The Cast of Star Wars Episode VII is Announced…(!)

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So this picture was sent out yesterday- Luke! Han! Leia! Chewie! The Droids! And- new people! Star Wars is back!

Like many fans of science fiction, I love Star Wars. Yes, all of them. Epic mythology, spaceships, and sword fights- what’s not to like?

I admit that when I read Disney was purchasing Lucasfilm I imagined the worst.  It was inevitable that the company would capitalize on the popularity of the Star Wars franchise. I really didn’t imagine that Lucas would allow more films to be made. Surely Disney intended something more mundane. Maybe another cartoon with tie-in toy sales? But no, it was true- it was announced more films are coming! Episode 7, the first of a new trilogy, will be released in theaters in May, 2015.

Growing up, I was fascinated by the back story of the films and how the story evolved into the motion pictures we know today.  George Lucas developed an incredible universe in which he could tell the story of a man consumed by hate and his (Spoiler!) eventual redemption. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when it became official that Lucas was finally going to complete the much anticipated prequel trilogy.

There was a lot left to be desired in the Star Wars prequels.  I really don’t think they found their stride until Episode III. Which is a shame, as it was part of the story- Lucas’ story- for the films. I know a lot of fans simply cannot accept them. Nostalgia for the original trilogy is too strong. Far from perfect, they are part of George Lucas’ vision and are part of the overall story.

There have been rumors of a third trilogy for years. I believe that was even the studio’s intent as far back the release of the first film in 1977. (I certainly remember about it more than 20 years ago) But as the prequel trilogy came to fruition after more than a decade of speculation, Lucas himself said that was to be last of the Skywalker story.

So here we are now- almost a decade since the last credits rolled on what was to be the final Star Wars film, and we are a year away from a new chapter beginning.  I’m cautiously anxious. There is no end to the ways this film could disappoint even the most loyal fans.  But I want to believe that a new creative team and a fresh director can make the impossible happen. Surely it won’t be the same. After all, it’s been 30 years since Return of the Jedi.  But it doesn’t have to be the same. It shouldn’t even try to be. A new, original story in the Star Wars universe is all it needs to be.

I can’t hide my anticipation for one more chance to see Mark Hamill wield a lightsaber.

Mission Patches

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The HI-SEAS Crew 2 mission patch- design and photo by @rosslockwood and Ron Williams

Every mission has one. You’ve seen in photos on the astronaut’s flight suits.They can be any shape, size, or color. They adorn the press releases, collectable pins, and sometimes on the spacecraft itself.  It’s the mission patch.  The symbol that represents a specific flight or expedition.  Each one tells a story through symbology. And ours is no different.

Each crew selected for the HI-SEAS analog program will design it’s own mission patch.  Like the mission patches worn by astronauts on real spaceflights, our patch was designed to represent the significant aspects of this specific expedition. It includes a “swoosh” that depicts the retrograde motion of Mars through the constellation Virgo. The vector also evokes NASA and the agency’s Human Research Program (HRP) grants helped to fund the study.  The stars and planets in the night sky are placed in the correct positions, as they would be seen from the habitat. The colors red and white are the same as those found on the official HI-SEAS program logo. The habitat module itself is placed among the lava fields of Mauna Loa volcano- which is an analog for the mighty shield volcanoes found in the Tharsis region on Mars.

You can see that we also included the surnames of all the primary crew members on the patch as well. We initially debated this- there are so many other people involved in making this program, we didn’t want to exclude the members of our support teams. Like any spaceflight mission, those that ride the rocket are only the tip of a vast iceberg.  It takes hundreds of dedicated individuals working as a cohesive team to make a mission possible.  In the end, we elected to include our names.  As there wasn’t room for the names every member of the HI-SEAS program, there is a star in the night sky to represent the institution they hail from.  And the stars depicted in the swoosh vector form the Greek symbol Psi to symbolize the psychological research focus of the program.

Each of the crew wear this patch everyday. It is emblazoned on uniform shirts, our equipment, even our simulated spacesuits. It has been sent to friends and family of the crew, mission support personnel, and schools in several countries. It has been posted on social media and projected in videos seen around the world.  Someday a crew not unlike ours will wear a mission patch like this to Mars.

 

 

Ticket to Rise: A Contest to win a Suborbital Spaceflight

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“At 338,000 ft, the forward motion slows as the craft reaches parabola. The harness slackens as you begin to rise from the seat. Microgravity. Your arms float out away from your body, and the sense of falling creeps at he edge of consciousness.  Out the cockpit windscreen is blackness, stars, and arcing below- the curvature of the Earth, on a continental scale…”

A contest to win a flight aboard a suborbital spacecraft is currently being advertised by the Urgency Network. Donations toward any of a number of non-profit organization through their website can earn you points toward the grand prize of a ticket to fly aboard the XCOR Aerospace Lynx II spacecraft.  The contest website is here: https://www.urgencynetwork.com/space

This far from the first contest to advertise a spaceflight prize.  There have been more than a dozen companies and contests in the last few years the held similar campaigns.  The most famous example was the “Axe Apollo” contest by Axe body spray and SXC, a space tourism broker.  Several years ago, at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), each of the  conference participants was entered in a drawing to win a flight with XCOR. (The gentlemen sitting at the table next to me won it, initially.)

XCOR is a “Newspace” company that stands to profit from the fledgling space tourism industry.  The company is designing and building a small, 2-person suborbital spaceplane that can be utilized to carry passengers or payloads. Unlike the approach Virgin Galactic is using with its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, XCOR’s Lynx will takeoff from a runway like a standard aircraft.  Under rocket power, the craft will ascend to an altitude over 100 KM -the internationally recognized boundary of space- before gliding back to land like NASA’s space shuttle once did.

One of the beneficiaries of this contest is a unique organization known as Astronauts4Hire.  As stated on the website: “Astronauts for Hire is a 501(c)(3) non-profit formed in April 2010 to recruit and train qualified scientists and engineers for the rigors of spaceflight. Commonly referred to as “Astronauts4Hire” or just “A4H,” the organization conducts a range of activities related to commercial astronaut workforce development. A4H’s principal service is to train its members as professional astronaut candidates who can assist researchers, payload developers, and spaceflight providers with mission planning and operations support”

Have I mentioned that I’m a member of A4H?

Although the Lynx can’t achieve orbit, the vehicle offers a chance for researchers to fly scientist-astronauts or experimental payloads on a suborbital trajectory.  Organizations like A4H and NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program hope to use this ability to conduct space science.  Compared to the cost of orbital vehicles, flying a payload on a suborbital vehicle is a frugal option.  Suborbital vehicles may also offer a quicker “turn-around” time between launches when compared to the complex and lengthy preparation required for traditional rockets.

These features will help make suborbital spacecraft an ideal platform for commercial space operations.  This is the cornerstone of the nascent space tourism industry.  The ability to regularly and rapidly fly paying customers inexpensively as possible is what will turn science fiction into capitalistic fact. There is a market- both virgin Galactic and XCOR, through SXC, have sold over a thousand ticket between the two companies. (VG tickets are $250,000 and SXC are $100,000 a seat) The prices are, for lack of a better term- astronomical.  Easily within the reach of many affluent adventurers but certainly outside the limitations of my income.

What is an aspiring astronaut to do?  (Anything he can.)

Space tourism is a good thing. It is going to make it possible for people to see and experience spaceflight, something that has been limited to just over 500 people in all of human history. ticket sales will lead to profits which in turn lead to vehicle development and one day hopefully newer forms of transportation.  Some have called it the “democratization of space”, making it possible for the “everyman” to see what only “supermen (and women)” have seen.

I would happily hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly aboard a spacecraft.  Unfortunately, my federal service paycheck will never allow that to happen. So I have signed up for every contest I’ve been eligible for to win one these exclusive tickets to space.  I received a great deal of support when I was competing in the Axe Apollo contest (For which I’m very grateful). But, as you can tell, I still have not won a coveted ticket. The odds are against me, of course. But I’m still very interested in trying.

So I may sign up foe the Urgency Network “Ticket to Rise” contest.  Aside from my personal desire, the money would go to A4H, an organization that I believe to doing a great deal to open up the space frontier. (I applaud anyone who donates to this worthy cause.)  But unlike other contests which feature a game of chance, I could easily be outbid by a more affluent contestant.  I cannot personally afford to outbid the other contestants.  I would have to relay on donations to stay competitive .  (How many of you would bid for my cause?)

Barring some unforeseen windfall of luck and dollars it seems my best open is still through skill and talent. Being a space tourist is nothing to be ashamed of, who wouldn’t want to ride a rocket? But there is something to be said for being crew.  Even if I were in a position to be passenger on a suborbital flight, I’d take the opportunity to solicit for payloads and maximize the public outreach.  It would seem a waste to me to do otherwise.

Regardless, I will continue to work toward opportunities to fly as a researcher or payload specialist on suborbital mission. Developing my education and finding research projects to work with will be my method. Through organizations like A4H, the chances of flying in space are better than ever.  It’s not an impossible dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Outreach for the #HISEAS Mars Analog

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One of my goals as a participant in the HI-SEAS Mars Analog mission was to engage in a widespread public outreach campaign.

I wanted to offer an opportunity for students to communicate with our crew as they might a real real human mission to Mars.  For as long as NASA flew the space shuttle and more recently with the International Space Station (ISS), the space agency routinely made it possible for classroom students to ask questions and send messages to the astronauts in space.

The 2nd HI-SEAS crew are not (yet) astronauts themselves, but they represent the kind of people who are candidates for future space missions.  As students and graduates of a diverse set of scientific disciplines, this crew can offer insights and experiences to students wishing to learn more about careers in science and engineering.

In addition to myself, there are 5 others on the HI-SEAS crew.  My Science Officer is Lucie Poulet, an aerospace engineer from France who is conducting an experiment to grow plant seeds that have flown in orbit.  My Chief Engineer is Annie Caraccio, who works at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as a chemical engineer.  She is researching methods of recycling waste on space missions into useful gases.  The Mission Technologist is Ross Lockwood– an experimental physicist from Edmonton, Canada.  When he is not busy operating the various computer systems here in the habitat, he is experimenting on the use of 3D printed surgical tools for future space missions.  Dr. Ron Williams of Bloomington, Indiana is our Mission Psychologist- his role is the study of the crew’s cognitive behavior during our 4-month mission.  And my Medical Officer (and Life support Specialist) is Tiffany Swarmer, a Space Studies graduate student at the University of North Dakota. She is evaluating the human factors of the crew before/during/and after simulated EVAs. (Click on their names to read their biographies)

One of the things we all have in common is a passion for science, particularly space exploration.  Even though we all came from different backgrounds (and countries), we’ve found ourselves drawn to the space program and what it represents.  All of us want to encourage others to learn more about science, technology, math and engineering.  We are all hoping to answer questions from  aspiring young scientists and astronauts!

I’d like to ask a favor of all those who are reading this blog to help me spread the word about our public outreach campaign.  The academic school year is almost over.  In order for this part of the program to go forward, we need interested teachers, educators, camp counselors, and science center staff to see the flyer I’ve included in this post and contact us.  This opportunity will slip away without your help.

Send your questions to myself and the crew at:  casey@delaysnrf.ksc.nasa.gov

 

Swords & Microscopes: Military led Scientific Expeditions

There has been throughout history a trend that some exploratory expeditions be led by member of the military for as long as there have been standing armies.  Excluding the epic journeys of the great maritime navigators of the Middle Ages (as the armed forces of that period were constructs of the feudal monarchies, not professional armies), there is still a precedent of state sanctioned as well as privately funded missions of science organized and led by persons in uniform.

In 1922, the British government sought to gain notoriety by mounting an expedition for the summit of Mt. Everest.  To organize the expedition, a committee from the Royal Geographic Society appointed a roughshod and capable young officer named Charles Granville Bruce. Bruce was an adventurer veteran of Gallipoli, a noted boxing champion, an amateur climber, and most importantly a regional expert on the cultures and politics of colonial India and Nepal, where he had served most of his time in the British Army.  His respect for the Indian troops he commanded during the war and on the frontier of the empire gave him an advantage over typical generals of the period who saw the men as mere laborers. He managed the funds allotted wisely, investing in local guides as well as new technologies such portable oxygen equipment and Kodak cameras.  The expedition was the first to ever reach an elevation of 26,000 ft, although they were unsuccessful at making the summit.  Impressed by the accomplishments, Bruce was appointed the leader of the next expedition in 1924, which very nearly made the summit 29 years before the recognized summit climb by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.

Another more famous example is the U.S. Army’s “Corps of Discovery”- better known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to explore the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase and seek potential waterway access from the Pacific Ocean, the mission was to be led by stalwart Army Captain Meriwether Lewis.  Assisting him was then Lt. William Clark. With a rotating roster that included army troops, civilian boatmen, hunters, guides, and the Native American wife of a French fur trapper- the overland journey from Missouri to Oregon (and back again) took the team 2 years. Through the leadership of Lewis and Clark, the expedition was fortuitously successful, and the history of the United States was changed forever.

In 1957-1958, the major world powers engaged in a cooperative scientific effort known as the “International Geophysical Year”. The IGY was designed a collaborative investigation into the physical sciences, including astronomy, physics, geology, astronautics, and numerous other disciplines.  In particular, a number of nations organized massive expedition to map and explore the continent of Antarctica.  Although a mission pf peaceful intent, the United States directed the U.S. Navy to lead the IGY missions in the Antarctic using their substantial logistical resources.  Icebreakers were used to push past the expansive ice sheets, aircraft were flown in to connect the isolated outposts across the landmass.  And hundreds of scientists were recruited to record the unique natural phenomena led by junior naval officers who found themselves a fighting not an enemy force, but the harsh polar elements.

I am an officer in the United States Air Force Reserve.  My duty whilst serving is as an aviator, but my role as an officer to is to lead.  Even before my entrance into flight school, this distinction was hammered into my psyche during my officer training programs.  The wings I wear on my chest are an indication of the medium in which I lead, no different than an infrantrymen’s crossed rifle badge or a submariner’s “dolphins”.  The authority and responsibility that are mine are symbolized in the Captain’s bars pinned on my shoulders.

I am not a scientist- although someday I hope to be.  My selection to the Hi-SEAS Mars analog mission was a surprise to me.  There are certainly more educated and knowledgeable researchers who applied.  But being appointed the commander of the crew made it clear to me that my role was to be different. Perhaps it was my military background that stood me apart from the other candidates. Could I apply my experience as part of an aircrew or leading teams in the service to this mission as military leaders have led scientists in the past?

I see myself as “A Science Enabler”, to quote Lisa May, director of NASA’s Mars MAVEN mission  My responsibility is the well-being of my crew AND to see to completion of our scientific objectives. The other 5 members of this team each have personal research they are conducting on behalf of their home institutions. Each of them is devoting countless hours to acquire data that will be used to make real space missions possible.  I intend on making that possible, despite any hardships we may face in this simulation.