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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