Space Can Never Be Too Large September 17, 2014Posted by craftlass in NASA, space.
Tags: community, NASA, outreach, space, space advocacy
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I like space. I like things that are in space, and things that people send into space from our planet’s surface.
I like space agencies, both domestic and foreign. I like commercial space companies, new and old. Heck, this near-pacifist doesn’t even hold it (entirely) against the giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that they build all sorts of things designed to aid war and the harm of humans, because they also utilize their extensive capabilities and bank accounts to get people and things into space (and I’m not stupid, I know that weapons and deployment systems are necessary in our imperfect world, no matter how much I may hate that).
Space trumps almost everything, in my personal opinion. Exploration not only adds to our knowledge of the past and present, but is the key to our future. It goes beyond politics and current events or momentary needs and problems.
I also like the space community, a catch-all for people who are professionals in the industry and the space geeks like me who simply cheer them on. Most of my close friends come from this community and it’s the first one I’ve been part of where I genuinely enjoy socializing on a broader level. I’ve never been a big fan of large parties, but put me in a room with any number of strangers who share this love of space, and I will enjoy meeting and talking with pretty much everyone in that room.
“…Any chance to talk rockets, thrust, and issues
With someone who actually has an opinion
Even if we can’t find anything to agree on” – from Life of a Space Geek, by the author*
Now, as with any community, you’ll find various factions and cliques and fandoms (and geeks do excel at building fandoms, to be sure). These things naturally develop in social groups and since the development of what is known as New Space, there are more opportunities to build fandoms as well as more things to argue about. I know people who are staunch believers that only governments should be working on space exploration. I know people who think governments should get entirely out of the endeavor and leave it to corporations. I know die-hard fans of each company and government agency that has taken on the enormous take of getting people and things to space. I know people who think we should stop spending billions on human spaceflight and focus on purer scientific exploration, and people who barely realize there are planetary and pure science missions because they are so focused on human spaceflight.
I completely respect everyone’s right to their opinions and I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to the wide variety that are shared. Spirited debate is a very good thing.
But me? In the end, I just like space.
I look at space agencies and corporations and I see problems with every single one of them, some small and some major. The more I learn, the more I’m both disappointed and impressed. I also see that they are all working hard, in their own individual ways, to push exploration ever further. My favorite thing about New Space is that it added a whole lot more competition to the mix, which not only pushes each New Space company but puts pressure on more established companies to innovate. I’m thrilled that NASA can focus on getting humans further than ever before because the industry will soon be able to take over most of the goings-on in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), even if I have my own criticisms of each decision along the way. I’m even excited for companies formed to work on the possibility of mining in space, because that sort of technology not only applies to the fortunes of Earth, but will become vital to our chances to potentially move on from the planet that gave birth to our species. Money can also be an excellent motivator, and competition for it only increases the drive to succeed.
That said, I’ll admit I cried my eyes out the moment that STS-135 touched down, signaling the end of the shuttle program. What can I say? I’m just a fan of space and spacecraft and endings are sad even when they are ultimately for a greater good.
As someone who will never work in the industry itself, as I have no interest in working for a government and a lack of appropriate education for any position anyway, I have the privilege of standing back and watching the tales unfold. I can play armchair quarterback and spew my criticisms and praise without fear of it harming my career prospects. My only contributions to space are some quirky tunes like the one quoted above and an almost perverse obsession with talking about the subject with anyone who will give me a moment of their time, including strangers I happen to strike up a conversation with on the street or subway. Sometimes I also write prose about it and contribute to the podcast Talking Space. I study methods of space outreach for fun and to become more effective at it. I give out a lot of stickers and solar glasses to random people I meet. One of my favorite people at NASA, Jon Verville, once called me (and, yes, Jon – I heard what you said behind my back and I don’t think I’ve had the chance to thank you for it, so thanks), “The ultimate space cheerleader.” I’ll take it, because that’s the only involvement I aspire to.
The truth is, I don’t want to pick sides in any of these races. Once you go there it can be very hard to look objectively and critically at your favorite, or to see the good in the opposition.
I get it – people like to pick teams. I used to be a sports fan and still have deep loyalties to certain teams even though I rarely even look at scores for the major American leagues anymore. It seems to be part of human nature to pick factions, and we’re all just human.
Yesterday, NASA formally announced the two companies that have made it to the next round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contracts, Boeing and SpaceX, as well as the levels of funding for each contract, with Boeing receiving a much higher amount. In my opinion, the press conference wasn’t very informative beyond those facts and I’m awaiting more concrete information before I react strongly. Before the press conference there were a lot of rumors flying around, some accurate, many not-so-accurate, and the only real consensus seemed to be that Boeing would get one of the contracts. Despite that consensus, there was quite a bit of fury over that selection, particularly from those who prefer new industry over the traditional players, and, conversely, from those who feel that there is too much blind support for certain newer companies. I’m not saying that people were and are wrong to feel that way, because that would be ridiculous, but the level of anger from some people ultimately seems unproductive to the larger goals, especially when you consider that there isn’t much that any of us can do to change what has been decided and publicly announced.
I was immediately reminded of an exchange I had at the first SpaceUp Houston in 2011. A panel of representatives from commercial spaceflight companies was held on the Saturday evening of the weekend, followed by a concert by yours truly. As I was waiting to take the stage I was approached by a man from Boeing (apologies for not recalling his name, I even tried to look it up but couldn’t find the list of panelists). He was wondering, “Bake Sale for NASA, huh? So how do you feel about commercial spaceflight?” My response was simple and is still true, “I am a proud supporter of anyone who can get anything off this planet, especially people.” (N.B.: these are paraphrases, I have a good memory, but not that good).
So, go ahead and feel your feelings, support who you like, and share what you think. Please level your critiques of the process, especially if you are an American citizen whose tax dollars will go to these companies, as you also have the (rarely used enough by citizens) right to voice your opinions to your representatives in the federal government. I would never ask people to be quiet about any of this, debate and outrage and excitement are the tools that the layperson can wield.
I would just like to remind everyone that someday this will all be a blip in the annals of space history, and don’t let your anger or support for any particular player turn into blinders or, indeed, into personal anger at your fellow space geeks who might have different opinions. If human beings are going to continue this progress, those of us who love and support these endeavors need to not only keep up our enthusiasm but find ways to spread it around outside of the space community.
In the world outside of social media, it can be a very lonely thing to like space, and this global community has made everyone involved grow not just in knowledge, but in the confidence that helps us to more effectively stand up for what we believe in. If we don’t advocate relentlessly for space observation and exploration in all its forms, who will?
*Life of a Space Geek will be part of a forthcoming album that I’m about halfway through writing, about the last few years of the shuttle program and the people involved in it. Sorry there isn’t a recording to link to yet!
4 Years On November 25, 2013Posted by craftlass in music, NASA.
Tags: bake sale, bake sale for nasa, folk, folk music, folk song, human spaceflight, NASA, planetary science, space program
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4 years ago today I was a space geek who had never been to any NASA center or seen any full-sized heading-away-from-Earth rocket launch. I’d yet to meet most of the friends I’d made via Twitter but was already feeling the positive effects of knowing people who shared a lot of interests with me. I’d just arrived in Florida for Thanksgiving. Atlantis was in the midst of her STS-129 mission and the first NASA launch tweetup had been held for that mission’s launch just about a week earlier. I had plans to make my first visit to Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing later that week, but was enjoying relaxing by my father’s pool with my family in the meantime.
A few months earlier I’d been watching the Augustine Commission hearings on human spaceflight while reading about lesser-known NASA projects that had resulted in excellent improvements to life on Earth, such as agricultural programs that have prevented a lot of starvation but are never hyped. I saw a joke on Twitter about how NASA was going to have to resort to bake sales if they wanted a decent budget and the idea captured my imagination. Visions of rocket-shaped cookies and moon pies danced in my head.
I turned to my computer as C-SPAN blared away in the background and found myself typing:
We sent men to the moon because of some lines
In a speech that inspires to this day
We learn more about Earth from orbit
Than we can in any other way
Yet we spend and we spend and we spend and we spend
On corporate welfare that will never end
Programs that waste more than they create
Yet we’re happy to let NASA deflate
So let’s hold a bake sale for NASA
Show our love for a program that actually works
The cookies are sure to be out of this world
We could even has astros as clerks
Give folks a chance to learn first-hand
Why we need these adventures in space
How it affects them directly at home
And elevates the whole human race
Yes, they just came out that way, no editing required. I picked up my guitar and the chords to complement my new melody just came together right away. As soon as I had a solid pattern going on guitar, the rest of the lyrics just flowed out. Later, I did a bunch of research to confirm my facts and was pleased to find that my statements were pretty accurate.
I wasn’t a musician, I didn’t want to be and had made that decision years earlier. I can’t help writing songs by the dozen, but I was way over-the-hill for a female musician already (33 years old at the time, over-the-hill is usually age 28 for women) and had spent enough time on the road to know it was a hard life with little chance to make a living or maintain the other parts of your life (paying jobs, relationships, etc.). But this song was special. This one had to be heard. It had an important message that wasn’t getting to people and there was no way I’d be getting someone else to perform something so quirky. My friend Stephen Bailey practically ordered me to play it at an open mic before I’d even memorized it, after I showed him my lyric sheet. It got the biggest response I’d ever received from the audience. I’d tweeted about the title and people wanted to hear it. When I published the lyrics online the clamor grew.
My background is in audio engineering but I strongly believe that a musician should not be her/his own engineer and producer if possible, especially for someone like me who writes in a vacuum, without collaborators. It’s easy to get tunnel-visioned about your own music and a fresh perspective is key to making a good song great. Dave Entwistle, a new friend I’d made through his open mic nights, was also an engineer who had been through some terrible music business experiences that gave him recording sensibilities very similar to mine. It was a perfect match. We recorded it over a couple of days and had a blast doing it, the best recording session I’d ever been part of. He elevated the song and my performance in a way that felt more like magic than effort and brought my vision to life.
Most of life requires a lot of hard work. This song never did. Everything just kept coming together.
I joined TuneCore and set the song up to release as a single while packing for Florida. The site said it could take 2-3 weeks to get it to the stores (that time has shrunk over the years) so I sort of pushed it out of my head and took off for the airport.
4 years ago today I got a tweet from @txflygirl saying that she’d just bought “Bake Sale for NASA” at Amazon. It had only been one day and it was up! Next thing I knew, I was on the Amazon charts just above Carly Simon, not in a high position but on the list and climbing. It was the biggest shock of my life. No promotion, no record label, I hadn’t done any of the things I knew I should do to spread the word. It was selling anyway.
Walking onto KSC grounds as an accidental musician with a song about NASA was quite the experience. I’ve never felt so proud. I got to meet Jen and Andy Scheer for the first time, Jen had done the beautiful cover for the song and it was just perfect that we’d already planned to meet that day. I had no idea how all of these things would change my life forever.
We make plans, we set goals, we try so hard to control our lives. It never works. The great things happen when you least expect them and weren’t looking at all.
To date, I’ve been to 3 NASA centers and their headquarters in DC, I saw four of the last five shuttle launches and three of the last five landings, I spent a day at the European Astronaut Training Center in Cologne, I’ve gotten to perform at some of the best events I’ve even been to, and I’ve met amazing people from all over the world who are so smart, funny, and interesting that I still have trouble believing they exist. I may not have full access to that part of my life right now, but the memories are priceless and I can’t wait to get back to traveling again someday.
There even was an actual bake sale for NASA, not to raise money for NASA (that would be illegal) but to raise awareness and support for planetary sciences, created by Alan Stern. My song didn’t inspire it, but it did inspire participants and helped spread the word. That was thrilling for this huge fan of planetary science and unmanned missions. “Bake Sale” might focus on human spaceflight a bit, but it is really about growing all exploration programs, whether they are pointed out at the universe or back home, because all of the pieces to this puzzle are very important to our understanding of the universe we live in.
I wanted to do something special today, like maybe a broadcast of a new live version, but my mouth rebelled and half of it is swollen to where it feels like I have an Everlasting Gobstopper stuck between my molars. I have to go to the dentist and its filling me with so much dread that I’m nauseated and unsuccessfully trying to get work done and probably shouldn’t even be writing this. How do you let the anniversary of the best thing that’s ever happened in your life pass by without notice, though?
A lot of musicians get frustrated when people obsess over one of their songs. Some react by refusing to play their big hit, some play it without putting any heart or soul into it, and still others just rush through the song as quickly as they can (such as Blues Traveler, who managed to play “Runaround” with such speed that you could barely even attempt to sing along after it became a hit). It’s demoralizing and can even be a creativity-killer. Why be creative if your audience only cares about one song? Or will walk out if you play something new, even if it is a far better song, just because it’s new? Or will get angry at you for trying to improve your performance and branch out in new directions?
Playing the same song night after night is boring. I get it.
But I still love playing “Bake Sale” every bit as much as I did at that open mic where it was debuted. Even when I’m home alone rehearsing I can close my eyes and see hundreds of special people in a host of special places, singing and clapping along. I can hear the ghost of an audience chanting, “NASA! NASA! NASA!” like they did at a local pub that was decidedly not full of space geeks. If I ever start playing out again, feel free to request it. I won’t get upset.
“Bake Sale” is the closest thing I will ever have to a first-born. It was far from my first song, but it was the song that broke me out of the prison I’d built around myself. It was the first baby I’d sent out in the world and it managed to survive on its own. I’m a proud momma.
I wish there was a way to thank every single person who has purchased any of my music, shared the links to my music at various sites, written about my songs, invited me to play an event, came to the Endless BBQs and Yuri’s Nights and similar, supported my adventures, and paid insane amounts of money above the list price for Above the Sky at Bandcamp. Every one of you will be in my heart forever, even if I don’t know who you are.
Okay, time to conquer my fear of dentists, just like “Bake Sale” forced me to conquer my stage fright.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about how you discovered “Bake Sale” in the comments and if you have any special memories attached to it. I’ve heard quite a few from people but it would be fun to consolidate them and maybe even hear some new ones!
Launch to Launch August 9, 2010Posted by craftlass in SpaceTweeps, travel.
Tags: NASA, space
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Easter morning. Normally a morning I’m getting up early to start preparing an elaborate feast for some of my dearest friends, despite my lack of religion, just because you may as well feast when you can and Easter food is tasty. I started this tradition in my “I want to be a domestic goddess” phase and it had lasted 5 years. Yet, there I stood this Easter, nice and early for my flight out of Newark and enjoying the chilly but beautiful weather while waiting to head back down to Florida. I had just finished Above the Sky that week and, instead of sleeping like a smart person, had spent the night before finishing up the sequence and getting it posted to Tunecore and Bandcamp, going straight from one big adventure to another. A perfect way to leave.
It’s rare that you know in advance you are about to have the best 10 days of your life. Normally, the best experiences just sort of come about, they resist planning. Not that I’d planned much. I was jumping on a fairly last-minute flight to go to a state where I had no plans for accommodations and knew I couldn’t afford to rent a car for more than a day. There was about $20-30 in my pocket for food and miscellaneous expenses. This was crazy but utterly and completely necessary. Some opportunities truly are once in a lifetime and you just have to go.
The next morning I was going to see something I had wanted to see my entire life and there were only a few opportunities left. Even better, I would be seeing it from as close as humanly possible. Best of all, I would be sharing this experience with one of my newly favorite people in the whole world. Topped off with the single coolest thing I have ever done in my life (but more on that later…).
Bandcamp was new to me and I didn’t realize the songs would actually go live as soon as they uploaded. As I was about to leave my place I noticed the site was ready to sell and tweeted about it in my excitement. On the short ride to the airport and while I was checking in my phone had kept making a noise I didn’t recognize, which turned out to be the ringtone for my site’s shop email. Sales were starting to roll in already! My mentions inbox on Twitter was packed with tweets about the release, to the point where I almost wore out my thumbs thanking people and answering questions.
Flying without wi-fi that day was pretty much torture. I was actually grateful for the insanely long line at the rental car counter so I had a chance to connect with people before my drive to the Space Coast, except that it was keeping me from an actual in-person tweetup. No matter, I was soon cruising along in the Florida sunshine, blaring Above the Sky and singing to the wind, off to meet amazing friends new and old.
It might have been the best day of my life if it weren’t for the days that followed.
The Challenges of Challenger January 28, 2010Posted by craftlass in NASA.
Tags: Challenger, history, NASA, space
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N.B.: I apologize, I haven’t been blogging lately. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects lately that have eaten up my time and creative energies and apologize that my first post back here is on such a sad subject, but it is one very dear to my heart. It may be disturbing to some, so if you are a sensitive person you might just want to skip this and wait for my next post, which will come very soon, I promise.
January 28th, 1986. I was 10 years old, fascinated by everything to do with space and rockets and not yet corrupted by teachers and nay-sayers. At the time, many schools dragged out the TVs for every shuttle launch, but not mine. This was a very special treat – seeing a launch during a school day. This launch was different in many ways, it captured the imagination of teachers and students everywhere thanks to NASA’s decision to send a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to space. Even the kids who didn’t care about it were just excited to get to watch anything on one of our clunky TV setups instead of having normal class, so there was quite a buzz in the air!
At the same time my now-friend David was on a road trip with a friend of his in Florida. They had heard there would be a launch that morning and decided to go catch this thing in person. They lined up along a road along a river and waited with excitement for the big show.
There had been a lot of launches in the 4 years of the fledgling program already and they’d gone pretty darn well. Americans were getting confident in these vehicles, almost to the point of taking them for granted. At least, that’s how it felt as a kid who loved the space program!
The first moments of launch are still burned into my brain, the grand plumes spreading out in front of the oh-so-blue sky. It was not the first launch I saw but it seemed particularly beautiful at first. Then it all went wrong.
We had no idea what was happening. As soon as she realized we were seeing something tragic, the teacher snapped off the TV and sent us back to our desks. In Florida, David still had no idea what he was seeing. Standing outside the car, he could not hear the radio and everyone around him was in the same position, so he just kept snapping away with an odd feeling this just did not look right.
When the concrete news of Challenger’s dissolution came to us over the school’s PA system we were in shock. Looking around the room I saw that most of the students and our teacher had tears streaming down our faces, even the boys (who in any other situation would have hidden their faces at that age). Those tears are what changed America’s perception and treatment of the space program forever. Schools stopped showing launches in classrooms, to avoid traumatizing children if there was another disaster. The space shuttle went from capturing our imaginations to something discussed in hushed tones only when absolutely necessary to our education.
I learned something different than most of my peers seemed to that day. That was the day that I realized why the ultimate sacrifice could be absolutely 100% worth it. The day that I realized that the greatest things humans can do often carry the greatest risks.
Here in 2010 we have become the most risk-adverse society I can imagine. Parents are afraid to let their kids play on anything but soft rubber grounds, we have all sorts of laws that treat adults like children, and politicians do their best to make us as afraid as possible of unlikely dangers in order to get our votes. This is a tragedy larger than any event.
I repeat, the greatest things humans can do often carry the greatest risks.
Of course I would prefer that no astronaut ever perish. Of course. They are truly our best and brightest. However, throughout the history of exploration space has actually exacted far less of a toll than most adventures. We strap men and women to rockets that create some of the biggest explosions ever and most of the time they get there and back safely. When you think about it, that is an incredible success! Early explorers, the ones who mapped our planet for the first time, would love to have the success rates of our space program.
On this day, take a moment to remember our fallen heroes. Then, remember that the best way to honor them is to forge ahead in the work they gave their lives for. On this day, when the future of human space flight in America is very much in question and the rumors suggest we may scale back our ambitions. On this day, take a stand and let every single politician who represents you know that we will not let these sacrifices idly fade into a footnote of history but that we MUST continue the journey we started 50 years ago. Please do not let their sacrifices, and ours as a nation, be in vain.
All photographs ©1986 David Ribyat. All rights reserved. Used here with permission.