Much of 2017 so far has been about just keeping my head down to work constantly at specific projects while waves of chaos have crashed down around me, while I try to catch a few quick breaths before the next wave. Between speaking across Australia, touring the US and Canada, publishing my first book, serving as a media ambassador for National Science Week, a NASA Social event for Cassini, then leaping straight into writing and presenting an academic conference paper… there’s no doubting I’ve been incredibly productive, but it’s definitely not been pleasant. Thankfully I knew months in advance that I really just needed to keep it together till the end of September: once the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide was finished on September 29th the rest of 2017 was relatively clear, and I could finally take some time to process what has been a fairly insane 2 years.
Going into the conference though, I knew I was already wrecked. I also knew I’d become quite jaded with Australia’s space industry and science education/communication institutions. While the word “innovative” gets thrown around a lot at their heart they’re both are quite conservative, so I’ve gotten tired of regularly being taken advantage of or being dismissed by both because I operate as a freelancer and outside of a larger Australian-based institution. I’d even developed the not-so-joking nickname of “Space Grinch” the week before getting to Adelaide because I was struggling to match the enthusiasm pretty much everyone around me had for the conference. Besides seeing a few friends and Elon Musk’s talk, IAC2016 in Guadalajara felt mostly like a week of “old space” throwing around buzzwords and trying to hire new engineering graduates to do the same shit their companies have been doing for 30+ years, so why would IAC2017 be any better? In fact with such a small and hyper-competitive space industry in Australia and such loud calls for the formation of a space agency, IAC2017 was likely to be even worse for someone like me as others jostled and fought to leverage the conference to position themselves for a job in a future Australian space agency.
Then you have to add in that during 2017 I’ve grown to genuinely despise much of the SGAC – the “Space Generation Advisory Council”, which is supposed to be a global not-for-profit to represent space professionals under 35 (eg. me). It should be something I would want to support unequivocally, and I whole-heartedly support their mission statement of providing a younger voice in shaping the future of space exploration, but ever since I heard about SGAC in 2014 something has smelled off about it. Now having been close to someone who’s a representative of SGAC for awhile and seen the abysmal way they’ve been treated by “more established” members though, it’s pretty clear that there’s an in-crowd who use their positions purely to further their own careers through scholarships and as an entry point for leadership positions in the IAF.
I wasn’t alone in Adelaide though – while I may avoid contact with some of ISU’s faculty and administration these days, I’m still incredibly close to some of my fellow alumni, staff and former Summer program students from Adelaide and Haifa, so I was excited to catchup with many of them and see their conference paper presentations. I’d also been asked to feature on IAC TV, hosted by the wonderful folks at Australia’s Science Channel at the Royal Institute of Australia. I also had my own conference paper to present on using comedians and storytellers for wide-spread space science engagement too, which while stressful to develop would serve as a beautiful bookend to my efforts over the last 5 years to communicate space science to adults. We’d also be hearing much more concrete plans for SpaceX from Elon Musk – building on his inspiring but detail-light presentation at IAC2016 in Guadalajara on his new rocket for Mars colonisation.
So with all of this in mind, I turned up to IAC last week exhausted and with some pretty mixed feelings about the whole thing…
Most of us were already tired before we even started, having arrived 5 days earlier to try to catch up with friends who were taking part in the 3-day SGAC event before the main conference started. Turning up at the Adelaide convention centre nice and early, I decided to avoid the crowds fighting for the best seats to the opening gala and headed into the near deserted exhibition hall. And who would I find cruising casually around in there? Only the Curiosity rover…
While the “real” rover is obviously science-ing hard on Mars, NASA always builds an “un-flown” twin of their rovers for troubleshooting that they also occasionally fly around the world for exhibitions. I couldn’t hang out with Curiosity for long though because the Opening Ceremony’s theatre was filling fast, and as it was the few of us who got seats wound up right at the back while many of my friends had to watch it on TVs in overflow rooms downstairs!
It was a nice surprise, but not a huge surprise, to have the formation of an Australian Space Agency announced at the IAC’s opening ceremony. The news had filtered out to the media a few hours earlier and a variety of articles had already been published, but the Senator still received a significant applause break when he confirmed it at the ceremony. Many of us have been campaigning hard for an agency for years, and many of the folks who have been shaping the dialogue around an agency were also involved in organising the 2017 IAC in Adelaide. The ceremony itself was pretty incredible – especially the Welcome to Country – but I’m still not sure I understand the bit with the little girl using a Hill Hoist to go into space… it looked a lot a ballerina playing Goon of Fortune.
While most of the 4000+ conference participants used the time after the opening ceremony to explore the exhibition hall before the technical sessions started that afternoon, I headed back to the apartment to run through last minute preparations because was going to be presenting at one of those afternoon technical sessions!
“E1.6 – Calling Planet Earth – Space Outreach to the General Public” was dedicated to activities, programs and strategies for engaging the general public rather than formal education programs. Given I’ve spent the last 5 years in Australia writing/performing science-comedy shows about space exploration, this was my place to shine.
This paper was a really great opportunity to summarise all the outreach I’ve done since coming back to Australia in early 2013 and honestly acknowledge the absurd amount of people I’ve engaged with space science in that time. When you’re working alone doing something fairly unique but are surrounded by people doing related work that’s supported by institutions, it can be really easy to lose perspective I think no one gives a shit about what you’re doing – that all your efforts aren’t noticed, appreciated or effective. Being forced to look back through 5 years of effort and reflect honestly on what I’ve achieved puts it all back in perspective though. When you calculate you’ve coordinated more than 50 global events over 5 years with an average of 120+ people attending each event, that you were the key player in a 5-day art installation that more than 50,000 people saw in person and another 95 million engaged with online, published a book available in 38 countries, and that’s all excluding the ~100,000 kids you’ve spoken to as part of school events at the same time… it becomes difficult to take anyone’s criticism seriously or to feel sorry for yourself 😉
With exhaustion already setting in and the pressure to present my paper suddenly relieved, I was ready to completely bail on the evening drinks at the Opening Reception. I’m glad I stuck around long enough to enjoy the tiny cocktail food and catch up with a few friends, but it was certainly a relief to crash into bed around midnight at the end of a long first day.
It’s not like I could sleep in though – we had a 7am breakfast for the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) to get to!
With minimal sleep I was running on emotional fumes and caffeine at this point, so while it was great to be at the breakfast to celebrate the amazing effort the SIAA has made representing the Australian space industry I was mostly there in body rather than mind. What did snap me out of my fugue state was having someone from NASA interrupt the speeches to deliver a soft-toy koala to Michael Davis (Chairman of SIAA) on stage, and then announce that the koala had just come back from space after 6 months on the International Space Station! Michael immediately donated the koala to Nova Systems director Peter Nikoloff, and Peter wandered around the conference for the rest of the week letting any idiot who asked to get a selfie with a space-koala…
I knew that Wednesday was going to be a huge day and I needed to catch up on emails/sleep, but there was no way I was going to miss the “A5.2 – Human Exploration of Mars” technical session. Especially when John Connolly – my former boss and now lead of NASA’s Mars Study Capability team – was going to be delivering NASA’s updated plans for getting humans to Mars.
I’ve heard John give a version of this talk 3-4 times over the last few years, and while it wasn’t radically different from previous versions, there was one stand-out change: shifting from a crew size of 6 down to 4. Every NASA Mars mission architecture that I’m aware of has aimed to send crews of 6 or even 8 people at a time, which has created issues with designing a launch vehicle to get back off the surface to come back to Earth: more people ~ heavier capsule. Dropping the crew size to 4 means NASA’s latest Mars mission design is now inline with Mars One’s plans… although they still want to bring them back after 2 years 😉
There were all sorts of social events going on Tuesday night, and I got invites to them, but there was no way the Space Grinch was going to socialise – I disappeared back to the apartment to nap, catch-up on my overflowing inbox, and not look at other human beings for a few hours.
I’d planned to be at another 7am breakfast, but there was no way THAT was happening. My two flatmates both had their most stressful presentations on that morning – Matt presenting his PhD research at the Japanese space agency, and Lisa presenting her Masters outreach work through the Questacon Science Circus – so I focused on trying to make their morning was as stress-free as possible and filming their presentations. Matt was first up presenting his research on how reducing the temperature rocket engines operate at can significantly extend their lifespans.
With SpaceX now consistently reusing launched rocket boosters, understanding how to reduce the amount of damage each launch does to the engine bells means that instead of a booster being used for up to a dozen launches as Elon Musk has spoken about for his Falcon 9 boosters, the kind of research that Matthew is doing at JAXA means that future boosters could be reliably reused for hundreds launches.
Packing up the camera, I bolted upstairs to where Lisa was going to be setting herself on fire in the newly established “E1.8 – Hands-on Space Education and Outreach” session, added this year to the education and outreach stream.
While Lisa managed not to singe anything setting her hands on fire to demonstrate the heat capacity of water, the audience were a little less willing to volunteer after a demonstration of vacuum power went awry and a postcard holding a glass of water slipped and soaked some kid who’d foolishly volunteered to be involved. After drenching the kid, she then made 6 people from the audience hold hands as she shocked them with static electricity, so obviously the rest of the audience were feeling pretty shy when she then asked for a final volunteer to help with a rocket launch… so somehow I wound up doing it, having a pressurised water bottle fired at me along a length of washing line while I was supposed to “catch it”.
I kept the Space Grinch persona up through most of it, but I have to admit the whole thing waspretty fun 😀
It was a huge relief for both Matt and Lisa to have their most important presentations done, and we headed out for lunch with some fellow ISU alumni. But while Matt could now relax, Lisa and I had to get ready to feature on IAC TV’s “Space After Five” aka “Space AF”!
You can watch the full video here, but it was great talking about one-way missions to Mars alongside someone who’s aiming to be the first Martian gardener. Wednesday still wasn’t done though, because almost immediately after the broadcast was the official ISU alumni meetup! After a few heated words with some of the France-based administration staff trying to block my students from ISU’s Southern Hemisphere program from coming in because they’d never met them before, we all managed to crowd into a very small bar, celebrate the 30th anniversary since ISU’s founding with a birthday cake, and then get the inevitable alumni group photos…
Top image: Students of the 2014 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program. Bottom Image: Students of the 2016 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program, with John Connolly and myself as staff
it was great to see a few folks and avoid a few others, grab some delicious pizza and get a few photos… but grandfather space grinch was getting pretty sick of space people at this point, so I headed home while the others kicked on into the night.
Thursday started so well. I had a decent night’s sleep, completed everything I’d agreed to do, seen most of the folks I’d wanted to see and given up on trying to impress anyone else – I was totally free to float around and go to whatever presentations or technical sessions I felt like, and on Thursday morning I felt like going to the “SETI and Society” technical session.
Paul Davies is a childhood science hero of mine, so seeing he was chairing this session made going to it a no-brainer. As soon as I arrived it was clear that Professor Davies wasn’t there, but what I got instead was completely worth it. After an opening lecture on how “social media and the degeneration of journalism is the greatest modern threat to serious SETI research”, we had an obituary lecture on an Australian SETI researcher and STEM advocate who’d died from a brain tumour in the mid-90’s, a lecture on the legal aspects of defining alien intelligence and what rights ET would have, and a presentation on von Neumann machines and the Fermi paradox that included slides composed almost entirely of close-up views of kids toys. Without sugar-coating it, this was without doubt the most bonkers 90 minutes of an especially bizarre week. I decided a few months ago that once I’ve written Cosmic Nomad on how Mars One has changed my life, my third book will be about SETI and what kind of message we’d send aliens if we were to ever make contact, and I cannot wait to interview some of these folks for it because it’ll be utterly hysterical.
Before the conference started I’d originally planned to use Thursday afternoon for a nap to try to catch up before the inevitable madness of Friday’s “Elon Musk/After Party” combo, but after easing back on Wednesday and the laughs of the SETI session had brought I was keen to keep soaking up interesting technical sessions. I’d had my paper for “E1.9 – Public Engagement in Space Through Culture” rejected because apparently comedy isn’t “culture”, but was keen to see artists like Aoife van Linden Tol (using explosives for space science art events) and Sarah Jane Pell (using performance art to connect sea, space and the human experience) share their art alongside the large-scale engagement programs run by ESA using cartoons for the Rosetta Probe.
I’m not going to say that I saw or heard anything that is going to radically influence my own work in the future, but it was definitely interesting to see the kind of art practices other people are following to engage audiences with space science.
This was always going to be the biggest day of the conference, so each and every one of us was pacing ourselves right from the start. Some folks had their eyes set only on Elon Musk’s talk and the closing ceremony, so they grabbed a coffee and started lining up for Elon’s 1pm talk at 10:30am.
I was keen for Elon’s talk too, but had mischief in mind before hand. Two of my more ridiculous former students from ISU were presenting before Elon’s talk on the cost of clearing space junk using reuseable rockets – quite a reasonable proposition – while trying to squeeze as many Rick and Morty references into their talk as possible. With two of my favourite idiots trying to keep straight faces while dropping in the middle of a very serious technical session on space junk mitigation, I was obviously compelled to go along and ask questions designed to make them crack.
After about a dozen “Awww jeez” and even a couple of “Merge” references, the confused session chair took the microphone off me, their presenation finished, and all of us made for the door… to find it locked and guarded by a fairly zealous volunteer.
Turns out that security had put entire sections of the building into lockdown to prevent unauthorized people from getting into the room where Elon Musk would be delivering his talk – the only way out of this viper pit of agitated space junk professionals was to use the doors at the front of the room directly between the speaker and the presentation screen. There was no way any of us were leaving until atleast the next speaker was done. About 10 of us stood awkwardly near the locked door at the back of the room, watching a presentation the speaker knew none of us wanted to be there, but all being cautiously watched by the volunteer to make sure none of us made a break into the locked down area on the other side. As the speaker finished up, a radio call came through saying that the lockdown had been lifted… or was that going to be lifted?
Some of my work with the Army I’m still not allowed to share, but parts of it involved learning how to exploit communication breakdowns and using social engineering to get into places I really wasn’t supposed to be. The details aren’t important, but a moments confusion over whether the lock-down was in place was all it took to find myself in the middle of a reception area that at the time was strictly off-limits ahead of Elon’s talk… while friends who had lined up for 2 hours glared at me through the guarded glass doors mouthing “WHAT THE FUCK?” over the shoulders of security guards looking the wrong way. When the doors opened 20 minutes later I blended back into the crowd, texted directions to some friends hiding out in the toilets, before a dozen of us somehow wound up in the roped off VIP seating…
It was absolutely fantastic to hear a more detailed view of SpaceX’s BFR (“Big Fucking Rocket” incase you’re wondering) and to see a dialing back from the engineering insanity shown at IAC2016 in Guadalajara to something that is still crazy but a little more feasible. I’m obviously watching all the developments at SpaceX with my Mars One hat on, and the aspect that has always interested me about BFR is that they’ll need crews to land initially to setup a methane production unit before anyone can talk about launching from Mars back to Earth. It’s almost like you would need a contingent of people willing to potentially go one way to Mars to land first and set things up before return trips become possible… Elon Musk has also repeatedly said that SpaceX is all about providing the launch infrastructure for exploring the solar system, but not in training astronauts. Just imagine if there were a company selecting and training future Mars colonists who would all be prepared to go to Mars one-way that could partner with SpaceX to provide the personnel to build the Mars surface infrastructure for return missions…
After seeing the closing ceremony in Guadalajara the year before I knew I wouldn’t be missing much besides a bunch of award presentations if I skipped it, so I did a quick interview with ABC Adelaide about Musk’s presentation before a bunch of us piled into a bar and then a dumpling house to start the end-of-conference celebrations before the conference had even ended. While most folks headed to the Closing Night Dinner, Space Grinch headed back to the apartment after a quick detour to the bottle shop – settling in for some quiet before everyone else turned up.
All round it was one hell of a conference, but I was mostly relieved when I left. That final day really marked the end of an epic 5 year loop here in Australia, and the end of an especially stressful 2 years. I’ve been pretty much on the go since I moved out of my shared house in Melbourne at the start of 2016, and IAC2017 was really the final commitment I’d made to this nomadic science communicator lifestyle I’ve adopted. I’m not saying I’m about to get a job in a bank, take out a mortage on an overpriced house in Sydney and settle down with a “nice girl” to flop out a few grandkids… because I’m sure as hell not.
But I certainly don’t have to keep trying to convince Australians we need a space agency anymore – we’re getting one. I’ve also spoken to over 100,000 students in the last 5 years, been featured countless times on national radio, television and newspapers, and been a vocal ambassador for space science and science communication throughout it all… and I’m sick of it. Contrary to popular opinion I don’t speak to the media because I want to – I speak to them about Mars One because I want kids to hear about space exploration from someone who’s actively working to live on another planet rather than an astronomer or astrophysicist. Experts in space enginnering are limited in Australia and folks involved with human spaceflight are practically non-existent, so as an astronaut candidate I’ve felt compelled to use my stand-up background to promote the idea in the media. But friends in comedy are well aware that I was done with standup by the end of 2012 – sharing Mars One with the public is the only reason I kept doing it.
Now that I’m writing books and loving it, I can step back from trying to just be a professional speaker and share what I’m doing by publishing it rather than talking about it. I don’t really know what 2018 will bring, but I love that the end of IAC marked the start of a quiet time when I can really reassess where I want to go next and what I want to do to contribute to the goal of making humanity a dual-planet species.
Here’s to taking a breath and preparing for new adventures 🙂