Astrowright Academy and the Classroom of Tomorrow

23 08 2010

Well, just a quick note this morning.  Today is my first day of class as a graduate student in the University of North Dakota’s School of Aerospace Sciences Department of Space Studies program.

So, you could say that my advanced academic push toward becoming an astrowright has begun.  -And in true 21st Century form, as I commute to work, I’ll actually be “attending” a lecture.

University of North Dakota SpSt 541 class lecture #2. Credit: Me.

Here goes nothing.

Getting up to speed, part 2. (Space update)

25 02 2010

Legacy NTS atomic test

Halfway into the 21-st Century aughts, I landed a job as a scientist in the Environmental Restoration program at the Nevada Test Site.  This amounted to the study, clean-up, and documentation of contamination left over from the glory days of above-ground nuclear weapon tests.  I wanted fieldwork that other astronaut-hopefuls wouldn’t be getting, and boy did I get it, (in addition to a few fortuitous space-exploration-related surprises.)

First and foremost, learning to deal with, comfortably work around, and analyze radioactivity was a boon.  High-energy radiation from the Sun is one of an astronaut’s primary threats.  Shielding techniques and real-time measurements of dose rates and activity in a remote field environment – You don’t get experience like that in a university.

Apollo astronauts at NTS

Secondly, for obvious reasons, getting used to performing scientific and technical work in and around the unique, high-density network of craters left over from testing was also highly advantageous from a planetary science fieldwork perspective.  I’m not the only one to make that connection, either.

As fate would have it, the astronauts who would walk on the Moon on Apollo 14, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 trained in the same area for the same reasons nearly four decades earlier.


Sensor truck about to be engulfed by a dust devil.

By happy coincidence, I simultaneously had the opportunity to jump into “field” Mars research on the side by being invited to assist the scientist who first discovered dust devils on Mars with fieldwork just outside of Las Vegas.  You see, dust devils seem like no big deal on Earth, but on Mars your average dust devil is a mile wide and eight miles tall.  You can see them from space.  Seriously.  So, using chase trucks and custom-built instrumentation, we chased whirlwinds across dry desert lakebeds to get precious readings from within a dust devil’s core – an area that is not typically easy to access – in order to better understand how dust devils are currently shaping the surface of Mars.

Think the space-geek version of storm chasers.  It was awesome.

Then, in early 2006, I discovered through the course of my work at the Nevada Test Site that NASA and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had partnered in a little-known 1960s test program conducted at the site called NERVA.  What they achieved in only a few years is staggering: A series of successful, fully-functional nuclear rocket engines that used liquid hydrogen for fuel, emitted simple hydrogen and water vapor as exhaust, and were nearly twice as powerful as our best chemical rockets today(!).


1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in full flight configuration.

This will be the subject of a much longer post or posts in the future, but let me just say that the program was not shut down due to safety concerns or failures to successfully produce – NERVA was canceled simply for lack of funds and interest (we stopped going to the Moon and canceled plans for following up to Mars).  My involvement was both exhilarating and heart-breaking, because the reason I became versed in the history and details of the program was to help tear down its last remnants.  Saving knowledge from this program became a sort of personal quest – I find the idea of lost advanced (and superior!) rocket technology sickening – and thus began my side foray into space-era industrial archaeology… but that’s another story.


View from 8-Mile Creek in Spring Valley, NV.

Work in the environmental program at the test site began to wind down in 2007, and I soon found myself in a new position as a senior hydrogeologist with the Southern Nevada Water Authority – a position I still hold today.  A perfect blend of extremely remote fieldwork combined with intensely analytical science, the job entails measuring every spring and stream and obtaining rainfall measurements across a nearly 1,400-square mile project area and making sense of it meteorologically and geologically.  Why?  We need to determine how much water is in the region in order to lay the foundation for a future 300-mile long freshwater pipeline to supply Las Vegas with much-needed water.  With the program, I’ve covered nearly 100,000 miles of territory (1/3 of the way to the Moon) in the last two years, all of it with a population density of less than 1 person per square mile.  (Might as well have been the Moon in many cases.)  Considering the safety mentality you’re required to develop when you’re really on your own, the logistics of being away from sources of, well, anything, and lots of travel time in cramped quarters with field partners (I calculated it – I saw my field partner more than my wife in 2008) – I look at my time with SNWA as planetary scientist boot camp.

Me receiving NV-1 DMAT helicopter loading and evacuation training.

During this time, I also became a part-time Logistics Officer with Nevada’s federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), figuring that emergency response and logistics would also be valuable and unique experience from a future astronaut candidate perspective.  While I haven’t had a deployment since I’ve been on the team roster, I have had plenty of useful training opportunities.  We’ll see.

That essentially brings us up to speed.  With some significant “boots on the ground” experience under my belt, change is in the air.

The game is afoot.

Getting up to speed, part 1. (Space update)

20 02 2010

To get stated, it’d probably be helpful if I offer up a recap on my spaceward progress to date.  So, for the record, objective #1 is: Employment off-world.

Volcanic eruptions on Io during Jupiter occultation event, WY, 1999.

From the top.  After having my lifelong adolescent hopes dashed with a rejection letter from MIT after graduating with a sterling record from the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts, I started my collegiate schooling in 1999 at the University of Wyoming in what I found (to my dismay) was but a shell of the astrophysics program I was promised. Unbeknownst to me, politics had taken hold just months before in what was to be my department, and a new university president thought it would be a good idea to threaten the entire physics program with dissolution and drive away all of the faculty.

Enter yours truly.

I floundered for a couple of years under part-time, uninvested and lackluster instructors, eventually discovering that the program and the field in general wasn’t ever going to take me where I wanted to go.  Astrophysicists aren’t field personnel, and I wanted to be where the action is.  I wanted to be out there collecting data, not reducing and analyzing data that other explorers were collecting.  So, I switched over to geology and partnered myself with a planetary scientist using a nearby infrared telescope to study volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s innermost moon.  The experience was breathtaking, and it was visceral.

For the first time since leaving high school, the pieces began to feel as though they were falling into place.

Me at the borehole video observation tent, Bench Glacier, AK, 2003.

Then, I realized if I were ever going to walk on the Moon (or Mars, or Europa,) I was going to need field experience.  Pounding the pavement at UW resulted in my being picked up by a research team probing glaciers in the Alaskan wilderness.  I survived with six other guys helicoptered onto what was a truly otherworldly environment for a summer, compiled the research, and presented some fairly thrilling and unexpected findings at a scientific conference the next year.  It was about as close to “planetary” fieldwork as you can get on Earth.  The work led to futher cryosphere field and laboratory research on naturally supercooling rivers and the many mysterious properties they express.  This led to further surprising scientific findings and presentations, and it was here that I became really hooked on field science.

Life really began to feel as though it was settling into a groove.

I dove into practical space science research using both geology and astrophysics concepts, devising a way to separate harvestable material from asteroids in microgravity.  After bringing together a student research team to work on the project, we made a run for a NASA research flight, and I graduated in the spring of 2005.

Then came my riskiest decision to date.

You see, the obvious way to space is NASA, and there are two obvious roads to NASA.  One is to join the Air Force or Navy as a pilot, (which I very nearly signed up for on three separate occasions,) and the other is to get your Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, Doctorate, find a post-doctoral position with one of the NASA facilities, and fight against all of the other post-docs to get involved with one of the hot exploration missions (lander, rover, etc.).  So, naturally, I did neither.

To be honest, I didn’t like my odds either way.  I’d felt since the ’90s that the future of space exploration was corporate, because that’s where the venture capital is, and that’s where accepting risk is a way of life.  So, my gamble was to leave academia entirely for the time being and strive to make myself the ideal remote field scientist in an “industry” environment.  I decided to bet that I could develop the skills either NASA or a private space exploration company would be looking for by the moment they were looking for them.  The reality is, when someone does decide to send explorers back to another world, they’re going to need people who are already familiar working on their own, performing highly technical work in small groups in extreme environments with a comfortable sort of self-sufficiency.  So, I kept my nose down and landed in the closest place on Earth there is to the Moon – the crater-ridden Nevada Test Site:

To be continued…

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