Monday, October 1, 2018

Happy Birthday NASA!!

Happy 60th birthday NASA. Honestly, you don't look a day over 50.

You guys know I'm a huge NASA fangirl but you might not know why. If you know me well, you know that I don't care a whit about astronomy and I've never yearned to be an astronaut. (These are not the opinions of most of my teammates but they have access to the blog and can write their own entries.)

Imagine a ridiculous hypothetical problem. Make it the most egregious math textbook word problem you've ever seen. Cram it with variables. (Make sure it's an odd numbered problem so the answer isn't in the back of the book.) Add so many caveats to it that it doesn't even make logistical sense unless you storyboard the entire thing out and create a manual for it. Limit the amount of academic resources on best practices that exist until it feels personal and vaguely insulting. Frustrated? Think it's too fantastic (in the worst sense of the word) to even bother trying to solve? Congratulations, you've created a NASA problem.

I love NASA because they do the impossible. They take a problem that no one will tackle and work until they conquer it. I've read a bunch about space travel for someone who has no desire to do it, and the sheer volume of considerations involved in plotting a mission to another planet is astounding. You think that you understand the limitations, but once you really dive into the deep end of space travel you'll quickly become overwhelmed. Some of the challenges are laughably mundane and will never be the subject of a Ryan Gosling movie. I mean, they've tackled the worst case scenario for crumbs. But they've also saved lives by figuring out how to keep squishy, soft foam bits from penetrating metal, a problem we didn't know we had until it was too late. Problem solving at NASA sends people to space in one functional piece, fabricates special tools for unworkable tasks, manages precision in hundreds of bitty screws and dangerously massive explosions, and tackles all of these tasks with elegant creativity.

And that's my next's a meld of art and science. As a geek I love that NASA is winging it. They are reinventing the wheel from scratch. They're trying to figure out how to throw a dart from North Carolina at a moving target in California. They're stretching the tolerances of materials science. They're using laser-beams for like, everything. They mash up mundane items like Joy dish soap and coffee cans with sophisticated resources, and everything practical is viewed as an equally viable solution. If you've fixed it, don't break it.

They tackle these problems until they find a solution, and then they test the daylights out of it. NASA testing facilities are the gold standard for everyone and the safety posters are out of this world.

You've heard about the Hubble Space Telescope but have you ever really read about how gloriously, magnificently unbelievable it is? Not only what it does, which is just spectacularly nuts, but how it was made? NASA takes words like "incredible" and "unbelievable" and really makes you appreciate their etymology.

On top of this, NASA is generous. Once they solve a problem they share the answers and move on to the next gratuitously impossible task. Whether you appreciate it or not. NASA created a lot of the tech that you use in your everyday lives. When they come up with useful inventions through the course of their everyday research they release these ideas into industry so that other people can benefit from the knowledge. NASA is making you safer, making energy more efficient, and helping to save the planet. Your tax dollars at work!

And that's the next thing for me. You might not think of NASA as a humanitarian agency but they are! NASA research helps inform public health initiatives, preserve clean water, guide environmental policy, minimize the impact of natural disasters, and literally make the world a better place. NASA data is available globally, and NASA education and outreach initiatives strive to engage all citizens of the Earth. (Especially places where cutting edge data is hard to come by.) Geologically speaking humans are pretty insignificant. Astronomically speaking we're...well...words fail. However, in spite of these facts we humans persist in feeling like the most important thing in the universe, possibly as a coping mechanism. The research that NASA conducts on the role that our delicate bits of sentient biomatter play within this moving lithospheric stage nestled inside of a cavernous energy flecked theater should create, if you take the time to absorb it, an overwhelming sense of kinship with your fellow bits of biomatter. To put it simply; it's harder to be a jerk to other humans when you realize how gorgeous, vast, and dangerous the world is. There's no "I" in team but there's four in "insignificant."

As a true fan, I follow my favorite NASA centers (sorry JPL) and initiatives on social media. I monitor some projects because my students have contributed to them, and I like the chance to spot one of my chickadees in action.

I keep track of remote sensing and GIS research so that I can stay current in my industry. I keep tabs on balloon missions because I feel a camaraderie with the scientific ballooning community. I add other research when I stumble on something new that makes my skirt fly up. But even as a super fan I can tell you that I'm only keeping track of the tip of the iceberg (somewhat literally because I follow a lot of dreamy Arctic projects) and I am overwhelmed by it all sometimes. NASA is doing so much incredible work that I doubt anyone can keep it straight.

NASA has also changed my life on a personal level. I owe my free graduate degree to the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative at Stennis Space Center. My career would have veered in a wildly different direction if I hadn't earned my degree in remote sensing. (And thus, ironically, hundreds of students would have learned more about astronomy by avoiding my geology lecture.) The projects that I've done with NC Space Grant have been paradigm altering. My perspective on living life and my place in the world radically shifted the first time we sent a payload to space. And that word, "we." The people that I've met on this journey have been inspirational. As Ryan Theurer once quipped, "Maybe the real payload was friendship."

Some people worship sports idols, others obsess over celebrities or amass all the Disney memorabilia they can find. For me it always has been and always will be NASA.

Happy 60th birthday and many more!