Charlie Bolden’s NASA Policy Talk: First Coverage

July 8, 2009 Image of Charlie Bolden (credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

July 8, 2009 Image of Charlie Bolden (credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Charlie Bolden is giving the NASA Policy talk today. The last several of these that I’ve heard (excepting when Alan Stern spoke) have left me angry or discouraged. Griffin was not an astronomers’ NASA director. But it’s a new day and a new administration, and just 30 seconds into Charlie’s talk I can tell I’m going to leave with faith in his ability to communicate to my community and to support our dreams.

[Note: Bad Astronomer Phil Plait as coverage as well. Check it out?]

NASA Director Charlie Bolden is a grandfather (he talks about his grand kids all the time), an astronaut, a communicator who brings laughter, and a person willing to admit with humility that he’s not the smartest person in the room, and to admit with pride that he likes working with all the smart  -icists in the room.

As he speaks, he is looking forward to a great year of new launches and new science. He remembers the 1990’s discussions of how Hubble would change our understanding of the world we live in as it brings us understanding of the Big Bang and so much more (which it did). We live another new era of discovery.

  • Kepler is finding planets (5 announced yesterday).
  • Last month WISE was launched and it will bring a deeper, higher resolution survey of the sky in the Infrared. The mission is launched, the cover is off, and tomorrow we get to see the first images and see if it is in focus (Charlie points out each mission has three hurdles: Does it launch? Does it get first light? Is it in focus? Remember why we worry about that third one?)
  • There is also SOFIA, which was resurrected from the desert and is now flying, door open, on the verge of having the telescope installed
  • Fermi has revealed whole new classes of pulsars
  • Spitzer found the largest ring around Saturn, and
  • A combination of images from many of the great observatories has found the  the most distant clusters.

And then there was Hubble. Director Bolden was part of the Hubble in its first days, and as he brought up this most recent mission he teared up. He is telling us stories of his own work, and telling us of their struggles getting Hubble out of the cargo bay. These are stories I’ve never heard. The arm struggled with its weight and they had to read numbers off this that and the other things as they exceeding limits in unexpected ways. And it got worse. As Hubble was deployed, one of the Solar Panels got stuck and didn’t deploy. To protect the Hubble, hanging as it was on the robotic arm, they stopped stabilizing the shuttle (that would have put torque on the whole system as it got yanked around). Left to their own dynamics, the Shuttle and Hubble tumbled together as they orbited around the planet, with the whole team working to find a solution (It was found – there was a piece of software designed to make sure the solar panels didn’t get torqued too much. They disabled it and the Solar Panel deployed right away. It worked. It all worked. And he was part of that magical moment when Hubble floated away to take on the universe.

Transitioning  form his emotionally spoken story – his voice cracking more than once – back to policy, he declared the importance of partnering internationally, treating our partners as equals and with respect, and of building strong international collaborations.

He carries with him the message that during the White House Star Party, a cold clear night in D.C., President Obama and his wife and daughters spent nearly 45 minutes going from telescope to telescope. They were engaged, absorbing with interest the views through telescopes while hearing about the discoveries of high school astronomers – discovers of rare neutron stars, supernovae, and more, each student having their own science discovery behind their name . The Obama’s have their own interest in astronomy, and they value the importance of space and space education.

The White House Star Party is an example of one of the things we do right: Engaging people intellectually and passionately in astronomy observing and content.

He challenges us to go forth and communicate our work: Educating and sharing our results to increase understanding and passion for astronomy.

There is more coming: More launches of more missions.

And the Decadal Survey reports are forth coming and will be used to shape our future, making sure that NASA addresses with its missions the most compelling science of our time. And to succeed in these missions we need to create an educated work force ready to dream these missions, build these missions, and generate the science from these missions’ data.

To make this future real we need to both educate and do science while always always inspiring.

Closing his talk, Bolden gave us these words: “The future of manned space flight will not be paid for out of the hide of science. … Let’s embrace our future together.” He states that together we and are international partners will work on great things and do science while we educate a future generation. This is a partnership, and we will inspire together.

And now we are into questions… (Paraphrasing as close to quotes as I can)

Q: Will you be teaching anything?
A: I won’t enter the teaching profession on a formal basis, but I’m privledged to travel and communicate to people and through that get communicate in my own small way

Q: Will be have a manned space flieght before 2020
A: Yes. This will not be the president who precedes over the end of manned space flight. … We have incredible partners in terms of technology. [HUGE PARAPHRASE] The Japanese have the incredible HTV. We’re asking if they can work to make it capable of returning things to earth

Quote: I recently had a surgery with robots in my body – It was incredible! But I wouldn’t want to turn those robots loose!

If you had told me we would not be on the surface of the Moon today, I would have told you were smoking dope. We became risk adverse have Challenger. We have got to become willing to take risks.

Quotish: If you’d told me when I was training to be an astronaught that we would not be on the surface of the Moon today, I would have told you , you were smoking dope. Let me say that again: If you’d told me we wouldn’t be back on the moon today I would have told you that you were smoking some bad dope. I thought I was going up on the Shuttle and coming back to train to go to the moon.

We became risk adverse after the Space Shuttle Challenger. That has got to stop. We’re going to drop satellites into the ocean periodically. Human mistakes are going to happen. We don’t want to plan for this. We want to work to avoid this. But we can’t be afraid. We need to take risks to move forward.

…

We’re open to comment and to criticism. We’re not going to do things the way we used to do.

…

Audience Comment: I’m concerned about the emphasis on international collaboration. That seems to imply large missions. What about small missions?

A: (Summary of long response) International Collaboration doesn’t imply large missions. It implies opening doors for other countries by helping them doing things they can’t do on their own. Consider scientists in Nigeria who are working with researchers at the University of Alabama on small research missions. It is our duty to share what we can do.

My Words: I don’t think everyone can educate face to face, but I think all of us have something to give, and that as a community, if we create a culture of collaboration, of partner globally, and of working to find ways to decimate our results and value the communicators as highly as we value our top researchers we can create a new generation of people who understand science and understand how to love science.

I’ll be writing more on this later. Right now, all I know is I’ve seen a great speaker speak from the heart about my dreams and how we can work together to make them real. I’m in love, but, as Phil put it, this really was only a first date.

I want to believe.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Preston January 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    Never trust a poloitician however, i have fingers and toes crossed

  2. llewelly January 6, 2010 at 5:05 am #

    No planet humans might ever visit will have giant sexy blue aliens. To the scientifically illiterate majority, Mars, Mercury, Venus (ha!), and worst of all, the Moon, are all dreadfully boring and disappointing places. For every non-geek, a humanned mission to any of these places would be a big letdown. The public thinks robots are boring too, but they’re not disappointing; nobody expected them to do anything terribly interesting any. And they’re cheap. The cost gap between humanned missions and robots will only grow, and public interest in humanned missions will only shrink. Humanned space flight has no future. I wish it were otherwise, but astronaught is 100% right.

Leave a Reply