An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

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Foundation and Closed Priesthood

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There are books that itch inside your mind and say, “It’s time! Read me again.” For me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of them. So I recently gave it a second read. I’m in awe of its depth of thought and its continued, if not increased, relevance today. I highly recommend this book.

I do not suggest Foundation as a light and fun read. You must show up. You must give it your full attention. You will be rewarded.

Perhaps the ingredient in Foundation which I find most interesting is the notion of science as a closed priesthood. Quite literally, scientists as a group who derive power and authority from their vocation, but who remain highly exclusive, mysterious, and suspect to non-scientists. Their work takes on the air of magic–attractive to some and fearful to others–by virtue of being well-guarded, specialized, and difficult for laymen to comprehend.

In his book Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Carl Sagan has these cautionary words to say about closed priesthood:

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”

I’ll leave you to think about this issue. But I suggest the topic is both fascinating and critically deserving of our consideration. One of the best ways to consider science as a closed priesthood, for good and ill, is to read Asimov’s masterwork.

To read an earlier review I wrote of Foundation, visit Goodreads.

Think you understand Alan Alda?

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The greatest science communication failure of recent history occurred during breaking news coverage of the Higgs boson particle discovery. At least, that’s my opinion. This particle, claimed to be the active ingredient in objects having mass, is a huge deal. Yet, look at this gibberish news outlets threw at me as the leading quotation for the achievement.

“We have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 plus or minus 0.6 GeV at 4.9 standard deviations.”

No offense to Dr. Joe Incandela, who made the above technical statement to a room full of scientists. Following his words, the gathering bubbled over with applause, even tears in at least one case. But the jargon was lost on me. That day I refused to be impressed as a matter of principle. Science had failed to explain itself.

Such disconnects between scientists and the public comprise the impetus for Alan Alda’s latest book: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Known to many for his acting career, Alda has dedicated much of his time to promoting better science communication. Far from being a mere on-camera spokesman, Alda works as a Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Using personal examples, as well as research, Alda makes the case for empathy as essential to good communication. He couples this with insights regarding the Theory of Mind. Think of empathy as the emotional connection, and Theory of Mind as the rational component. Empathy, according to Alda, is a skill which can be developed and refined.

Not surprisingly, Alda advocates cultivating empathy through theatrical improv (a serious performance method, not merely a game-driven attempt to get laughs). Anyone who has taken an acting class with improv as a component, myself included, will find this to be self-evident. The same practiced skills which help actors connect onstage can help scientists connect with the public. As Alda relates, this extends to medical doctors, business leaders, hopeful lovers, and parents mentoring children.

If I Understood You… stays on task via short chapters and focused, conversational prose. It wraps up in a tidy 200 pages. There is also an audio version, read by Alda, which I’ll safely assume is highly enjoyable. The result is a book calculated to be accessible, informative and thought-provoking.

Odd then that this book sometimes struggled to hold my interest. If I Understood You… is full of nuggets: nuggets of wisdom, hindsight, and profound experience. Any chapter by itself can be a delight, and many were for me. Yet, perhaps because of the testimonial nature, perhaps because of the copious repetition of its premise, the book sometimes felt like an after-dinner conversation growing tiresome. In no way am I panning it. However, I do suggest readers avoid devouring the book quickly (which I did so I could post my review asap).

Given its levelheaded blend of entertainment with educational discourse, If I Understood You… disqualifies itself from being Alda’s most fun book yet. It may however prove his most important, given the toxic level of animosity in current public discussion. Therefore, I highly recommend reading it. Come for the theory, but stay for the moments of sublime understanding.

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Recommended: Science Fact Clichés

 

Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché

 

Eagle vs. Armadillo in NASA Rhetoric

“…we can’t keep living off Apollo’s bounty. Currently, the hair of a scientist can turn gray waiting to get their first experiment on the shuttle, let alone the necessary follow-up research.”

—Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator

Yesterday I went digging for speeches by former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. And these days digging is what you must do to find archival material on nasa.gov, especially bookish things like administrator speeches. I dug, dug, dug, like an armadillo you might say.

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Daniel S. Goldin, Image Credit: NASA

I wound up at the out-of-the-way, but highly useful, NASA NTRS webpage (NASA Technical Reports Server). They dished me up an interesting speech Mr. Goldin gave at the Space Station Utilization Conference held in Huntsville, Alabama on August 4, 1992. He spoke about Space Station Freedom, the conceptual precursor to our International Space Station.

You are hereby invited to ditch my blog and read the three-page speech in its entirety:

Goldin Speech on Space Station Freedom

In a culture where all NASA speeches exist in the shadow of that one President Kennedy gave (you know the one), it’s understandable this address ended up tucked away in an archive. After all, it promotes a Reagan Era space station that was never actually built. Yet, with impassioned tone, Goldin’s speech effectively lays out the rationale for putting a continuously inhabited laboratory in Low Earth Orbit.

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Artist concept image of Space Station Freedom by Tom Buzbee, Image Credit: NASA

On a literary level, I most enjoyed mulling over Goldin’s use of an animal kingdom analogy, which he borrowed from NASA Scientist Rick Chappell. The analogy contrasts a soaring eagle with a scurrying armadillo. In short, when it comes to research and exploration we need to be like an eagle, not an armadillo. Why? Goldin and Chappell portray the high-soaring eagle as having a wise long-range mindset. The burrowing armadillo, however, only cares about finding its next meal.

Zoologists may be better equipped to weigh the merits of denigrating armadillos simply because they cannot fly. I believe there is both engineering and literary merit in honoring critters who are good on the ground. Still, Americans have long loved their eagle mascot for good reasons. Any metaphor which clarifies the wisdom of keen vision and long-term, broad-perspective thinking has merit.

Now, if only for the fun of it, here are a few words in favor of the armadillo. In recent decades both Hollywood and the aerospace industry have given this creature nods. Google “Armageddon Armadillo” and “Armadillo Aerospace” to see this animal’s rocky road to iconic status. While you’re at it, for a chuckle do an image search on the “pink fairy armadillo.” Now there’s a cute little armored critter for you!

Getting back to Goldin’s speech, we can look at today’s International Space Station and see the remarkable achievement of continual human presence in space. The day-to-day research and public-private partnerships Goldin envisioned in 1992 have come to fruition. But, in a quest for clever analogies, we could also look at the hardworking occupants of the ISS as they tunnel through the station’s interior, or scurry about the exterior wearing protective layers. We can observe them busily engaged in domicile maintenance and resupply missions. Do they seem more like eagles or armadillos?

NASA: Previewing and Pioneering

For people interested and/or concerned with NASA’s future under President-elect Donald Trump, I point you to two sources I respect and find enlightening.

  1. As a member of The Planetary Society, I enjoy regular blogging and podcast content from Director of Advocacy Casey Dreier. Monitoring the political landscape is his job. Here’s Casey’s preview perspective: NASA Under Trump.
  2. For another take, I recommend space blogger Heather Archuletta, aka Pillownaut. When it comes to space blogging you could say Pillownaut is one of my mentors. Her views are very well-informed, albeit less restrained. She is not bound by the non-partisan obligations Casey adheres to working for a non-profit organization. Here’s Pillownaut’s preview perspective: The Future of NASA?

In any case, Lit for Space is a vehicle for marrying my love of literature with my love of space exploration. If you want to interact with me regarding the current political fray, and many other topics, I can be found on Twitter: @childejake. Now on to the featured content of this post.

NASA and Pioneering

On the topic of guard changing, I went back to 2002. President George W. Bush had recently appointed Sean O’Keefe to head NASA. O’Keefe was a novel choice. Neither a veteran engineer nor a test pilot (like his successors), O’Keefe hailed from the world of public administration. His resume was nonetheless impressive, as NASA’s history page for him relates.

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Sean O’Keefe, Image Credit NASA/Bill Ingalls

A few months back I read a copy of O’Keefe’s Senate confirmation hearing remarks and frankly found them underwhelming by way of being overly apologetic. See my above note on him being outside the traditional NASA mold. Last week I pulled down the address he gave at Syracuse University after about four months of being on the job. O’Keefe talks expansively and passionately about NASA’s future via the theme of pioneering. I highly recommend reading this address, available as a PDF:

Pioneering the Future

In terms of being literature, O’Keefe’s speech exemplifies how significant the word “pioneering” is for NASA. For starters, we have the Pioneer space missions. In particular, Pioneers 10 and 11, which literally pioneered regions of our solar system never before explored directly by humanity. They achieved the most basic and obvious manner of pioneering, travelling farther out than anyone has before.

What I appreciate most about O’Keefe’s remarks is his use of pioneering in ways that transcend mere physical distance. Consider the title, a direct reference to pioneering forward through time. Elsewhere in his speech, he references deep space observations by telescopes like Hubble. Telescopic observation counts as pioneering the past, because the further a telescope sees, the older is the light reaching its lense.

Lastly, and so importantly for NASA’s heritage, O’Keefe relates NASA’s pioneering efforts on–and pointed at–planet Earth. NASA pioneers technology directly benefiting us on the ground. NASA points some of its on-orbit technology back at our planet to observe the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land. Everyone from farmers to people worried about mosquito-borne diseases benefits. See his remarks on page 6 under the heading “To understand and protect our home planet.”

O’Keefe’s remarks run to 14 pages. If you only read a chunk, read page 4 where he imagines life on Earth in 2030. He envisions all that America’s space program has achieved. Here is one excerpt which speaks to an aspect of Earth observation many of us hope remains a NASA priority under President-elect Trump’s administration. Imagining the year 2030, as pioneered in part by NASA research, Administrator O’Keefe said this:

“We understand our home: NASA’s missions revealed the complex interactions among the Earth’s major systems, vastly improving weather, climate, earthquake, and volcanic eruption forecasting – and the impact that our Sun has on our living world.”

Sans serif shuttle font and Sally

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Shuttle Challenger
Image Credit: NASA

Or is it serif shuttle font? Help me out, good reader. First, find the number seven in the above image. Hint, the space shuttle is making the numeral.

There is at least one other image from the STS-7 mission out there where you can see the Challenger’s Canadarm forming the number seven. The STS-7 crew, like any self-respecting artists, chose to autograph their work. And I’m going to say it’s a serif font, because the End effector, or hand portion of the Canadarm, provides a flourish on the 7’s tip. This is literature formed by the most famous robot arm to fly in space!

The late Dr. Sally Ride recounts this numerical photo exploit–apparently done without the foreknowledge of mission control–in an interview she gave to the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in 2002. I stumbled onto the interview yesterday and highly recommend reading the whole thing. The back and forth between Sally and interviewer Rebecca Wright is quite conversational and very accessible to non-scientists like me.

Interview with Dr. Sally Ride

I was overdue to spend an afternoon with Dr. Ride, if only through her legacy and her words. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the interview. Sally describes her role in the launch of the shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission, which made her the first American woman to go into space:

“One of the first things that I was supposed to do—seven seconds after ignition—was, once the Shuttle started to roll, to say, “Roll program.” I’ll guarantee that those were the hardest words I ever had to get out of my mouth. It’s not easy to speak seven seconds after launch.”

Following two shuttle missions, Dr. Ride embarked on a career in academia. She taught physics at the University of California, San Diego. She also became a prolific writer, co-authoring several books. Those wanting to learn more about her contributions to science and literature should visit the Sally Ride Science website.

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Image Credit: Sally Ride Science

From NASA’s website: “This image shows Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, who was also part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Ride led the Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students (MoonKAM) project, which allowed students nationwide to target lunar images to be taken by Ebb and Flow, the two GRAIL spacecraft.”