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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.

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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.

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