Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Humanity Star and Critical Conversations in Space Exploration

On January 21st of this year, Rocket Lab (on their debut launch) orbited several satellites, including a secret payload.  This (no longer secret) object is named the Humanity Star - and it has the potential to be one of the brightest objects in the night sky (as noted here).

My usual reaction whenever I see science and art brought together is glee.  I am a scientist and an artist, and I love both.  But I don't feel gleeful about this particular piece.

As both an astronomer and an education/communications specialist, I have some strong feelings about this object now orbiting our planet - especially because of the way it was launched.  A secret launch means no important conversations take place about the object, how it will be perceived, and its eventual consequences.  I'm going to repeat that, because this is the whole point of my post: critical conversations with all stakeholders must take place as space exploration moves forward.  And if what you are doing can affect the whole planet, then the world becomes your stakeholder.

In the Quartz article on the Humanity Star, Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab is quoted as saying, "For us to thrive and survive, we need to make big decisions in the context of humanity as a whole, not in the context of individuals, organizations or even nations. …We must come together as a species to solve the really big issues like climate change and resource shortages.”

These sentiments are certainly fine things, and I completely agree.  But the Humanity Star may not inspire this kind of thinking.  Will a person in another space-faring country, say India or China, look up, and upon seeing a new, bright satellite, think about our communal responsibilities for climate change?  Will they imagine themselves as part of a global community?  Will they be angry for an overbearing demonstration of technology?  Will they be afraid at what we might do next?  Will they be appalled at our lack of respect for the sacred night sky?  Well, we don't know.  We don't know because those conversations did not happen in advance of launch.

What about other kinds of stakeholders, say like space scientists?  Well, that conversation didn't take place before launch either, since astronomers are expressing displeasure.  Some people are describing it as "litter" or even "vandalism."  This article in gives some details about the feeling of astronomers, and how Rocket Lab appears to be scrambling to put minds at ease.  This reaction might have been completely avoidable had the conversation with this group of people happened as it should have.

I am astonished at the last few sentences of the Quartz article on the Humanity Star, which unintentionally serve to underscore my point.   The article states: "The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was a mission with a similar effect: Its radio broadcast was designed to say “I’m here!” to the world, as well as provide data to scientists on the ground. It turned out to be a harbinger of a space race that created most of the space infrastructure we have now. Is the Humanity Star a herald a new age of commercial space flight and ambition?"

This is an eye-popping interpretation of the intention and result of the orbit of Sputnik.  The satellite was launched at the height of the cold war, and it engendered anxiety, fear, and apprehension in half of the world.  It indeed began the space race - but this was not a time of good-natured exploration.  It was a time of governments flexing their muscles and each attempting to demonstrate ideological superiority through technological advancement and achievement.  Our space infrastructure came at this high cost.  Will the Humanity Star have this kind of legacy?  We don't know, because again, no one was asked how they might feel to have this object over their heads.

Successful programs in space science education, communications, and outreach all have formal evaluation as part of their structure.  Such evaluation allows a program, especially in the crucial beginning phases, to react and respond to input from stakeholders.  The eventual program may look very, very different from the initial concepts because you found out things from your stakeholders that never occurred to you.  (For example, when Gene Shoemaker's ashes were sent to the Moon, the Navajo expressed displeasure, and NASA formally apologized.  Such a disconnect is avoidable if channels of communication are open.)  Why didn't the Humanity Star have an engaged, international evaluation program that allowed it to learn what would indeed inspire global unity?  Why didn't it build a positive audience ahead of time?  With the goals as stated by the CEO, such evaluation was essential to success.  Evaluation didn't happen.  Why?

A few more things of note.  The Humanity Star will burn up in our atmosphere within the year, so this situation is temporary.  Yet the artist is planning to launch yet another, larger piece of space art.  There is no indication that critical conversations have happened around this piece.

As we move forward with space exploration, we need to be as inclusive as possible, or the voices of most of the planet will not go forward with us into space.  We need to have the tough conversations before each endeavor.  If we do this right, we will indeed engender unity.  As we have these conversations, we will discover our global vision for space exploration.  It will be something amazing, a vision we cannot even conceive without the input of all kinds of people.  So let's take the responsibility to seek out and have the conversations now.

J.A. Grier

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Writer's Media Roadmap

The Howard County Chapter of the Maryland Writer's Association had its first meeting of 2018 on January 18.  We were treated to an excellent presentation entitled "Creating Your Social Media Roadmap" by Tiffany Carter.  More than just an introduction to creating a media platform, Tiffany gave us some insight into how to make it really work for us. 

Here is just a bit of what she shared, starting with her approach of:  Platform - Schedule - Automate - Connect.

Platform - She listed six platforms as high priority for writers and authors: a personal blog, Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, Goodreads, and Instagram.  The advice was to pick two of these and maintain them well, rather than try to do them all at a shallow level.  She suggested the two most powerful platforms were: (1) having a website "home" with a personal blog and (2) an active presence on Goodreads.  

Schedule - But the emphasis regardless of platform was on consistency.  Pick the platforms you can engage with the most robustly.  Her advice was to create a schedule for posts/tweets/content and stick to it.  This ensures that followers and fans know when and where to find your content.  When is somewhat flexible, although she had recommendations (like posting once a day if doing Facebook or Linked In) she said the key was making sure followers were getting the content when they had come to expect it.

Automate - Of course staying consistent with media is always a challenge.  Tiffany gave us some tips for automation, like connecting blog posts to Goodreads and Linked In, and using tools like Buffer.  I know I've used HootSuite in the past with some success to automate tweets.  She said that once set up, a writer could spend as little as an hour and have the rest of the week's media scheduled and automated to post.  I'd love to reach that point ... I'm certainly not that efficient now with posting.

Connect - Connecting with fans and followers is obviously the point of all of this.  Writers want to meet people and forge connections that lead to authentic interaction.  Being efficient about posting means that time can be spent in the kinds of interactions that are rewarding for both writers and their followers.  Tiffany said that a good foundation of quality content, delivered on schedule, including guest blogging, blog tours, and even pod casting would support more 'rapid' forms of exposure like live video/audio, book promotions, and giveaways.

Finally, she emphasized that we are of course all readers.  She reminded us that we already know what our fans want, because we are readers, too.  We know what works with us - how we get engaged, how we have fun, and what we are looking for from books and authors.  We just need to put those ideas into motion for ourselves as writers.

I thought her presentation was really valuable, and certainly the rest of the room received it enthusiastically.  I hope she comes back to the group and shows us more advanced techniques for making the most of our time online.

Image Credits:  Publicity image of Tiffany Carter from MWA HoCo flyer.  Image of Tiffany Carter from her workshop taken by myself and posted with permission.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Starting the New Year Right

Here's me with planetary astronomer and asteroid
scientist Andy Rivkin, waiting on the dais for the start
of our Mars exploration panel.
Someone said something nice to me on New Year's Day and I'm still floating with joy.

Here's some context.  I ended 2017 and started 2018 by attending an innovative private event with panels, talks, workshops, and much more - covering topics from science, to mental health, to social justice.  Even as a first timer I was a part of two panels and gave a workshop.  I met fantastic people and left with a mind full of ideas.

But one of those panels I was on was a bit daunting - it was a Mars exploration panel.  There were only two women (including myself) out of nine panelists, and represented on the panel were NASA officials past and present, an astronaut, and more.  I was the only person on the panel I'd call a planetary surface scientist.  I was the only one who could really speak to the research and analysis aspects specific to the lunar and Martian surfaces.  Because of these factors, I felt a strong responsibility to hold my own amidst some strong personalities.  I wanted to represent science and the women who do it, well.

So, okay.  The stage is literally set.  We are up on a dais before a lunchtime crowd of about 250 intelligent and attentive people.  My first major "intervention" is when someone on the other end of the panel says that basic science research is not as important to Mars exploration as engineering and propulsion research.  I can't let that sit, and take the microphone.  I remind him that without science we wouldn't even know something as basic as what we were landing on.  I briefly mention dust as an example - the dust the Apollo astronauts ended up breathing and even eating when it made its way via electrostatic effects right into the lunar module.  This is also the dust that will be gumming up gears and other mechanical devices in any exploration effort, lunar or Martian.  And given it's insulating properties, this is the dust that explorers may be hiding under to escape temperature extremes and radiation hazards.  We know a lot less about Martian dust than lunar.  Research science to characterize this stuff is critical.

My last major "intervention" happened when a panelist near me responded to the question, "What are the moral or ethical considerations of Mars exploration?"  His response was basically, "Well, if there is no life already on Mars, then there are no issues."  I was astonished and grabbed the mic, following up with something like, "Actually, there are a variety of moral or ethical considerations to space exploration.  Here is an example.  We impacted a spacecraft on the Moon that was also was carrying the ashes of a famous scientist.  No cultural dialog was engaged before the decision was made, and when certain communities found out after the fact, they were very unhappy.  Some Native American groups protested because they view the Moon as sacred, and did not feel placing someone's ashes there was appropriate.  We can't continue to make mistakes like this.  Scientists, engineers, and administrators are becoming more and more aware of the need to reach out and have diverse conversations as we continue to explore.  We must make these conversations a priority."

I left the dais at the end of the panel feeling a bit strange, and wondering if I'd done well in such august company, and achieved my goals of representing the voice of women scientists in a positive fashion.

Okay, so punchline finally after all this.  I was approached after midnight on New Year's Eve, just minutes into the start of 2018.  The woman who addressed me gushed about the Mars exploration panel.  She said how excited she was to see my good representation of women scientists, and how I'd done an excellent job - especially with the "morality and ethics" question.  She shook my hand enthusiastically.

Does this seem like a small thing to you?  Or maybe I just don't have a habit of taking compliments to heart ... but this one hit home with a nice warm sparkle.  Wow.  So I'm headed into the New Year with a huge boost to my sense of agency in the world, and just general good feels.  I'm wishing the same for you, as we continue to navigate our way through a challenging world this 2018.

Image Credit:  Andrew Rivkin pic of Jen and Andy.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Daily Twitter Challenge

A new sun rises - What shall we tweet about today?
So back in 2016 I gave my best friend a gift - it was a promise of a new twitter question each day to which the two of us could respond.  The idea was to get to know one another, and our interested followers, just a little bit better. 

Well, that lasted into March maybe, before we lost track and stopped.  But it was, as they say, fun while it lasted.  So now that the dust has settled on the start of 2018, we are going to give it another try this year.  This time around we are going to use monthly themes to give us something to focus our thoughts, and to hopefully keep us going through all of 2018.

The challenge, if you want to join in, is this:  I'll tweet a question, and you tweet an answer, citing the original question.  Give it the hashtag of #JATOTD - that's "Jen/Andy's Tweet of the Day."  And that's all there is to it.  Don't feel you need to take the question literally.  Actually, feel free to tweet whatever works for you, just using the question as inspiration, if you like.

We are going to try to see what we can do to be genuine, authentic, helpful, and maybe even uplifting.  It's just a small space to connect, express, and be real.

January's theme is "Travel" because it seems like that's pretty much what we do these days.  I'm wondering how we can refocus on all this travel, and remind ourselves what it can to open our eyes, and more.

Image Credit:  Sunrise,