Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Future Is In Good Hands

Last week, I had the privilege of providing a colloquium at The University of Kansas (the other UK, or as they write it, KU) in the Aerospace Engineering Department.  The topic of was solar sails and how they will not only benefit exploration and science within the solar system but also, potentially, take us to the stars. 

I was there because of the initiative of one young man – Brooks Pierson.  I met him at the Icarus Interstellar Congress last summer where he invited me to come to KU to talk about interstellar travel using solar sails.  Brooks single handedly made all the necessary arrangements for my travel and even had a gift bag containing chocolates and cookies waiting for my wife and me when we arrived.  The day went like clockwork and included a lecture to a graduate-level aerospace engineering class, lunch with students, meetings with the Dean and a former NASA astronaut now on faculty at the university, and concluded with my departmental colloquium.

The response was tremendous.  Unlike when I’ve spoken at some other universities, the room was packed; no one appeared to be sleeping, and afterward I was mobbed with students asking thoughtful, intelligent questions.  Carol and I then went to dinner with a select group of students where the discussion continued until much later in the evening.  It reminded me of being in college – back in the day.

Thank you, Brooks, for your interest and initiative.  You will go far.

Upon my return, I received this email:
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Hello, Mr. Johnson.

My name is John Doe (yes, I changed his name – I don’t have his permission to reprint the letter), and I'm a junior in Aerospace at the University of Kansas, and an AFROTC cadet. I would just like to thank you for coming and speaking at the University of Kansas' aerospace colloquium. Your presentation was honestly the most engaging and interesting one that I've seen in my 3 years of taking the class. I wanted to say this in person, but you had a small army of fans in line and I had a meeting shortly after class.

I found your lecture so fascinating because the sole reason I am in aerospace is to contribute to furthering deep space exploration. As you highlighted in your lecture, not only would this reap an unfathomable scientific and exploratory benefit, but the economic and environmental prosperity would be massive.
Thank you very much for your time.
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The passion for space and space exploration is alive and well at The University of Kansas and, I suspect, at colleges all across the USA and around the world.  The future is in good hands, indeed.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Perils of Being an Optimist

I admit it.  I'm an optimist.  I believe that the future can and will be better than today.  I'm also drawn to ‘end of the world’ type movies – but only ones where the good people prevail and the evil (leader, country, monster, alien, virus, sentient computer, whatever) is thoroughly trounced.  And yet…

I still like to watch the movies where the bad guys sometimes win.  I'm haunted by them and I replay them in my mind while envisioning the many other ways the good people could have won if only…  if only they'd done this or that differently.  And that both troubles me and piques my interest at the same time.

That’s why this post from the SyFy Channel (I still prefer “SciFi”) caught my attention.  I simply had to watch the “grim alternate endings.”  I couldn't resist.  I’m also glad alternate endings remained ‘alternate.’  Otherwise I would have lost a great deal of sleep thinking of ways the story could have turned out differently.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We Need To Dream Again

My parents’ generation dreamed big and accomplished much.  They were members of what has been called, “The Greatest Generation.”   My father was born in the second decade of the 20th Century in a country that had just entered the world stage during World War 1.  During his lifetime, he
  • saw the Great Depression begin and end.
  • fought in World War II (North Africa).
  • witnessed aviation progress from Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic to daily non-stop jet service to and from nearly every major city on the planet.
  • experienced the birth of nuclear energy --  both nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power.
  • benefitted from the development of antibiotics, the near-eradication of polio, and the end of smallpox.
  • saw rockets progress from being Robert Goddard’s curious ‘invention’ to taking people to the Moon and the launch of Voyager.
  • rode in the family Model T and later the family’s air conditioned Buick on the nation’s interstate highway system.
  • listened to a crystal radio as a boy and watched color television as an adult.
  • the list goes on, and on, and on...

I’m not saying that we aren't inventing new things today or that even the pace of innovation has slowed, which I don’t believe it has.  I am saying that we don’t seem to be doing the BIG things anymore.  Yes, the internet and cell phones are revolutionary, but they pale in comparison to the quality of life improvements made by the previous generation.  

Many seem to think that our best days are behind us and that we should therefore diminish our expectations. After all, our industrial base is declining, the middle class is shrinking and we are in so much debt that all we can do is maintain our social programs – ambitious projects are just not affordable anymore.  To this I say, “nuts!”  These problems are miniscule compared to those facing the country when my father was a young man and look at what he and his generation accomplished!


The future can be better than today, and it is up to us to make that happen.   Now is not the time to diminish our expectations.  Rather, now is the time to dream big, tackle BIG and ambitious new projects, and make tomorrow better than today.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Farewell Scott Carpenter

Today we mourn the loss of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter.  Carpenter orbited the Earth when I was about 2 months old and helped usher in the Space Age.  He and the other pioneers of the early space program were a brave group.  They took risks that we wouldn't dream of taking today – flying on rockets that tended to explode;  into an environment that we weren't yet sure would be hospitable, or at least tolerable to human life; and then back to Earth in fiery descents that took them into the deep ocean for rescue.

Without Carpenter, Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Schirra, Cooper and Slayton, we couldn't have gone to the Moon, built Skylab and Space Station or today be thinking of voyages beyond.  The combination of the right people (think Wernher Von Braun and John F. Kennedy), at the right time (The Cold War and the emerging technical capability suitable for space travel), and in the right country (with the money to fund the effort and the know-how to support it) make this generation admirable, and many argue, unique in human history.

Some say that significant historical events happen because “it is the right time.”  I say that these events are often totally dependent upon the people who make them happen.  Ideas are important; the tide of history cannot be ignored; but without the people to act, some events will simply not occur.

Scott Carpenter and his generation are passing.  They will be sorely missed.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What we need is a blackout

Last week I visited my daughter in Kentucky where she is beginning her first year of college.  My wife and I stayed nearby with a cousin who lives in a rural area of the state not far from her school.  Arriving at my cousin’s home at 11:00 pm after visiting the college campus, I was stunned by the sky view that greeted me.  It was a cool, dry fall evening with no clouds and the majesty of the stars, including a clearly visible Milky Way, all but shouted to me from above.  I stood on the driveway looked skyward for as long as I could before I had to come inside, lest I be rude to my host.

I live in an urban area and the last time I could see the Milky Way from my house was after the tornado swarm in 2011 left the entire county without power.  It was a deadly event, and a disaster for the hundreds who lost their homes, but for the rest of us it afforded an opportunity to gaze skyward and see the stars.  For some, this was the first time in their lives to see so many stars.

Now, it’s not hard to get sky views like this – but it requires planning.  Many people just need to drive an hour or so from their homes to reach a rural area without as much light pollution and voila, the beauty of the universe awaits.  We love to go camping and star gazing is an integral part of each trip.

When people see the stars, they cannot help but ask the fundamental questions that we otherwise tend to ignore in our ‘busyness.’  Questions like:

·         What’s out there?
·         Is there anyone out there looking back at us?
·         Why am I here?

Modern life with its many distractions doesn't give the average person much time, or much of a prompt (like the stars ‘shouting’ at me) to think about these topics.  With our televisions, computer screens, lighted homes and streetlights, we are mostly isolated from being confronted with questions about our place in the universe.

I suspect that if there were a nationwide blackout, one where no one was injured and no lives or property were at risk (not likely, I know), but if there were such an event, then people would see the stars and begin to ask these big questions. 


I bet public support for space exploration would dramatically increase.  

Les Johnson
personal homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I cannot volunteer my time to work on NASA business during the furlough

Today I received my furlough notice from NASA.  Since my job isn’t considered “excepted,” in other words, since no one will be injured or die if I don’t report for work, then I am to remain at home until recalled to work after the Congress passes and the President signs some sort of budget or continuing resolution to keep the government running.  The fact that the government has shut down all non-essential operations should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock these last several days.

What may come as a surprise to many is the following statement from the letter I received informing me of what I can and cannot do during the furlough: “During the furlough, you will be in a nonpay, nonduty status. During this time, you will not be permitted to serve NASA as an unpaid volunteer.

How many federal agencies, for that matter, how many employers have to tell their employees “I’m sending you home without pay for an indefinite period of time and you are strictly prohibited from doing any work for the company/organization on your own time and without compensation?”  I dare say there are not very many people out there who would take forced, unpaid days off and continue to work for the company that sent them home.  Except at NASA.  And, yes, if it weren’t so explicitly stated, I would be one who would continue to work on my NASA projects at home, on my own time, and without compensation.  I am sure I wouldn’t be alone.

In a normal work week, I receive 1/3 of my average daily work-related emails after 5:00 pm.  Some of them are time stamped after 11:00 pm.  I find that the people I work with routinely work at home, on their own time, as a general rule of thumb.  I’m not just talking about the rushed deadline where everyone pitches in to make it happen.   I’m referring to the day-to-day business of NASA.

Did you know that NASA has routinely been named THE best place to work in government by its own employees for at least the last two years?  How many companies where the employees routinely work uncompensated overtime just to get the job done will then turn around and rate their company as a great place to work?  Not many.  Except at NASA.

Why?

Speaking only for myself, I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.  We’re working on challenging projects with the goals of advancing our understanding of the universe around us, expanding humanity beyond the Earth so as to ensure the eventual survival of the species, and making the Earth a better place to live for all who inhabit it.  Yes, these are lofty goals and bold assertions.  They are what motivate me and have inspired me since I was a child.  We believe we’re making a difference in the world and we love doing it.

Are there NASA employees who are just punching the clock?  Yes.  But they are in the minority.  Most of us don’t dread Mondays.  Most of us would much rather be working than furloughed and I, for one, would keep working on some of my projects during the furlough if I were allowed to do so.

Les Johnson
Linked In - http://www.linkedin.com/in/lesjohnson1
Personal Website - www.lesjohnsonauthor.com

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are the days of the lone inventor behind us forever?

As I stood in Thomas Edison’s reconstructed laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan last week, I was struck by how Mr. Edison’s invention process was the beginning of the end – the end of the lone inventor or scientist working solo in his or her laboratory, unlocking the secrets of the universe or coming up with the next big invention that would change the world.  Thomas Edison took the work of the lone, creative inventor and, like any good child of the Industrial Revolution, industrialized it.  Sure, he was brilliant and no doubt the intellectual author of the many inventions credited to him. (The electric light and phonograph are but two examples.)  But, if he hadn’t had the army of technicians and fellow inventors working alongside him, I seriously doubt that he would have been so productive.

Is this a bad thing?  No, necessarily.  In my day job, I work for NASA.  And one thing I’ve learned in my 23 year career is that space technology development is inherently a team effort.  To design a spacecraft or technology to work in space takes the expertise of many discipline-specific scientists (physicists of all kinds, chemists and mathematicians) as well as mechanical, electrical, structural and thermal engineers.  Without their highly-specialized training and expertise, new space technology innovation would be impossible.
This is true in the ‘pure’ sciences as well.  Gone are the days of Madame Curie discovering radium in a laboratory with only her husband as a research partner.  Today the Higgs Boson was found by a team of hundreds of physicists using a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator that only European governments could build.  (We almost built our own, but that’s another sad story.)

And yet… At the core of each of these modern discoveries and inventions is often a single individual.  This person is the one who makes it all happen.  The Werner Von Braun who convinces a president to fund Project Apollo; The Robert Oppenheimer who is the driving force keeping the Manhattan Project on track to developing the atomic bomb; The Thomas Edison who works with his team until all hours of the night until they finally found a material that they could use to make a working light bulb.  The power of the individual is alive and well – it is just more complicated for him or her to create and invent because this person now has to spend half his time selling and managing.   Today’s inventors and scientists need to be communicators, managers, creators and technicians.  Individuals still matter, but they must be multidisciplined.  Let’s hope our educational system is up to the task of equipping them with the tools they will need to be successful.