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Space Can Never Be Too Large September 17, 2014

Posted by craftlass in NASA, space.
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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!

Launch to Launch August 9, 2010

Posted by craftlass in SpaceTweeps, travel.
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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.

Nothing could be better than to be greeted by these smiling faces upon my arrival on the Space Coast! Fun Fact: The woman in the blue shirt is Jen Scheer, creator of the covers for Above the Sky and Bake Sale for NASA.

Part 1/?

The Challenges of Challenger January 28, 2010

Posted by craftlass in NASA.
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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.