Home / News & Analysis / Space Exploration: Not Just for Rocket Scientists

Space Exploration: Not Just for Rocket Scientists

Ariel Waldman—founder of Spacehack.org, global director of Science Hack Day, author of What's It Like in Space?, and NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program council member—gave the keynote at a recent NASA conference in Denver, Colorado.

PCMag was there and sat down with Waldman afterwards to talk about her former role at NASA AMES CoLab; sci-fi space mission concepts; how she came to co-author a report on the future of human spaceflight, and what she thinks of Elon Musk.

Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.

Ariel, what was the best thing about working at NASA AMES?
We did a lot of cool things at NASA CoLab, and I've incorporated much of the learnings into the work I do now. We created coworking environments in San Francisco for people to collaborate alongside space scientists, built open source projects, and did a lecture series to encourage cross-disciplinary projects. I also consulted with different NASA missions to open up their data. For example, on LCROSS, which was a lunar mission to impact the moon, we worked with NASA personnel to create an interface so that amateur astronomers could collaborate with them and contribute their own data.

Your work at NASA—and afterwards—has made the case that human exploration, and eventual creation of off-world settlements, will need many different types of people, not just rocket scientists.
Agreed. As I said here today, in my speech, there's been something of a monoculture in the past 50 years and it's necessary to break that open. Yes, ivory tower cultures can technically survive without being diverse, we know that, but that's not the point. Simply put, they're being reckless and less effective by not opening up to a wider pool of people. I was added to the external council of NIAC in 2015, and I'm the only non-doctorate. I'm kind of proud of that because it's been my own choice not to pursue that direction and, I believe, for me, having a different life and education experience is most effective for my work at NIAC.

What do you do at NIAC specifically?
As council members, we provide guidance that helps steer the program. We don't pick and choose who gets awarded. Which means I can do direct outreach to encourage people to apply, without having a conflict. My big mission is to get people outside of space science and the space industry as a whole, to apply their existing research, often in unrelated fields—biology and neuroscience and so on—and apply them to space mission concepts in a really profound way. NIAC is great for funding the overlooked or underfunded areas. If someone has a really cool idea, NIAC is a good place to find a home; it's become an incubator for wayward projects. I have the luxury of being very multidisciplinary, so I can find ways, for example, for a jellyfish biologist to work with a particle physicist.

When not on NIAC business, you also run Spacehack.org to give people ways to get involved in space exploration.
I wanted people to feel they had a part to play. For example, we include projects such as Galaxy Zoo Radio. They're concerned with observations of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies in radio and infrared wavelengths. They welcome participants in this research as, when more data is created, they can make ever more accurate models of how supermassive black holes work.

Switching gears, how did you get involved in plotting the trajectory of human spaceflight by co-authoring the Congressionally requested National Academy of Sciences report?
That may have come about because I was asked to keynote at DARPA's 100 Year Starship Symposium in 2011. The National Academies asked me to participate because they were curating an unusual and topically diverse committee to report on the future of human spaceflight. They brought on planetary scientists, economists, historians, particle physicists and then me—I was the youngest on the council by a few decades [Laughs]. As part of the committee's tasks, we looked into why we as a society, and a federal agency, do human spaceflight in the first place. It was an unusual premise for the National Academy of Sciences. One of the most profound findings was that there is not one specific rationale; it's the combination of pragmatic and inspirational rationales that argues for a continuation of human exploration of the solar system.


There are an increasing number of people in the human spaceflight business, too, like Elon Musk. Any comment there?
It's so interesting because, take Elon Musk and his rationale of "the survival of the species" [and] he makes it sound as if his rationale is the only one. But any single rationale doesn't make for a compelling argument, nor does any one rationale garner majority support. It's truly the combination of multiple rationales that argue for a continuation of human space exploration.

Random question: Any geek apps on your phone? Do you run the SETI browser on your laptop?
I had it running for a little while, and I'm now friends with people at SETI so that's cool. There's a bunch of apps that I download, keep for a month, then uninstall, because they take up so much space on the phone. Having said that, I have the NASA TV app because who doesn't like to watch live rocket launches on their phone?

Final question: what's next for you?
Science Hack Day, a two-day event, which I've been organizing since 2010, after being on a panel at SXSW, is now in over 25 countries, and our next event is in San Francisco on Oct. 14-15. Anyone can create a Science Hack Day in their own city by checking out the How-To Guide. I've also started a YouTube channel about space exploration that's a lot of fun. For the next few months, I'm taking a microscopy class and waiting for a response on my grant proposal to go to Antarctica to image microbial life under the ice. I met many astrobiologists at NASA and the subject fascinates me, so that's—hopefully—what I'm doing next.

Read more

Check Also

Protesters call on Salesforce to end contract with border patrol agency

A dozen or so people accompanied by a 14-foot, 800-pound cage gathered in downtown San Francisco Tuesday morning to protest Salesforce’s contract with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for enforcing the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. Today is the first day of Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual user conference that attracts some 200,000 people. The protesters claim Salesforce, which signed an agreement with CPB in March, is complicit in the actions of CBP and should be held accountable. “Salesforce has a moral and ethical obligation to end this contract,” one protestor shouted. The sign plastered to the front of the cage — a mock-up of those reportedly used in CBP facilities to hold separated children of migrant families — read “Detention center powered by Salesforce.” “It’s hard to miss an 800-pound cage rolling down the street,” Jelani Drew, lead organizer of the demonstration and campaigner for the non-profit advocacy group Fight for the Future, told TechCrunch. “They had to look and that was the goal.” [gallery ids="1719937,1719939,1719940,1719941"] 1,800 families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border from October 2016 through February of this year, per Reuters. And another 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 parents between May 5 and June 9, according to Vox. In late June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end family separation, though the zero-tolerance policy, which mandates that any persons entering the U.S. illegally be prosecuted, remains. Salesforce chief executive officer Marc Benioff, who has a reputation for advocating for liberal causes and politics, has said the deal with CBP does not involve CBP’s U.S.-Mexico border policies. CBP, rather, uses some of Salesforce cloud tools, specifically Salesforce Analytics, Community Cloud and Service Cloud, to bolster its recruiting process and to “manage border activities.” When asked for comment, Salesforce told TechCrunch the cloud-computing company respects the right to protest and pointed us in the direction of Benioff’s tweets, which reaffirm the business doesn’t have an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that the CBP contract is unrelated to family separation. Our employees asked me to review how CBP uses us & I included them. I’ve proudly engaged & discussed this with all our Ohana. Salesforce doesnt work with CBP regarding separation of families at the border. We dont have an agreement with ICE. Im proud of our Ohana & their Kuleana! — Marc Benioff (@Benioff) July 20, 2018 That tweet, posted in July, was a response to a petition signed by 650 Salesforce employees, who took issue with the CBP contract, specifically CBP’s use of Salesforce Service Cloud to manage activities at the border. “We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create–particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values,” the employees wrote. “Those values often feel abstract, and it is easier to uphold them when they are not being tested. They are being tested now. In addition to his tweet, Benioff wrote in a memo to employees at the time that he is “opposed to separating children from their families at the border.” “It is immoral. I have personally financially supported legal groups helping families at the border. I also wrote to the White House to encourage them to end this horrible situation.” Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block said the company would donate $1 million to organizations helping families separated at the U.S. border and that Salesforce would match employee donations. In his tweet, he did not specify which organizations the company would support. Today, Block similarly took to Twitter to announce that the non-profit arm of Salesforce would donate $18 million to “Bay Area causes.” The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts will receive $15.5 million, Hamilton Families, Larkin Street Youth Services and the San Francisco Food Bank will receive $2 million, and the San Francisco Park Alliance will receive $500,000. Today’s protest was organized by Fight for the Future, Color of Change, Demand Progress, Defending Rights and Dissent, Mijente, Presente.org, RAICES and Sum of Us. RAICES, The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, recently rejected a $250,000 donation from Salesforce because of its contract with CBP. Benioff contacted RAICES executive director Jonathan Ryan over the summer to discuss the opposition to Salesforce contract with CBP, according to a new report from The Guardian. The pair were scheduled to speak until Benioff canceled last minute. “I am sorry I’m scuba diving right now,” Benioff reportedly wrote to Ryan. We’ve reached out to RAICES for comment. Google reportedly backing out of military contract after public backlash Benioff and Salesforce are among several large tech companies that have struck controversial deals with government agencies. Employees at both Amazon and Microsoft have protested their companies’ contracts with ICE. Google reportedly decided not to renew a Pentagon contract after employees resigned in protest of the search giant’s involvement with controversial AI research project Project Maven. Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign organizer with Mijente, a national hub for Latinx organizers, told TechCrunch the she and the other protesters are hopeful tech companies will drop their contracts with both CBP and ICE. “We’ve been incredibly concerned with corporations, particularly the tech corporations, that are facilitating ICE and border patrol’s destruction of immigrant communities,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a matter of continuing to pressure these investors and executives a these tech companies that are making billions at the expense of immigrants. They are profiting off the suffering of immigrants.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Disclaimer: Trading in bitcoins or other digital currencies carries a high level of risk and can result in the total loss of the invested capital. theonlinetech.org does not provide investment advice, but only reflects its own opinion. Please ensure that if you trade or invest in bitcoins or other digital currencies (for example, investing in cloud mining services) you fully understand the risks involved! Please also note that some external links are affiliate links.