Memorial Day- Battlefields Overseas

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One of the positive aspects of my time in the service has been the opportunity to travel overseas. I’ve had chance to see more than 45 nations- not all of them friendly to ours- while serving. Of all the places I’ve visited,  Western Europe has by far left the most memorable impressions.

One of the reasons for that has been the history, specifically the military history.  While most tourists skate by to see the classic cultural landmarks, a detour into the French countryside opens one’s eyes to the impact war has had on the region.

As an American, I’d had the privilege to be born and raised in a nation that has avoided the devastation of total war on her soil since 1865.  No so the countries of Europe.  A millennium of war is etched onto the landscape.  While serving in Germany in 2009 and 2010, I took time to visit the numerous battlefields and monuments scattered across the continent.

First for any American travelling through Western Europe are the battlefields of WW2.  From the invasion of Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, one can follow the Allies trek across occupied France and see the site of every major confrontation.  On my first mission to Europe in 2009, my crew and I made a trip specifically to Bastogne and other battlefields in Belgium where American forces fought the German Wehrmacht.

While the battlefields of  WWII are moving, nothing prepares one for the devastation and numbers of headstones marking the Western Front of WWI.  Americans too often neglect the First World War- maybe because it was eclipsed by the war following it, or perhaps the cultural memories have begun to fade. When I learned that I was only half a days drive from the battlements and trenches while serving in Germany, I made a special effort to visit these places.  I was surprised even among my peers in the Armed Forces, too few knew anything about the war or had an interest in learning about it.  Gathering a small group of the more curious of my fellow airmen, I rented a car and bought a map before journeying across eastern France.

I won’t try to retell the history or even explain the emotional impact of seeing places like Verdun, all I will say if you have the opportunity to visit, you must do so.

One day I hope to return and see the many other monuments, forts, and battlefields in Europe. There is more than any person can see in a lifetime, of course.  But I consider it a duty, both as a soldier and a world citizen, to learn of these conflicts and see these places with my own eyes.

Historical Parallels: Astronaut Field Geology Training at #HISEAS

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When President Kennedy made his famous address at Rice University in 1961 calling for human mission to the moon, the impetus behind that goal was a political one.  The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R was threatening to overwhelm the world. The spheres of influence of both nations led to an ever increasing “one-upmanship” in national pride. At it’s core, the American space mission of the 1960s was a political contest, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t knowledge to be gained from it.

Even as NASA’s human spaceflight programs began, there was a tremendous interest to use the missions to investigate extraterrestrial phenomena.  Space science was in it’s infancy, and aside from astronomy, there was very little understanding of the natural processes that existed beyond Earth.  Scientists representing a wide spectrum of the natural sciences sought to incorporate payloads and experiments onto the spacecraft in order to better the understanding of the space environment.

The Apollo missions in particular represented an astounding opportunity to increase our knowledge of our solar system.  Although by 1969 several unmanned space probes had made flybys of our neighboring planets, very little was known about the structures of these words. Our very own moon was as alien to us the stars in distant galaxies.  A new field was about to be born: lunar science.  And NASA intended to maximize the ability of the astronauts on the Apollo missions to bring back information about our celestial partner.

All of the NASA astronauts selected before 1965 were military test pilots by trade. Most had backgrounds in engineering as opposed to the physical sciences.  In order for them to conduct scientific experiments on the lunar surface, the astronauts had to complete basic courses in geology.

Like the Apollo astronauts, the HI-SEAS crew and I needed to learn about geology before beginning our mission.  None of the crew is a geologist or planetary scientist.  (I have some interest in the subject, but I don’t have any formal education in geological sciences) As part of our preparation for our mission, the HI-SEAS science team organized a 3 day field course in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.  In an interesting historical parallel, the Hawaiian volcanoes were one of the locations where the Apollo astronauts did their own geology field training as well!

Our training was led by Dr. Sarah Fagents of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. As a geologist, she not only teaches on the faculty at UH, but has participated in numerous planetary science missions.  Like Dr. Eugene Shoemaker and Dr. Farouk El Baz did for the Apollo astronauts, Dr. Fagents instructed us in the basic principles of rock formation igneous processes, mineralogy, volcanology, and  field techniques.  Over a period of 3 days, Dr. Fagents led us across the volcanic landscape of the island of Hawaii.

The planet Mars exhibits the most massive volcanoes found anywhere in our solar system. These  mountains are shield volcanoes, formed when repeated eruptions poured fluid lava, building layer after layer until they formed mountains of incredible height.  Remarkably, the Hawaiian islands formed the same way.  So what better place to better understand Martian volcanoes than to explore the best analog found on Earth?

The HI-SEAS crew traveled to the Kilauea volcanic complex to see actual volcanism in progress. Forming the centerpiece of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is the most continuously active volcano on our planet. For over 30 years, the caldera has produced periodic lava flows and vented gases.  Although not yet the picturesque, peaked mountain like its neighboring Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea, Kilauea has a greater variety of volcanic features present.  This made it the ideal site for our field training.

So why didn’t we just include a trained geologist on our crew? Future astronauts exploring Mars will need to be able to be the eyes of the scientific community – not just for their own field of study, but as multidisciplinary generalists too.  The energy and resources it will take to safely land a crew on the surface of Mars makes it likely that future crews will consist of only a few persons per mission, so each astronaut will be required to be familiar with many sciences.  During the Apollo program, it was more imperative that the astronauts were experienced pilots, so their geological training was secondary.  It wasn’t until Apollo 17- the last lunar mission- that NASA flew a trained geologist, Dr. Harrison Schmidt, to the moon.

During the remainder of our analog mission, the HI-SEAS crew and I will be given tasks to explore, map, and catalog the geological features we encounter on the surface of “Mars”.  These tasks simulate the goals future astronauts will accomplish during planetary exploration missions.  Like the Apollo astronauts before us, we are using terrestrial parallels to help mankind understand the solar system.

For a thorough review of all the sites where the Apollo astronauts conducted field geology training, follow this link: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ap-geotrips.pdf

 

 

 

Thoughts from a soldier (not) going to War

 

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As I write this, my squadron is deploying to the the war in the Middle East.  But this time, I am not flying with them.

For the last 2 years, I served as a flight commander in the 773rd Airlift Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve.  My flight, the smallest of the units in the Air Force structure, was made up of young officers, aviators all.  To be where they are, they excelled in school and training, succeeding where others did not.  They are bright, intelligent people, dedicated to their country. They are all parents of young children.  These men and women were my responsibility to train, administer, and lead.

I am not leading them now, however.  I took a different pathway.  Instead of combat, I accepted an opportunity in the space program.  I turned down a leadership position with the service to accept this one commanding the second HI-SEAS Mars analog mission.

My goals are not at odds with the service, but they have taken me away from those responsibilities.  Some may say my actions are selfish. That I have shirked my duty.  Certainly not everyone has been supportive of this endeavor.  In order to be here, I have left my troops in the ranks of others to lead and declined a role that would allow me to prepare them for the war. Another officer is serving in my stead.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to the incredible and historic calling of space exploration.  My interest in spaceflight and science has always been there, but only now have I had the opportunity to play a role it for real.  I have always seen my time in the service and my flying experience as launching point for a career in the space program.  In order to make that possible, though, I must sometimes take off my uniform and be something other than a soldier.

Did the astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo missions have similar thoughts? Many of them left their operational squadrons to serve as test pilots as the war in Vietnam began to escalate.  The NASA lunar exploration missions took place at the height of the conflict in Southeast Asia.  Those men knew, like brothers, their comrades-in-arms who were flying- and dying- in the war.

I cannot help but feel torn between my loyalty to the service, my troops and my responsibilities now leading this analog mission. I took this role as mission commander because I believe in it, and the significance of this program. I know that I am not an astronaut, and this is not a real mission to Mars. But  I hope that what my crew and I are doing here helps make it possible for people to do so one day .

Tonight my thoughts are with the young navigators I once led, who will soon face combat for the first time.  I regret that I cannot be there to see them through this conflict, but I have faith that they will succeed and return home safely to their families.

Suborbital Science

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The emerging space tourism industry has already given rise to a spin-off market for hosting scientific payloads.  Companies that are developing space vehicles to fly wealthy adventurers to the edge of space will also be capable of carrying experiments- even research specialists- in place of passengers.  Opportunities to to fly meaningful science into space may soon become commonplace.

The Suborbital Applications Research Group, or SARG, is an organization made up of  scientists, engineers, and experts in various disciplines that are working together to promote and facilitate opportunities to use commercial suborbital spacecraft for scientific research.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company and brainchild of British billionaire Richard Branson, is best known for advertising tickets for persons of means to fly to the edge of space.  Although the company’s business model is built upon selling seats to passengers, it is also making it’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle available for scientific research flights.  In place of passenger seats, the rocket-powered spacecraft can be configured with payload racks to fit experiments. XCOR Aerospace, who’s Lynx spacecraft has been featured in numerous contests, is also designing their rocket-plane with the capability to fly research packages.  Secretive  aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin is also building a reusable suborbital rocket and has expressed interest in making their craft available to the scientific community.

Like the famous X-15 experimental rocket plane once flown by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, the vehicles currently being constructed for space tourism will be able to fly to altitudes near the edge of space in excess of 350,000 ft. The flight profile of these craft will resemble a parabolic arc and will include a rapid, high-G ascent followed by near weightlessness at the apogee.  Those minutes of microgravity are the prize sought not only by affluent ticket-holders, but scientists too that hope to learn more about the effects of spaceflight.

A great number of scientific fields will be able to capitalize on the microgravity environment provided by suborbital spacecraft.  Fluids research is one. The dynamics of certain fluidic substances are not yet understood and benefit from experiments conducted in space.  High-altitude atmospherics are also under-observed.  Spacecraft passing through the upper boundary of the stratosphere can be instrumented to record the condition of this region, leading to a better understanding of weather phenomena.  And medical science can exploit the ability to study the effects of acceleration and microgravity on human occupants as these craft fly their missions.

I am a volunteer ambassador for SARG.  As an advocate of suborbital spaceflight, I am tasked with engaging the general public and providing information about the benefits and opportunities to fly science experiments.  By making more people aware of these concepts, SARG is promoting both commercial enterprise and the scientific community.  Spaceflight is no longer limited to government agencies or the armed forces.  Suborbital vehicles will make it possible for colleges and universities to fly student research projects, for laboratories to conduct biomedical trials, and even give some the chance to fly in space where that opportunity wasn’t available before.

This is not science fiction.  Although the missions haven’t flown yet, already several scientists have been selected to fly missions with experimental payloads.  Three scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have completed spaceflight training and are preparing to fly aboard XCOR Aerospace Lynx spaceplanes when they become operational.  Planetary Scientist Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator, or lead scientist of the mission, alongside colleagues Dr. Dan Durda and Dr. Cathy B. Olkin will operate science  equipment on behalf of the laboratory as commercial astronauts.  Similarly, another researcher named Jason Reinmuller was selected to fly as a payload operator of a program called “Project PoSSUM“, or “Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere”.  He is part of a team developing an infrared camera system to study dynamic conditions at altitudes too high for weather balloons.  These are but he first explorers that will lead the way for more to come.

My role as ambassador for SARG is make myself available to educate others concerning the advancement of and opportunities in commercial suborbital spaceflight.  If you know of a school, university, museum, science center or public event that would be interested learning more about how to be involved in suborbital science,  please go to the following link and request a representative of SARG to speak to your institution: http://www.commercialspaceflight.org/sarga/request-a-sarg-ambassador/  I personally would be more than happy to share with you information about our future in space.

Will you help me win a flight to Space?

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I’ve entered the Urgency Network’s beneficiary crowd-funding contest to win a suborbital spaceflight. Every time somebody opens the link on my Twitter or Facebook page, I receive another point toward the grand prize. Will you help me reach my goal?

There are 80 days left in the contest.  As of the moment I type this, I have the 19th highest score on  the campaign “leaderboard”.  I will never win by donating money for points because there will inevitably be someone with more money who outbids me.  So I require a little help.

Please, if you read this, do me a small favor.  Find my social media accounts and click the link. The odds are against me, but nothing worth winning is ever easy.