to burst with color. And my team always seems to be posing in an action shot among the rocks. The sights were truly spectacular.

Wildflowers blooming - September 2011
Abandoned wheel - September 2011
Standing in the ruins with abandoned buildings yonder - September 2011

On the second full day, former astronaut Tom Jones joined us in our hike down the crater. I had met him once before and once since, and he always seems like such a cool guy. Apollo astronauts used to train for the lunar terrain in the crater, and NASA relics are still kept in the crater's museum, so the area has a history of astronaut activity. Tom gave us a presentation on potentially hazardous near Earth asteroids, a relevant subject in an area once hit by a near Earth asteroid.

Posing with astronaut Tom Jones - September 2011
Resting at the bottom of the crater - September 2011

If I wasn't a geologist before I arrived at the field camp, I certainly wasn't going to leave as one. Day after day, we undertook laborious tasks that I can't quite believe modern geologists still do. We counted pebbles by hand. We measured pebbles with rulers. We took location measurements of boulders with outdated handheld GPS receivers. We categorized everything we saw with our own eyes. It seemed to me that aerial remote sensing with good software could have accomplished most of what we did a lot more easily, but graduate students are cheap labor and we were out there for the experience.

Working among the rocks - September 2011

I do appreciate the experience and I'm glad to have participated in the program. Real science was done, and in a small way, I contributed. I'm a co-author on conference proceedings from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference: Extensional Faulting of the Overturned Coconino Ejecta Layer and Emplacement of Fallback Breccia at Barringer Meteorite Crater (aka Meteor Crater). But honestly, I'm more proud of my photography.

Self-portrait on the cliff - September 2011

Sunset at Meteor Crater - September 2011

Monday, February 22, 2016

Attention Students Desiring Space Careers: This Is For You

I am pleased to announce my services as a space career mentor. I've been sitting on this idea for a while and was finally inspired by a friend to move forward with it. I want to thank all of my mentors and mentees for giving me such great mentoring experiences over the years.

As a student, I collected mentors. No matter where I was and what stage I was in, I identified a professional who I admired and wanted to emulate. Interestingly, these were never university-assigned advisors. They were people I came across in passing or people I sought out and partnered with. Only in the case of my graduate school advisor were these formal mentors. Most of them had no idea that I considered them a mentor unless I told them. When told, they often acted embarrassed and didn't know what to say. Even the concept of an informal mentor carries weight. And so I refrained from defining relationships as thus an instead simply appreciated the individual as a colleague or authority figure who inspired me.

Over the past few years since I left academia, I've begun reaching out to individual students and student groups to spread the love of space and inspire space careers. Age ranges included elementary school through graduate students and even a few early professionals. Although these relationships are usually temporary, I have had the pleasure of connecting with some of these students long-term. I've watched some of them progress through high school and college and into professional jobs. I've been a cheerleader and a shoulder to cry on. I've watched some obtain their dream jobs and others leave the field for a better path. I've seen them all grow.

These mentee relationships, all of them informal except for one, have been tremendously rewarding. It's my current and former mentees who I have to thank for showing me how much I enjoy the relationship. It also helps to know that at least a few of them think that I'm pretty good at being a mentor. If I didn't know that I wasn't helping them in some way, I wouldn't offer myself as a mentor. To know that they think well of me and that I inspire them is a gift that they give me in addition to the gift of getting to know them. I thank them for their encouragement.

I also take inspiration from my former career coach who assisted me in jumping the hurdle from student to professional. She looked inside of me and inspired confidence and courage. She showed me that I had potential that I didn't know I had. It was from working with her did I realize that formal guidance could be offered with the assistance of the right tools, the right questions, and good listening skills. She knew nothing of the space field, yet she played a large part in guiding me to where I am today.

And so, I am offering my services as a space career mentor. The details can be found on the Astralytical website. I will still continue to speak with student groups and assist individual students on an informal basis, of course. This project doesn't replace my STEM outreach; it enhances it. I never felt that I had the time to follow up closely with each mentee to help them in the best way I could in the moment. With formal mentoring, I can do just that. I'll be able to assist and guide mentees in ways I haven't been able to before. And this excites me!

Are you looking to pursue or develop a space career, but don't know how or don't know if you're on the right track? Do you feel lost, stuck, or uncertain? Do you want to improve your career progress and prospects? Or do you know of a student or young professional who may benefit from a mentor? I'm here to help!

Hanging out in the VAB at KSC with college students at a STEM outreach event - August 2015 

Friday, February 19, 2016

My Personal Journey into Space Policy Geekery

Politics – a topic everyone loves to argue about. However, space is generally a universally loved subject. We can disagree about how much money is spent on it, who pays, and what actions are taken toward what objectives, but we all love that work is being done in space. This is seen when we achieve big discoveries: gravitational wave detection, Pluto fly-by, humans landing on another world. Here in Florida, space is especially beloved.

Earlier this month, I participated in my fourth Florida Space Day. Yesterday, we held the wrap-up meeting. Our goal is to effectively communicate with state legislators to promote space. After each annual event, we go over our lessons learned to improve the process for the next year. We try to make each year better and more impactful than the previous.

To understand why Space Day is so important to me, I need to go back in time four years. I was a doctoral student, enjoying my studies but wanting very much to get involved in space policy. I was President of the Florida Space Development Council, a National Space Society chapter, and was able to participate in Space Day thanks to FSDC sponsorship. I was thrilled to take part. When up in Tallahassee for the event, I was sitting on a job offer from CASIS, contemplating taking it (I did), but also wondering what a career in space policy would look like. As a student, the legislators loved meeting me. I felt like a sponge, absorbing everything.

The following years, I became a team lead and a subcommittee head, and I left my studies to enter the professional world. It really wasn't until this year that I felt that I could hold my own among the seasoned professionals advocating with me. Spreading the love of space is easy. Giving specific examples and answering the questions of busy and over-scheduled part-time state legislators is complex. This year, my fourth, I feel that I finally have the process down.

Building that confidence and expertise prepared me for my second space policy meeting yesterday: Congressman Bill Posey's Space Advisory Council. Twelve of us gathered with the Congressman to discuss relevant space topics of interest. In no particular order, this included: Orion and the Space Launch System, NASA commercial cargo and crew, education and public outreach, asteroid mining, launching from the United States versus elsewhere, certifications, the FAA's role in spaceflight, federal research grants, the presidential candidate's opinions on space, Air Force range, gravitational waves, the Chinese space agency, RD-180 Russian rockets, and NASA's budget planning.

I'm the only woman on the council and was the youngest by far. It was an honor to serve on the council with such a distinguished crowd. I proudly contributed to the conversation with my informed and sometimes unpopular opinions that I hope challenged some of the perceptions in the room. I've been doing quite a bit of research and self-study lately, and I'm hoping that my fresh look at the issues can be of use to the Congressman and even others on the council. It was a fun afternoon!

It amazes me to see how much I've learned in four years. And this is just the start of my space policy journey. What comes next, I can't wait to see!

Congressman Bill Posey's Space Advisory Council - February 18, 2016

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Refreshingly Honest Look at ISRU for Missions to Moons and Mars

It's refreshing to have an honest conversation about human spaceflight. I've written here previously about my frustrations that future human spaceflight hype discredits missions and makes it harder for us in the space world to do our jobs. Spaceflight is difficult, expensive, and takes time. Well-intentioned promoters downplay these challenges, but reality backfires on them. I'm an idealist by nature, but when it comes to the business and technical challenges of space, I'm a realist bordering on skeptic. Show me the detailed plan, show me the money, and show me how the technology is already being developed and tested.

It has been a pleasure to delve into realistic human spaceflight architectures at the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute this week. Only by detailing, step-by-step, a feasible and affordable means of creating a sustainable path to humans living on another world (Earth's Moon, Mars' moons, Mars itself, etc.) with a business case for industry profit can we accomplish such a monumental task. Apollo to the Moon was a one-time effort in history which will not and arguably should not be repeated. For decades, many in the space industry have known that sustainability (settlement, colonization, pioneering, establishing a base or outpost, whatever you want to call it) is what is needed. But there has never been a consensus on how to do it.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is not a new concept but is surprisingly an under-appreciated and under-funded area of study. Instead of needing to bring all resources with us on a rocket from Earth to wherever we're going, it would save a lot of weight (which translates to fuel savings, which translates to money savings) to use the resources that exist in space already. Although it has been politically unpopular to say so for years, a heavy lift rocket such as the Space Launch System is likely not needed if we instead focus on ISRU.

To use two examples that we discussed today at BASI, if we can use lunar and/or Martian regolith (dirt) to create water and rocket fuel/propellant, we would not have to bring extra water and fuel with us on these missions. Existing water/ice H2O can be extracted from the regolith. Electrolysis can break H2O into hydrogen H2 and oxygen O2 which can be used as fuel. All that is needed is energy. On Mars, carbon dioxide CO2 is also available in the atmosphere for ,making fuel.

There are multiple unanswered questions that need to be studied in order to propose this course of action. How do we best mine this regolith, especially the icy regolith? Can and how do we break apart the regolith and ice to extract the elements needed? How much energy would it take? How pure does the water and fuel need to be? Can and how do we create a usable fuel? How much would we save launching from the Moon compared to launching from Earth with Earth's higher gravity? So many questions, too little done in experimentation!

Thankfully, planetary regolith experimentation is one of my things, and I find this all to be exciting questions to ponder and later to test. Unfortunately, so far there hasn't been an organized and collaborative effort. There are scattered teams working on ISRU at NASA centers, universities, and even a few commercial companies, but no one seems to be talking to each other in a productive way to move the field forward. Thankfully, building collaborations is also one of my things. Today's meeting was fun and I look forward to bringing together even more people to advance this effort and get things done!

Money is the main barrier, as it always is. Aside from NASA, I don't know of anyone willing to fund these efforts, and NASA money is scarce. Without much funding, ISRU demonstration progresses at a snail's pace and the concepts and technology won't be ready for prime time when missions are being planned. Of course, missions are also endlessly delayed, so this isn't urgent. Here's where my optimism returns: I believe that public-private partnerships will return humans to other worlds in my lifetime. In fact, I'm holding on to the dream that I'll be among the astronauts to walk on another planetary body. I'm working hard to do my little part to get us there in whatever way I can.

What can we do with lunar regolith? - NASA KSC, January 22, 2015

Monday, February 8, 2016

“What is Your Dream? What are You Doing to Make it Happen?”

“What is your dream? What are you doing to make it happen?”

A top man in the field asked me this when I was in graduate school. I was puzzled by the question. I was in school pursuing a doctorate. Wasn't I already doing what I needed to do in order to make my dream happen?

Yes, and no. Because of the popularity of the academic track and the bias toward it in academic institutions, I was moving along the pipeline indirectly pursuing my dream. More directly, I was pursuing someone else's dream. Many people strive to secure the rare and coveted professor position at a respected university becoming an expert in a particular subfield due to years of training and research. But at the time, I already knew that path wasn't for me.

The first step in answering that question was to determine what my dream is. I want to be an astronaut, the same dream since childhood. But if I examine more closely, or just take a look at the specialty Florida license plate that I had ordered around this time which proclaimed 2LUNA – to the Moon – I'll note that my dream is to become a lunar astronaut or more broadly, a planetary astronaut. I was in school to be a planetary scientist, after all.

A look at NASA's direction at the time showed a choice: work hard to become an astronaut if you're lucky and you'll orbit Earth, or hold off on astronaut aspirations for a little while until NASA's next mission to somewhere. It didn't take me long to conclude that the private sector might be more in line with my goals. Although I still loved NASA, I had just come from working at MSFC and no longer saw working there as my end goal.

I was inspired by a company called Golden Spike which formed to create private human missions to the Moon. I even did a tiny side project with Golden Spike for a short while. I was just beginning to explore the world of the private space industry and I dove in head first. I knew that this is where I belonged. It seemed like the best avenue to make my dream become reality.

Years in the industry has taught me one thing over and over again: private industry can be as slow as government and doesn't always succeed. At this time, there is no path to me becoming a planetary astronaut. I don't have the funds to become a suborbital astronaut. I likely don't have the genes to become a NASA astronaut. The path forward for the pursuit of my dream is unclear.

So, what am I doing to make my dream happen? I'm joining the doers. I'm learning all I can and contributing to the progress of the space industry as a whole. I'm starting conversations with people smarter and more experienced than myself, I'm analyzing data, and later this year I hope to play with hardware again. I am working as part of something greater than myself.

Lately, I've been envious. I see others along the path with me and I want what they have. But I need to work to get there. I have my own needs and goals. Now, when I catch envy stirring in me, I ask myself not, “Why don't I have that?” but rather, “What do I need to do to get that? And do I even want it?” In discerning my actions, I can take the best steps forward. My life is no one else's.

What is your dream? What are you doing to make it happen? Don't just live on autopilot. Don't pursue someone else's dream. Really consider what actions you're taking to move forward in your pursuit. Don't be afraid of course corrections. Don't be afraid to try something new. Best of luck on your journey!

Finding the courage to pursue my dream, and to tell the world about it! - February 2011

Friday, February 5, 2016

Adventures in Tallahassee with Florida Space Day

For the fourth year, I drove up to Florida's capital, Tallahassee, on Tuesday for Florida Space Day. During this day, our group of space industry representatives meets with as many legislators as we can schedule in order to thank them for their support and to ask for their continued support. For the third year, I was a team lead for a small team of four people schedule to meet with six legislators and drop off information at a handful of other offices. Although I'm not part of a sponsoring entity this year, I drove up on my own dime because I believe in the cause – and it's fun!

The event begins with a light reception at the Challenger Learning Center the evening before so that teams can becoming acquainted with one another. This also means catching up with colleagues and meeting new people. This year, AIAA Executive Director and former astronaut Sandy Magnus joined us; she's astronaut #47 I've had the pleasure to meet. Typically, a large number of us go out to dinner after, usually to Harry's across the street.

Hello pre-reception, happy to be here! - February 2, 2016

My morning started early on Wednesday with a 7:30 breakfast at the Challenger Center to meet up with my team. Cissy Proctor, the new director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity spoke to us at 8:00. She quoted from their new marketing campaign: "Some states promise you the moon. Florida delivers it."

Florida's Capitol in Tallahassee. The dolphins are fitting. - February 2, 2016

A view of Tallahassee from the top 23rd floor of the Capitol - February 2, 2016

Our team's first meeting with Space Coast area Senator Thad Altman was scheduled to be at 8:30 but had to be rescheduled. I took the opportunity to admire a beautiful painting in his office of a rocket launch and my undergraduate university's campus. Our team then had lots of time to kill, so we hung out in the Florida Space Day exhibit hall in the 3rd floor of the Capitol building. It was then that I really got a chance to speak with astronaut Sandy Magnus. We spoke about travel, blogging, and why she loves Florida.

My alma mater Florida Tech in this painting with a space shuttle launch - February 2, 2016

Florida Space Day exhibits line the 3rd floor rotunda of the Capitol - February 3,2016

Meeting astronaut Sandy Magnus - February 3, 2016

I've never had a negative meeting during Florida Space Day. Generally speaking, Florida lawmakers are very supportive of the space industry. Most are very enthusiastic, even going as far as to say they wanted to be astronauts or they wanted to take a special trip from wherever their home is to see a rocket launch. One year I met a House Representative whose uncle was a private astronaut who flew to the International Space Station. You never know how the conversations will go.

Our team meeting with Rep. "Coach P" Rene Plasencia of Orlando - February 3, 2016

This year I had the most challenging meeting yet. This Tea Party-leaning Republican representative did not believe that any government spending should go to the space program at all, including grants and incentives to private industry. It is difficult to convince someone dead against all spending that some spending is not only beneficial, but necessary. The country's space industry wouldn't exist without government investment and infrastructure. Thankfully, he was very supportive of the commercial space industry and innovation.

Our meeting with Senator Altman was rescheduled to the late afternoon, so what was to be our first meeting became our last. The senator is one of our biggest supporters in the Florida senate and it's always a pleasure to speak with him. He took our team to see the Senate Chambers, empty at the moment. I hadn't been down to the floor before. It's such a grand room!

Senator Thad Altman kindly showed us the Senate Chambers - February 3, 2016

Florida Space Days always ends with a party, this time held at the Challenger Center. NASA's Spaceman was still around, so I got a picture. I swapped stories with my colleagues and met a few more people. Then, I was off again for a 4 hour drive back home. And thus concluded another great Space Day!

Hurrah for another successful Florida Space Day! - February 3,2016