Tuesday, November 18, 2014

STEM Interpretation

(Note: This is a "reprint" of the Director's Notes for the Fall 2014 INSGC Newsletter.)

What do Toronto and Des Moines have in common?  Yes, they were both on my travel itinerary, as I had the opportunity to speak in both cities about STEM education and outreach, and my Space Grant experiences over the summer.  Des Moines was the site of the Great Midwestern Regional Space Grant meeting, with presentations by each of the eight member state Space Grant Consortia.  Toronto, you might guess, was a bit bigger: the 65th International Astronautical Congress.  In fact, both talks highlighted an even more unlikely location: Arco, ID (the first city in the world powered by nuclear energy, back in 1953) and Craters of the Moon National Historic Monument and Preserve (CRMO NMP).   My trip to Idaho was part of a project known as FINESSE:  Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration.  The goal of FINESSE is to manage an important level of scientific and engineering integration: conduct real planetary science research (in this case, behavior and characteristics of volcanic flows) while also developing improved understanding of human spaceflight exploration capabilities in analog research environments.   CRMO is no stranger to NASA, having been the site of several training missions for a number of Apollo astronauts (including Purdue alumnus Gene Cernan).  And though I could not tell my a’a from my pahoehoe before leaving Indiana, I was a member of the research team on the exploration side.  Magically and wonderfully, this is the sort of research I have been working towards my entire career: examining group-level information flow and task coordination for expedition-class spaceflight teams. 

An unexpectedly rich element of the FINESSE project was STEM outreach to the general public.  The team set up our LIDAR and differential GPS base units at the edge of a scenic lookout; while members of the team and I scrambled over the lava flows, members of the public could (and did) just wander up to us and ask questions about what we were doing.  On “Media Day,” a general public outreach opportunity set up by the Idaho Space Grant Consortium (of which CRMO is an affiliate), a few of us got to present to a standing-room only crowd about the FINESSE research and why it is important and helpful for understanding planetary processes as well as the local features of this fantastic national monument and wilderness preserve.   What is perhaps more striking is that, for most of these interactions (including my impromptu talk to a few visitors outside the visitors’ center that morning), people were not coming to CRMO with a directed focus on NASA, spaceflight exploration, or the breadth of STEM research and engagement.  This is not a trivial matter, and I was reminded (thanks also to other presentations in Des Moines) of how significant the gap is between those of us who do STEM for a living, and those in the general public who may not be aware of “how STEM gets done”.  Think of being at a party, and you’re talking to someone who is droning on about “their favorite thing” in a way that only those who also have that  topic as their own “favorite thing” would understand or care at all. 

If you’ve interacted with me at all, you know that I have a lot of enthusiastic passions and responses to STEM, rocket science, and long duration space flight.  But the challenge for me comes from a reminder of both my doctoral research (also in the National Park Service) and the Media Day at CRMO.  This is the concept of “STEM Interpretation”: when a visitor comes to your site, they may have questions about what they’re seeing, and why it’s important.  The park ranger’s job is to make a connection, and tell a story about the park’s resources and important features: to interpret those features and resources in the context of the visitor’s life.  Now, I can spend a lot of time talking about differential equations and stability factors affecting benefit / cost ratios of information gain and sensemaking effort… but that’s not really interpretation.  That’s my story, my favorite thing. How do we broaden this into an interpretation story?  Well, starting with advanced mathematics probably isn’t the best way to start.  Instead, and as I am hearing at the Toronto conference, there is a strong value to connecting to “what does this mean for us,” wherever that person happens to be now.  What if we turned off space technology for a day?  How would that affect their lives?  (No satellite TV, no location options on your cell phone… wait, no cell phone!)  That’s an interpretation effort. 

In essence, STEM Interpretation is a broad, accessible approach to connecting stories to people where they are, not just where we are.  There is an interest in these topics among the general public, but this interest is also tempered by significant gaps in understanding.   As one of the Toronto speakers highlights from his experience with being interviewed about his role in analog research, people can connect to the human side of STEM.  Not everyone connects to the mathematical or technical details of how STEM happens, and those details can seem very far away.  Interpretation doesn’t mean that we make the public do all the work, or require them to get excited in exactly the same things.   Maybe it’s just a case of helping a variety of people find their thing to get excited, to create a new group of people with a favorite STEM thing, and maybe even a new list of favorite things that we help them find and favor.  Because, in the end, interpretation is also about creating new stories, and sharing those stories in new ways.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pain and Passion in the Program

“If we die, we want people to accept it.  We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program.  The conquest of space is worth the loss of life.”

That quote is, of course, especially meaningful and painful this week.  It’s one thing to say these words, to write this bold check in a very expensive bet.  But what happens when circumstances dictate that it’s time to collect?

There is a particular poignancy to my comments about the fatal accident of Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two on Friday, October 31, or the explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on Tuesday, October 28.  I spent Friday traveling.  I left Chicago, where I was attending the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society International Annual Meeting (How do people learn, perform, and thrive in a complex world? How do we design and improve the systems with which people must interact?).  My destination was Durham, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space SpaceVision conference (How can the next generation of passionate space enthusiasts meet with each other and their teachers and heroes?  How can they get access to their favorite things of the world, and eventually get to work on them for a living?).  By the time I went to bed, I’d read several reports on the SpaceShip Two accident, and the initial stages of analysis of what might have caused the critical anomaly (anomalies?).  In other news, environmental sensing and data collection for the Antares accident site was still ongoing.

Wallops Island and the Mojave Desert now have teams of investigators on site, attempting to figure out what happened, and what we can learn from these profoundly painful and demoralizing experiences.  As of this writing, we don’t know exactly what happened on Tuesday evening, or Friday morning.  We probably won’t know definitively for a while.  But I can tell you two things that they won’t find.  They will not find evidence of someone who woke up that day and thought, “Let me figure out how to screw it up big time today”.  And the teams will not find evidence that space is supposed to be easy.  There may have been errors, but those errors are most painfully manifested in an environment that is fundamentally and profoundly intolerant.  Most of us do not spend much time in the harshest regions of such environments, and we do not respect the environments when we encounter them.  I was profoundly angry and upset to see television and website news reports with banner headlines: “Is this the end of commercial space flight?”  “Can’t we make space travel safe?” My simple response is that the answer to both questions is an unqualified “NO”.  For perspective, a statistic quoted by Lori Garver, currently of the Air Line Pilots Association, during the SpaceVision conference: at one point, the fatality rate for aviation pilots was 87%.  By now, commercial aviation is statistically far safer than driving (but we don’t stop getting in our cars).  The total NASA human spaceflight fatality rate is roughly equivalent to that of those attempting to climb Mt. Everest (but there are still people who choose to do it, because it’s there). 

We can certainly work to make space travel, and many other aspects of the world, safer than they are currently.  If we challenge ourselves, intelligently marry our capabilities and culture, we can get better. Since the first commercial air flights in the 1920s, what has reduced the fatality rate?  There are three main sources of change that I think are relevant.  Beginning with the development of NACA (the forerunner of NASA) in 1915, there has been a great investment in government research to improve the available materials, processes, and technologies applied to airframes, propulsion systems, avionics, wings, and other components.  As capabilities improve, multiple companies have gotten involved to create, and support, growing demand through a variety of technology solutions (some of which is advanced from proprietary, in-house company research).   The third approach is not purely technological, but sociotechnical: we’ve changed the culture and processes of how commercial flight gets done.  The number of accidents in commercial aviation has dropped significantly due to the implementation of human-machine system improvements as well as human-human processes such as Cockpit (now Crew) Resources Management.  And certainly, this pathway has not been without costs; individual aircraft, and even whole solutions (such as the de Havilland Comet), have been forced to pay on the bet.  And yet, we continue to fly.

No, I am not hardened or uncaring about pain or loss; in fact, I am a strong advocate of a national stand-down period of memory, reflection and refocus on the challenges of human spaceflight.  That stand-down period would be January 27 – February 3 each year—a single week window spanning the anniversaries of the loss of Shuttles Columbia and Challenger, and Apollo 1.  Perhaps we have the justification for a similar period of recognition for commercial spaceflight, although it is still very early in our experience.  But the clear answer is to attend to the painful lessons of the past, and use those lessons to do better—not to give up because it was hard, or dangerous, or painful. 

The author of the quote at the start of this essay knew that.  He was willing to make that bet, even knowing that the check might be called in for collection.  He was Gus Grissom.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Touching Down and Springing Up

Last Saturday was a great day to be a Space Grant Director on the Purdue campus.  The weather was a wonderful and warm backdrop for a range of delightful activities: speaking with Purdue astronauts and their families; examining artifacts from the Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives in the Purdue Libraries’ Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center; smelling the mulch and straw and manure; listening to the bleats of the lambs…


Although I grew up an East Coast city person, I recognize that I have now spend nearly 30 years attending, living and working on agricultural campuses.  April 12, in addition to being the date of the Astronaut Forum, was also the date of Spring Fest, a celebration of agricultural and life sciences and their role in the life of Purdue and Indiana.   It’s no longer surprising to me to see people in Holstein-themed aprons or booths that demonstrate milking cows, shearing sheep, or crop management.  It’s part of the life of a comprehensive land grant university. And, at the risk of revisiting a controversial topic, it’s why I don’t see adding an “A” (for agriculture) to STEM.   Agriculture is an application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, in much the same way astronautics is.  We don’t add an extra letter in the acronym to describe the specific problems of human spaceflight.  Keeping Gene Cernan alive on the moon, or helping Drew Feustel repair the Hubble Space Telescope, involves solving problems in a range of science disciplines, using the language of mathematics, and the skills and products of engineering and technology.  I could also talk about harvesting high-yield alfalfa to keep my herds healthy through long winter months.

What do we learn from human spaceflight? What do we get out of it?  This was a question posed to the astronauts during the Public Forum held on Saturday evening?  There were lots of sentiments expressed—not just in the cold analysis of economics (all the money spent on human spaceflight are spent to develop technologies and employ people here on Earth: it’s too expensive to launch money), but in the passion of people who want to share a perspective that has transformed their lives.  As Charlie Walker (a native of Bedford, IN) stated, human spaceflight is more than just people and technology—it is the change in perspective and value that comes from “viewing our home planet from beyond”.   Spaceflight is also about inspiration—“inspiration to change people’s lives” (Drew), to “inspire them with passion to do what has been left undone” (Gene).

Video of Astronaut Public Forum

Perhaps more important than what we get out of human spaceflight is what goes into it, and that is education—particularly STEM education.  Some people (like me) went into STEM specifically wanting to be an astronaut, but ended up somewhere else.  Some started out somewhere else, and ended up as astronauts.  As Mark Brown (a native of Valparaiso, IN) put it, “we were willing to take a chance,” to see where the education would lead.  The common feature, though, is a curious, interested approach to education: curiosity, in Gene’s words, “is the essence of human existence”.  We should do this more, and early, and often, according to Gary Payton, who continues to be involved in STEM education (at the US Air Force Academy):  “wrap [kids’ lives] around STEM, in the 6th – 8th grades.  STEM is critical for the nation’s future.”  STEM also involves a process of how to “think about things and go do them,” according to Loren Shriver: “you’ve got to put it all together and think on your own”. 

Astronauts and agriculture?  I think it’s interesting that Charlie, Drew, Gary, Loren, and Mark all grew up in Midwestern towns strongly influenced by agriculture: farming, lumber, and farm equipment manufacturing were frequent themes. And from these backgrounds, through Purdue, all sprung from earth and touched down once more on the Space Shuttle, one of the most amazing engineering vehicles ever built.  As I’ve said before, and repeated to myself while walking across campus last Saturday… It’s all STEM to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas...

It’s just after noon on Monday, January 6 (Epiphany, the supposed “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” or Orthodox Chrtistmas, depending on whether you prefer your calendar Gregorian or Julian), and we’re not at the office today.  Not only Purdue, but much of the State of Indiana, is closed or under travel warnings (only “essential personnel” or “emergency travel” permitted), and as devoted to INSGC as I might be, it’s more important to stay home and safe with -15F Fahrenheit temperatures.  From a science geek perspective, there’s much to get excited about: does the 12 days of Christmas come from the gap rectified by the Gregorian calendar adjustment?  Or is it an older reference to the Druidic belief of the Solstice (“sun standing still,” or relatively consistent length of day) as a 12-day period?  And what about that temperature?  Zero Celsius is the temperature at which fresh water freezes.  Did you know that zero Fahrenheit is the freezing temperature for the saltiest water Mr. Fahrenheit tested?  That’s why, of course, salt on your sidewalks or roads won’t work today—the water refreezes, no matter what salt concentration you use. 

All of this is due to what is described as a massive “polar vortex,” or shift of very cold air normally kept in northern Canada and Alaska, now affecting large areas of the “lower 48” US states. 

Satellite image of storm and vortex behavior, ~January 3.  Image from NASA, via BBC.

The temperatures as a result are some of the coldest in recorded history here, approaching levels not seen in Indiana since the 1940s.  This is on top of a massive snowstorm (not quite a blizzard, since that term is reserved for winds over 35 mph along with heavy snow totals or rates of snowfall, which we didn’t quite get) that has left about 10 inches of snow outside my front door.  In other words, fairly extreme weather.

Extreme US weather warnings, Jan 5.  Magenta references winter storm or blizzard warnings; cyan references wind chill warnings.  Image from NOAA.

As severe as this weather is, imagine a world of 50 or 100 years ago or more, where long-range forecasts and telecommunications advising residents and travelers of “extreme threats” to life were not available.  This is one of the responses I have to people who say that NASA and STEM aren’t relevant to their lives.  Satellite images, computer models, satellite transmission of news broadcasts, and maybe even the emergency blankets and improved battery technologies in your home or car, are all due to the technological advances inspired by the missions to the Moon in the 1960s.

It was actually those missions that were the original intention of my blog entry, before this weekend’s storm.  Over Christmas, with family and friends sharing warmth and companionship, I teared up over two items:
  • ·      the closing scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, with the family and neighbors in the house, and George Bailey’s younger brother raising a toast to “the richest man in town”; 
  • ·      the broadcast of the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast in 1968, wishing peace and a good night to “all the people on the Good Earth”.

The picture, Earthrise, from Apollo 8 taken by the crew (including Indiana native, Frank Borman) is now considered one of the most important photographs ever taken.   

“Earthrise,” NASA photo AS8-14-2383.

These photos are the first to give us a new perspective on the Earth, its relative tininess and fragility, and how the natural events and processes of the Earth affect us profoundly (as we have learned this weekend, and continue to learn and experience).  It’s that Christmas Eve event in 1968 that drove me to study engineering, and seek out a career path with NASA research, and eventually take on this role with INSGC.   In honor of the 45th anniversary of this event, NASA released a video showing images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reproducing what the Apollo 8 crew would have experienced while maneuvering the spacecraft and viewing the lunar surface and the Earth in the moments before and during the taking of the photograph.

So, from December 25, to January 6, NASA and INSGC remain very strongly on my mind and in my awareness.  Once we get back to work, we’ll be continuing to assist those interested in applying for our INSGC program awards and scholarships.  I’m very pleased to note that INSGC has already received funding for the 2014-15 program year starting in May, so our awards process will be continuing on schedule.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk a little about INSGC on our local public radio station, WBAA.  The interview was broadcast last week on December 30, (the “six geese a-laying” day, I believe), and you can read and hear it here.

Be careful, stay warm and sheltered, and my continued good wishes to you during our extended winter holiday.