LEAG 2009 Debrief

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Wow! That was a mind-bending conference. Clearly LRO is coming into full flower, its instruments providing solid and fascinating results.

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Overall the trip down to Houston was a bonanza for the Lunar Library, with lots of new additions of all kinds, especially from the Half-Price Books down on NASA Road 1. Please note that not everything is filed up top like it used to be. Because of the way Google and OotC catalogue things, any books older than this year are filed in their year of publication. So the only way to find out that I had picked up a copy of the totally cool “Apollo Over the Moon” would be to page through the Selenography (maps of the Moon) section until you got to the stuff from the 1970s. Or for the Space Thrills poster for K-4 educators you would have to go back to 2005 in the Youth Educator Materials section. Part of the fun of the Lunar Library is browsing through the different sections.

At the conference, the speakers came fast and furious, and of course most of the sessions went long. Monday morning was mainly institutional stuff, with updates from the Constellation program, the SMD Decadal Survey, Lunar Quest, OSEWG, NLSI, and LEAG itself. I was hoping to ask a question of Dr. Morrison from NLSI regarding the search for a ‘permanent’ director of the institution, but someone else beat me to it, so obviously I’m not the only one who threw their hat into ring. It doesn’t look like it’s moving very quickly, which means I’m going to have to wait even longer for the closure of the rejection letter I know I’m going to get. On a brighter note, I spoke with Brad Bailey and he said they’re seriously looking at doing a ‘Lunar University’ program this next summer, which I think is a huge step forward. It would be modeled on the Astrobiology Institute that they had out at Ames, which was based on the NASA Academy model, itself based by Dr. Soffen on the ISU model. That means tons of lectures each day, project work on top of that, and talks from top names in the field. I’m definitely going to keep readers apprised of updates about this potential treasure.

The afternoon was themed around sustainability. Sustainability of funding flows, sustainability of facilities, and sustainability of science. One speaker defined sustainability as the return of value to stakeholders. In the Q&A, I posited that in my field (banking and finance) what they called sustainability we called a dividend. I would define sustainability as creating more value than is consumed. Dallas Bienhoff and Paul Eckert both seemed to be in agreement with my definition. Now, how one defines value is open to debate, and the notion of value should not be confused with that of price, and neither of which should be confused with the concept of cost.

FWIW, I have seen Income Statements wherein the revenues generated were exceeded by the direct expense of producing the items sold. The revenues were generated by the price the consumer paid. From the consumer’s perspective that’s their cost, but the consumer’s perspective is not that of the manufacturer/supplier. From their side of the transaction their cost should have been less than the price paid by the purchaser (consumer). When it’s not, you don’t have a sustainable business, which is a significant credit risk from a banker’s perspective.

Speaking of price, I spent lunch on Monday on a visit to Space Center Souvenirs over on NASA Road 1 near IH45. This is my favourite souvenir shop in the area, as it’s the least institutional. You have to dig and search and browse carefully to find some really cool stuff. I picked up some stuff for the LL, and an inflatable Shuttle for this year’s NSS of North Texas Santa Space Toy Drive.

Back to the Moon, the last part of the afternoon was spent going over some of the preliminaries for Tuesday’s big all-day Moon science marathon. But first there was the poster session and libation social Monday evening. This was where I met Jayashree and picked up my copy of “Moonshot India” by Srinivas Laxman for the LL. It’s so hot off the press that it’s not even up yet at the publisher’s website.

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Tuesday morning was devoted to Polar region results from each of the instruments on LRO. There was a big focus on Cabeus, but there was info on the rest of the south pole as well. This was where the mind started to bend, and my memory is full of stuff like radar imagery of everdark craters and complicated charts and graphs. The one thing that really stuck out was someone asked about clearing the horizon for solar panels to be in constant sunlight and the answer was that someone had looked at it and the first order answer was that 3 km would ensure constant sunlight, although it was not clear if that was from a reference geoid (i.e. average elevation) or from a particular location. The second order answer was that a tower of only 20 m on an everlit peak would significantly improve your results. So the answer is at least bounded somewhat, and the idea of building 3km towers on the Moon doesn’t seem that daunting. At least there’re no hurricanes. tornadoes, floods or earthquakes on the Moon. Okay, there are minor Moonquakes, but nothing like what we have here on Earth. Unfortunately, no one has really done any substantial work on construction engineering in the Lunar environment.

For lunch, I decided to head over to Space Center Houston to pillage their gift shop for Moon stuff. I also profited from the occasion to visit their Educator Resource Center (ERC). Unlike MSFC’s facility, which is housed in a nice building next to the Space Camp facilities, JSC has stuck their ERC hidden away on the flight deck level of the Space Shuttle mockup. Severe budget constraints means they don’t have much to offer in the way of materials, but they do run a lot of programs and events for educators. They also noted that the PBS Kids ‘Design Squad’ TV thingee (sorry, I don’t watch television) has an ‘On the Moon’ project. I do want to take the opportunity to thank Elaine for taking the time to speak with me.

JSC runs a whole bunch of education programs (which is part of why there is so little budget for the ERC), from student flight opportunities to internships (about the only path to ever being employed by NASA, by the way, from what I hear) to educational downlinks from the ISS. They also offer speakers and astronauts, but those have a long lead time built in. They also have traveling exhibits and the local office of the Aerospace Education Services Project (AESP), who are the folks who supplied the trainer, Angelo Cassaburri (a one-man teaching machine) to my 2007 ISDC for the Moon Rock and Asteroid certification sessions.

Back to the conference after a quick sweep of the SpaceTrader gift shop, it turns out that I missed Anthony Colaprete’s talk on the LCROSS results, but everyone was buzzed and the succeeding talks were just icing on the cake. Lots of good stuff on qualifying the resources that should be available to us when we head to south polar region. The new acronym is PSR, for permanently shadowed regions. One speaker noted that they’re seeing temperatures down into the less than 40° Kelvin range (~-235° C), which is colder than they expect the poles of Pluto to be.

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Things were wandering into the increasingly esoteric, and starting to get a bit heady for this sub-par genius, so I decided to head on over to the LPI Library to see what titles they might have that I don’t. I did see a few that the LL lacks, but I am a bit pleased with myself to see that the LL has a larger collection of Moon-specific kids books than the LPI Library. As any Texan will be more than happy to tell you, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

I also stopped by the LPI Outreach Office and chatted for a bit with Stephanie, who had helped enormously in arranging materials for the Moon Day event we had back in July at the Frontiers of Flight Museum here in the metroplex. She’s part of the reason that each kid that came to the event left with a bag full of educational freebies. She promptly took me back into the storage area and started loading me up with bundles of lithos and individual posters to take back to Dallas to hand out and display. Also the fascinating Sky Tellers program, which uses Native American folk tales to introduce space concepts. The DVD can be used at a Planetarium, so I’m going to have to get in touch with the good folks down at the UTA Planetarium to see what we can see.

I’ve got a bunch of informational flyers, but they’re all mixed together so I can’t tell you which particular educational office they’re from:

NASA has a new program called Interdisciplinary National Science Program Incorporating Research Education Experiences, yielding the acronym INSPIRE. For 9th graders through freshman college, it offers a number of interesting and unique opportunities. This year’s window of opportunity has passed, but it’s not too late to start think about next year.

For teachers, the next Space Exploration Educators Conference has been scheduled for February 4-6, 2010. As the description notes

This conference is for Grades K-12 – and not just for science teachers! Space Center Houston strives to use space to teach across the curriculum. The activities presented can be used for science, language arts, mathematics, history, and more!

Sally Ride is the keynote speaker, and educators are going to be overloaded with speakers like astronauts and engineers and scientists, oh my! You definitely don’t want to wait to register for this one.

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NASA has a new Design Challenge, this one the Waste Limitation Management & Recycling competition. Form development teams of up to 6 students and a teacher or a mentor. Design a water recycling system for the unique environment of the Moon. Test your system on a simulated wastewater stream and report your proposal and its results to NASA. Winners get a trip to KSC! The deadline for entries is February 1, 2010, so get moving!

For grades 7-12, NASA is teaming up with USA Today for the No Boundaries program. No Boundaries helps students explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), while learning about NASA. Students will develop a project that markets careers at NASA to teens. I’ll just note that teens are generally considered a lost cause from the space educator perspective, the view being that if you haven’t hooked the kids on space by middle school, then the advent of hormone overload and its concomitant priorities will render any effort to interest them in space a sisyphean task. Some don’t think that’s necessarily so, so any efforts in that age-range, especially multi-disciplinary ones, are to be encouraged. All entries must be submitted to USA TODAY Education and postmarked no later than March 15, 2010.

On an interdisciplinary note, I got a terrific mini-poster for the 2010 Life & Work on the Moon 2010 Art & Design Contest. It features a number of the entrants from the last one, including my favourite the Lunar Greenhouses. NASA invites high school and college students from all areas of study to enter, including the arts, industrial design, architecture, computer design, and the fine arts. Students are asked to submit their work on the theme: Life and Work on the Moon. Artists are encouraged to collaborate with science and engineering students. Such collaboration is not required, but would help to ensure that the art is valid for the Moon’s harsh environment. Any full time student can enter, regardless of major or area of study. All entries are due no later than April 15, 2010.

Wednesday was dedicated to In-Situ Resource Utilization, a topic that is widely recognized as being crucial to a sustainable Lunar presence. I wandered in late in the morning (I am on vacation, after all), so only saw the panel on Lunar Prospecting Desirements with Larry Taylor, Brad Jolliff and Jeff Taylor, three of the eminences grises in the field of Lunar mineralogy. I took a long lunch at the Star Fire Grill, but luckily got back in time for Bob Ferl’s talk on what research there is regarding plant growth in regolith. His team has collected everything they could find regarding the research done back in the 1970s, and has even been in contact with Dr. Walkinshaw (to understand the importance of that name, please refer to the OotC article ‘Of A Garden on the Moon‘). They’ve gathered it all together for ease of access for Lunar botanists. I asked if any efforts were being made to do plant research in real regolith, or was NASA all like ‘no, no, no’? Me and my big stupid mouth, as it turns out the head of the Lunar Rock Lab was sitting right in front of me (doh!), but he did indicate that they would be willing to make regolith available for plant growth studies that had strong controls and solid science (which to me seemed to be exactly what Mr. Ferl was talking about, I mean seriously, 26,000 data points in plant germination that can be compared across plant species? Increasing numbers of gene sequenced plants? This is a field ripe for some serious work that contributes directly to human sustainability on the Moon. Another questioner noted that when regolith has been placed in water it generates an abundance of peroxides, so would that have an effect of plant germination? Anna-Lisa indicated that plants do have adaptation mechanisms for stresses in the environment, but there hasn’t really been any research on that particular aspect of regolith (remember, not much real regolith in plant studies since the 1970s).

Next up was simulants. NASA has been doing a lot of work in figuring out which simulants are appropriate for which kinds of studies. I.e. JSC-1A is an engineering simulant, trying to simulate the physical characteristics as opposed to the mineralogical characteristics, and so may not necessarily be the best simulant for plant growth studies. Simulants are popping up all over the place and we were shown examples from Canada and Japan. Since I do a lot of direct contact with the public in my outreach efforts, and talk about Lunar rocks, Jim is going to send me a couple vials of Canadian simulant to go with my tub of JSC-1. Sweet!

A lot of interesting discussion about dust. One slide showed expressed demand for simulant in the coming years, and they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to meet the demand for 100,000 kilograms in 2011. Did you know that the smallest particles of Lunar dust are so small that they don’t even lodge in the lungs (potentially leading to a form of silicosis), but go directly into the blood stream, wreaking who knows what kind of microscopic havoc. That’s why they wear the masks at the regolith excavation challenges.

The next Lunar Regolith Simulant Workshop has been scheduled for February 23-25, 2010 at MSFC in Huntsville, AL. The focus of this Workshop will be on Lunar Regolith Simulant Development and Characterization, in addition to Simulant User Needs Assessments. This Workshop is geared towards anyone that will need to use simulants, such as technology developers, engineers, scientists, and human health researchers. For those that write SBIR or other proposal solicitations and for those responding to calls that may require simulants, the Workshop will provide a better understanding of simulant choices, availability, and costs. And believe you me, the stuff ain’t cheap.

Student and international presentations rounded out the last afternoon, and then another social rounded things out. I did get a chance to speak with Sarah N____ a/k/a Interplanet Sarah on the interwebs. One of her paintings hangs in the Lunar Library and she suggested that I check out her newer stuff. I did send an inquiry about one, but I’m not going to say which because I don’t want anyone competing with me for it. She also did a myMoon podcast for LPI while she was there.

I decided to skip the wrap-up on Thursday morning, though I probably should have been there. I head out for D.C. early tomorrow morning and faced a long drive back to Dallas. And, my Moon adventure in Houston was not yet finished. Whilst heading up IH-45 I detoured to the Southwest Freeway and down into the museum district to stop by the Museum of Fine Art- Houston (MFAH) to check out their exhibit “The Moon: Houston, Tranquility Base Here. The Eagle has Landed”. It was absolutely worth the detour (and not just because it was free today) and is a world-class exhibition of the Moon in popular culture. It’s something to look at one of the first editions of Sidereus Nuncius and see the original, and really first scientific drawings of the Moon. Lots of paintings with the Moon in the background, though few I felt really captured the unique illumination of Lunar light. Neat mechanical stuff. I really liked the bust of Diana, which magnificently captured an air of haughty indifference and cold disinterest that I know so well from romantic efforts. I was hoping for a reproduction in the Gift Shop, but no luck, though I did get an exhibit book. If you’re in Houston before January 10th you should definitely stop by.

Made good time on the drive back, and now I’ve got to pack for a weekend in D.C. for the National Space Society Board of Directors meeting. Yeah fun… Seriously though, it’s not too bad, and the organization is facing some challenges. In my view NSS is entering a transformative stage, though institutionally it has barely begun to adapt. It’s nothing particular to NSS, most every not-for-profit organization is facing the same challenge and finding they are ill-prepared for the hand-off to younger generations. Additionally, the economic environment is such that most corporate donors have had to tighten their purse strings.

In my view this is actually bad for the space industry. I personally feel that the space industry is one in which the U.S. holds a commercial competitive advantage (both classified and not), and the space industry can be one of the growth industries that will pull the U.S. out of its economic distress brought on by rampant pillaging and looting of our traditional industries. More and more people are recognizing that there are resources in space that could be useful here on an energy-hungry Earth. Dr. Taylor noted that while there is a huge giggle factor for Helium-3 here in the U.S., he has noted from his talks in China and Russia that they are definitely taking a look at it.

The results that we are seeing are tremendous in their import, and I think it’s going to be harder and harder to ignore the potential that exists in cislunar space. I’m also happy to see an increasing proportion of younger to older attendees. That shows increasing sustainability, and even an increase in diversity. I learned way, way, way (a biologist’s version of orders-of-magnitude according to one joke) more than I expected. I added a ton of materials to the Lunar Library. I met some great folks and had a great time.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this year’s LEAG meeting was a Full Moon conference. Thanks Clive!

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