90,000 Miles to Me

30,212 Miles • 50th Moon Landing Anniversary

50 Years ago today, two men from Earth set foot on another world for the first time in the history of mankind. 

And today, 50 years later, I had an awesome day! The Emera Astronomy Center at the University of Maine at Bangor put on such a great event. Major kudos all around.

When I visited Kansas’s space history museum early this summer, posters all around the place reminded me that this year is the 50th anniversary of landing a man on the Moon. Ever since then, just about every library in every small town I have visited has displayed posters about it, promoted reading challenges around space topics, with selections of books pulled for both kids and adults to learn more about space, astronomy, space history, the Moon, and every possible related field. Several of the museums that I have visited have also been advertising their anniversary event celebrations.

With so much going on, and my current geographical mobility, I spent some time online to find the best events in this region and loved the sound of what they were doing at the University of Maine in Bangor. For only a $10 dollar ticket, including lunch, they had a whole day celebration planned with science talks for adults as well as a kids track. Personally, I really appreciate it when events have both kids stuff and parts that are more engaging for adults, so nerds like me can also geek out with other interested adults. 

To get in the mood, I read two books on early space history and watched a few documentaries on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. I recommend Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, and Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, a documentary about how the mission control center and team developed in the course of the early missions.

At UMaine, I arrived to find my tour group only had about 10 people, and around 50 for the entire event. A very manageable crowd!

We did quite a bit of walking to get to various labs on campus where members of the engineering department told us about two different projects they are developing for NASA to aid current and upcoming missions. After each talk, we got to see some of the labs and materials where they are testing the projects in practice.

One was on a new means of slowing down spacecraft landing on the surface of Mars. On Earth, when astronauts and spacecraft reenter the atmosphere, we have traditionally relied on parachutes to slow their descent enough that they can survive impact. On Mars, however, the atmosphere is much thinner so there isn’t in the kind of “air” resistance that we have on Earth. When Rovers and other Mars missions have landed in the past, one of the big challenges has been to slow them enough that they survive landing. If we are ever to send humans to Mars, that will involve much larger payloads and our current strategies for slowing down the craft will not be sufficient.

Enter the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD, a NASA-developed device for landing spacecraft on Mars.

NASA conceptualized this technology about 50 years ago, and it has been actively in development for at least the last decade, with the first successful Earth reentry test in 2012. Essentially, it is an inflatable badminton birdie-shaped stack of tubes that would provide enough resistance to slow down the craft in the atmosphere.

These tubes are incredibly strong and can be built to withstand enormous pressures and yet are incredibly light. The ones for a Mars mission would be several meters across.

One of the tubes that they are testing for structural integrity in the lab at the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

The other project we heard about was a device that can detect air leaks on the International Space Station, and potentially other spacecraft or even spacesuits. Micrometeorites and mother space debris are major threats to the ISS, because they are both tiny and traveling at speeds around 7 to 10 km/s. That is more 5 to 8 times the speed of the fastest speeding bullet.

At those speeds, tiny space rocks or debris from defunct satellites have penetrated American and Russian spacecraft several times:

The crew here at UMaine developed a little box about the size of my open hand that listens to the sounds in the space station and can register changes in those sounds in the frequencies that would indicate a change of air pressure, and can localize the region that it is coming from to alert astronauts to look for a leak before it becomes a problem.

We got to see the innards of the leak detection system box.
Three devices were deployed on the ISS for testing. This one is in a corner of one of the living modules.

This kind of technology also has the potential to be used here on Earth for safety at home, inside gas and oil pipelines, and all sorts of as yet to be thought of applications.

After getting to see the these two projects, we were all pretty hungry and were glad of some lunch.

For our admission price, I was expecting something along the lines of a simple hamburger or sandwich, but this was a full on catered reception sponsored by several local organizations and parts of the university, with excellent food and plenty of it. 

The keynote speaker was UMaine Alumnus, Dr. George Nelson, Director of the International Space Station Technology and Science Research Office at NASA. He gave a brief history of U.S. space missions from the moon landing to the current day, most of which has been on shuttles and the International Space Station, and have been largely scientific in nature. He also commented a little on the relations between the U.S. and Russia since the Moon landing. 

I got to pick his brain for a few minutes after the lecture about any advice he might give me for starting a career in space/astronomy/science so much later than is usual. His recommendations were, essentially, to pick a scientist that I want to work with rather than focusing on the school I want to be at. He said who you work under is much more important than the school’s pedigree, since he or she can lead to other connections and more opportunities. Sound advice for any budding scientist.

He also said that although the graduate degree itself will have to be fairly narrow in scope, it is not necessarily as confining as it might seem, since once you have that track record and people who are willing to help you along, many more opportunities can come up in a much broader range of fields. He didn’t seem to think that the age difference would be much of an issue, and said that in some ways it might be an advantage because people are looking for maturity and work ethic and would expect that an older student would treat it like a job and not just play around. I would lose out on some things like ’young career grants’ and whatnot, but that’s not everything.

I appreciate his advice, and pass it along here for anyone else who might be interested, but upon reflection, although I was geeking out in the lectures learning about the two projects, I was far less excited about seeing the experiments in person. Not that I wasn’t excited, it just didn’t excite me as a prospect for something that I would want to do myself. Maybe I am far more suited to science journalism. I would get to look at the experiments and talk to the researchers and geek out in that way, but wouldn’t have to go through years of rigorous experiments for each narrow addition to the wealth of human knowledge. I like getting the broader view more, and would not want to narrow my interests to a single field, not even a single broad field. I’m interested in too many aspects of science. 

And—personal growth!—I didn’t have a problem this time walking up to Dr. Nelson and just asking to pick his brain about career stuff. Or asking questions during the lectures. Once I can get over my emotional need for external validation that I belong in the science community, I think I will be fine with not having the science degree and be able to look forward to science writing as a career prospect.

Back at the Emera Astronomy Center’s planetarium, they showed the movie “Mars 1001,” a fictional look into what a near future Mars mission could potentially look like—a journey of 1001 days—partially from the perspective of the news reporters covering it from Earth. It was really well done, and I actually got to see it twice since they showed it to a few of us who stayed after the morning track was technically over, and then they showed it again for the afternoon family track and I stuck around to watch it again.

It is realistically possible that I will be alive to witness a manned Mars mission. Maybe I’ll even be able to cover it as part of the press!

After a few comments about Maine’s connections to space history and the space industry, that was the end. It was a really great day and very well put on. I’m so happy that I came.

* * *

If you are interested in exploring any of this more, check out:

https://www.moonlanding50.org A collection of resources and activities surrounding the anniversary.

Information about the Apollo missions.

Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, two of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, a documentary about how the mission control center and team developed in the course of the early missions.

A perspective on the Apollo 11 mission from astronaut Mike Collins, who piloted the command module as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went down to the surface, animated by Google.

* * *