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Why childhood dreams need giant deep space antenna networks

A month ago I participated in a NASA Social event for the launch of the Orion spacecraft.

I meant to write about it immediately following, but things happened.

I got sick.

Multiple times.

And I found the enthusiasm from my previous NASA Social event, DSN50, surprisingly absent this time around.

Maybe going from walking inside and around a giant radio antenna to watching a projected image from 2am to 6am of what ultimately was a scrubbed launch contributed too.

Although one could argue that it’s hard to get enthused about anything when every time you burp, you taste Amoxicillin.

But I feel like I’ve been derelict in my duty, once getting selected for the Orion event, in not having written a post about my experience. After all, that’s why it’s a NASA Social event.

I’ve started writing a post several times, but each time, I found myself wandering listlessly into a dead-end and stopping.

I didn’t want this post to be about that.

But maybe it just is.

First and foremost, I’m a huge fan of NASA, and space exploration, and Humanity getting off its duff and getting Out There.

And I learned some pretty exciting things about Orion and its launch system that, shame on me, I didn’t know beforehand:

The Space Launch System (SLS), or rockets used to launch it, will get a manned craft deeper into space than we’ve been since the Apollo program. When SLS is ready, the second Orion launch will loop around the moon and back.

The first launch, using a Delta IV Heavy and which I had hoped to witness, got us 3600 miles up. We haven’t done that with a human-rated vehicle since Apollo.

More spectacularly, Orion is our path to Mars.

That’s the long-term goal – getting humans to Mars via Orion and its related systems.

It all sounds awesome.

And then you dig a little.

SLS hasn’t been built yet. Isn’t ready yet.

And the decision to go with SLS, who designs and builds it, where that work is done, was political.

This worries me. Politics has no place in decisions like this, but NASA gets its money from the Federal budget, so the politics are unavoidable.

If you ask me, and yes, I know you didn’t, we need something like the Supreme Court for NASA – Senate-confirmed Presidential lifetime appointments for scientists to run (and control the budget for) NASA.

I know, a pipe dream, but I’d really like to see a human on Mars in my lifetime. Sure, that’s in the current schedule assuming I don’t get hit by a bus or a de-orbited satellite, but do we really think things will stay on track?

Retiring the space shuttle before a replacement was ready doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Look at us now, dependent on Russia to get astronauts to the ISS.

Good thing we’re getting along so well with the Russians these days.

Oh, wait.

Yes, yes, there are also commercial launch options, but they haven’t exactly been having a banner year either (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/spacex-rocket-explodes-during-test-flight-in-texas/).

Plus that’s ultimately being driven by an effort to reduce costs. It feels like a path to NASA giving up its ability to get to low Earth orbit and becoming entirely dependent on outside organizations.

But hey, if it’s cheaper, it’s cheaper, and everyone knows that capitalism should play a prominent role in Humanity’s exploration of space, right?

Sorry, I’m getting a bit cynical here, but only because I truly believe space is our future, and I hate to see it going to the lowest bidder.

When you don’t have the awe-inspiring experience of standing in the shadow of a giant radio telescope, you don’t get distracted from your perhaps unrealistic but still real childhood aspirations and dreams of space:

Moon bases. Colonies on Mars. Men and women exploring Europa, Titan. And, since I was a kid at the time, faster than light travel and whole new worlds to explore.

Instead, for Orion, I got a great promise about what’s coming but isn’t here yet, and a scrubbed launch that left me, ultimately, disappointed.

And tired. Very tired.

Unfortunately, too tired to get up for the second launch attempt, which by all standards, was a complete success.

For me, DSN50 was an example of “Look at what we have and can do” and it was amazing.

A stunning bird-in-the-hand moment for me.

Orion was an example of “Look what we think we’ll be able to do, if politics doesn’t get in the way of the best decisions, and the funding comes through, and we don’t cancel the program as some sort of boondoggle five years from now” and in this era of acrimonious divided government, it left me not hopeful, but wistful.

A “wouldn’t it be nice” sort of feeling.

I can’t help feeling like a kid who knows he isn’t going to get what he asked for when Christmas morning rolls around because he asked for way too much.

And all my childhood dreams and aspirations for space certainly feel like too much right now.

I promise I’ll be unbelievably excited when it actually does happen.

Assuming it does happen, and I’m not so tired I sleep through it.

 
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Posted by on 6 January 2015 in Science!

 

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Why NASA needs me to participate in their next social media event, or better yet, space mission

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to participate in DSN50, a NASA social media event celebrating the 50th anniversary of their Deep Space Network.

It was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which I blogged about.

Except it turns out it wasn’t.

NASA is hosting another once-in-a-lifetime social media event, this time to witness the test launch of the new Orion space capsule.

(Not to be confused with the similarly named, nuclear pulse propulsion Orion spacecraft.)

Turns out, for this particular event, applicants must write a short essay justifying why they should get one of the few available slots.

Naturally, I started mine, when I realized something.

All I've ever wanted in life was to be an astronaut and to be hugged. If only there was a way to combine the two...

Imagine! This could be me!

I was aiming too low.

I shouldn’t be aiming for attendance at one of the nearby space centers to view the launch.

No, like NASA, I should be aiming for space itself.

Therefore, for the benefit of any NASA HR personnel who just happen to regularly read this blog, I humbly offer you compelling, irrefutable reasons why NASA should accept me as their next astronaut.

(Despite having no job application on file. Do I need one of those, or is a blog post considered enough?)

First and foremost, I am an engineer. So if we run into any of your run-of-the-mill, typical space-program-type issues, I am well-equipped to solve them.

I also happen to be a huge science fiction fan. Books, movies, TV shows, radio programs: I love them all. If we run into any unexpected problems, such as first contact, facehuggers, flux capacitors on a forced feedback loop or the like, again, I’m your go-to guy when it comes to dealing with it.

I am led to understand it can take a great deal of time and patience to get into a spacesuit. Well, I’m covered there too: I have five-year olds I regularly dress (they stubbornly refuse to learn how to do it themselves, the bastards), and if that doesn’t prove patience and perseverance, well, I don’t know what does.

Also, as just mentioned, I have two five-year olds at home who are stubborn and unwilling to dress themselves. I am really motivated to embark upon an extended trip. The further away from my home, the better, and you can’t get much further than low Earth orbit.

At least, with our current crop of spacecraft. You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to warp drives.

No idea.

And as a responsible, loving father of young children, I am eager to not leave them (permanently) fatherless. So you can count on me to avoid taking any reckless risks while in space.

Yup, I definitely won’t be forgetting to close that airlock door after a spacewalk.

In fact, I’m so reluctant to leave my children (permanently) fatherless that you will need to hire some muscle to actually get me into the launch vehicle. But I promise, once I’m in the vacuum of space and the only chance of safely returning is complete and total cooperation, you won’t find a more reliable and industrious astronaut.

By the way, a fresh-faced Daddy and his two young kids?

Photo op gold.

Plus I just had my teeth whitened. Don’t want that to go to waste, do you?

But lest you start thinking you should send my kids into space instead of me, let’s get back to what makes me a great candidate.

I may be that most dreaded of creatures, the pocket protector wearing engineer, but I’m not all awkward and uncomfortable around people, afraid to make eye contact and spewing jargon in lieu of meaningful communication.

I’m also an English minor. As this blog clearly demonstrates, I can (and will!) convey any sciency stuff we encounter to the masses, and in simple terms that even I can understand!

(Note: if there are complicated terms involved, you will need to simplify them for me before I can convey them to the masses. But it’s space, how complicated can things get?)

Lots of complaints from ungrateful astronauts about the food you provide them? Not from me! For the last six months, in an effort to bulk up, I’ve eaten only creatine powder, consumed straight from the jar with just a straw and a little water to lower the viscosity.

After six months of this, I don’t care what you send up with your astronauts. Cheese Whiz? Tang? Cricket dung? Don’t care. It can’t possibly be as dehumanizingly unfit for consumption as creatine sludge.

On a related note, my doctor keeps telling me to lose weight. I can’t think of a better in-your-face way to shut her up than to drop down to zero pounds. Am I right?

Which reminds me. Think of the endorsements you can get through me to help fund the space program. Weight Watchers alone ought to be willing to pay me millions upon my safe return.

We can call it the Weight Watchers NASA Certified Weightless Program. It’ll be huge!

I’ll cut you in for, say, ten percent?

And how can you judge an applicant without the context of current events?

You can’t, of course!

Which is why I am proud to state, for the record, that you have nothing to be worried about with me when it comes to Ebola. I haven’t been anywhere near Africa, let alone West Africa.

And Texas? I wouldn’t have my cremated remains sent to that state, let alone a viable, working body. So with me, you can rest easy, knowing the odds against my coming down with Ebola during a mission are astronomical!

Finally, if you still aren’t convinced of my bona fides, I will add only this:

If NASA can send monkeys and dogs into space, surely you can get me there too.

Though if any of those animals are available to talk about their experience, let me know. Like I said, I’m a little worried about leaving my kids fatherless, and talking to someone who’s been through the whole process would ease my nerves considerably.

And I’m really good with dogs.

Well, nice dogs.

Not dogs like mine. They’re jerks, and I don’t get along with them.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you and learning when I should report to space camp (by the way, I’ve always wanted to go to space camp).

Respectfully yours,

Ian M. Dudley

 
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Posted by on 27 October 2014 in Astronomy!, Science!

 

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