Another STARSHINE, and a Descendant of BioSat

A pair of small satellites launched on this date in space history …

(STARSHINE-2, released from the shuttle payload bay. NASA image, from Wikimedia Commons.)

First, 10 years ago today — December 16, 2001 — the crew of STS-108 released STARSHINE-2 while preparing for their return to Earth. Like its predecessors — STARSHINE-1 and STARSHINE-3 — this “microsatellite” was built with the help of students from around the world: students in 26 countries helped to polish the over 800 mirrors that studded the spacecraft’s surface, making the satellite highly reflective so they could track it in its orbit. The STARSHINE acronym stands for “Student Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite Heuristic International Networking Experiment,” and more than 25,000 students participated in the project.

Five years later, on this date in 2006, a Minotaur rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, carrying the “nanosatellite” GeneSat-1. Conceptually similar to BioSatellite-1, GeneSat-1 carried samples of bacteria — specifically, E. Coli — to monitor the effects of space radiation. Unlike the BioSatellite series, which involved returning the samples to earth for study, GeneSat-1 carried special optical instruments to observe the bacteria and radioed those observations to the ground.

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New Year, New Free Downloads Available

Happy 2010, folks! Hope your New Year has started off well.

I’ve been meaning to make some new items available for download on my GrayMan Writes web site, and today seemed like a good day to do it.

First, a new essay: “An Unsolicited Proposal for the Secretary of Education.” Here’s the opening:

We often treat education in the United States as a utility; i.e., we take it for granted the way we take for granted that the lights will work when we flip a switch. As long as it appears to be working, most of us give little thought to education, and it only takes a little interruption to arouse a great deal of attention. The Department of Education could and should help this vital national “utility” run better and produce uniformly excellent results, but to do so it should do more than collect and disseminate research, and more than dole out Federal funds for various programs.

With that in mind, we offer this proposal for how the Department of Education could lead by example: the Department of Education should establish, staff, and operate a charter school in metropolitan D.C. and make it the best school in the country….

The full essay is at this link.

Second, some free fiction: a historical short story entitled, “The Surfman.” The market for historical short fiction is almost nonexistent, but hopefully folks who like historical fiction will be able to find it on the web site. Here’s how it begins:

Several hundred yards off Long Beach Island, New Jersey, the small freighter should have been slipping along the wavetops headed who-knows-where. Her captain must’ve been drunk or incompetent to have hit the shoals in broad daylight with a favorable tide, but that didn’t matter to Silas Jacobs. It didn’t so much matter that the ship had ten or twelve sailors on board, and most couldn’t swim a lick; deep ocean sailors were like that. What mattered to Silas was that the ocean was trying to kill them….

If you want to read the story, you can download it here.

Both of these downloads are licensed under Creative Commons, so you can feel free to share them with anyone — all I ask is that you include the right attribution.

And I hope you have a terrific New Year!

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Report from the NASA Industry-Education Forum

Today I had the opportunity to attend a great meeting: the NASA Industry-Education Forum, held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was an invitation-only event, for which I was actually an alternate in place of the Director of the North Carolina Space Grant; however, I feel as if I contributed a little bit to the proceedings.

The meeting started exceedingly well. We were greeted by the NASA Administrator, astronaut and Retired Marine Major General Charlie Bolden, who let us know that he considered it very important to NASA’s efforts to grow the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) capabilities. Had I realized he was going to attend, I could’ve looked up his bio; then, when I introduced myself, I could’ve pointed out that I was on the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery team for his STS-31 shuttle mission that landed at Edwards Air Force Base, and also that one of his mission specialists on STS-60, Dr. Ron Sega, was one of the Under Secretaries of the Air Force for whom I wrote speeches. Ah, missed opportunities.

Following the introductions — including astronaut and International Space Station Expedition-3 Commander (and retired Navy Captain) Frank Culbertson and famed science correspondent Miles O’Brien — the meeting continued with a series of briefings on NASA’s education efforts, successful student programs such as the “Getaway Special” payloads that have flown on many shuttle flights, and the nationwide Space Grant program. It was good to note in the briefing about NASA’s University Research Centers that the centers at North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central University were both included.

The meeting split up into four working groups, each with about ten people, that met over lunch to consider three topics: how we can inspire young people to pursue STEM education and careers, how we can retain these young people in STEM courses of study after they’ve begun, and how we can help graduates find (and succeed in) aerospace jobs. Our working group had a very wide-ranging discussion that could have continued for long after our time was up. When we all came back together, each group presented their results; our NASA hosts are collecting and collating all of our ideas for distribution to the larger group.

Next on the agenda was a panel of four “early career” aerospace professionals, each of whom had been assisted by NASA at some point in their educational career (e.g., by fellowships, scholarships, internships, etc.). Finally, the meeting ended with a collection of action items, most of which were taken by the NASA education staff, though some had industry and industry association elements.

I had gone into the meeting with an idea that I had gotten from a member of the Codex writers’ group: specifically, that of making a space documentary suitable for a very young audience, as opposed to the usual space documentaries that seem to appeal more to my generation. My working group did not take to the idea with the enthusiasm I had hoped, so I didn’t pitch it to the larger group.

However, one thing in the larger group was that new social networking technologies represent an opportunity to reach young people with exciting information about the aerospace world and their opportunities in it. And even though very few people read my blog, I like to think that my occasional space history items would qualify — so that made me feel pretty good.

All in all, a terrific meeting, and I was happy to represent the NC Aerospace Initiative. (And I even got to plug Baen Books in my working group!)

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National Aerospace Day

Happy Aerospace Day to one and all!

That’s right: September 16, 2009 was designated National Aerospace Day by resolutions passed in the House and the Senate. (See this Reuters article.) Key passages of the resolution say,

  • “… the United States aerospace industry is a powerful, reliable source of employment, innovation, and export income, directly employing 831,000 people and supporting more than 2,000,000 jobs in related fields”
  • “… aerospace education is an important component of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and helps to develop the science and technology workforce in the United States”
  • “… aerospace innovation has led to the development of the Global Positioning System, which has strengthened national security and increased economic productivity”
  • “… the aerospace industry assists and protects members of the Armed Forces with military communications, unmanned aerial systems, situational awareness, and satellite-guided ordinances”

and the resolution “recognizes the contributions of the aerospace industry to the history, economy, security, and educational system of the United States.”

I’m happy to bring you this announcement, and to be part of the growing aerospace industry in the state of North Carolina as the Associate Director of the North Carolina Aerospace Initiative. If you know anyone working in aerospace in North Carolina, or a young person interested in an aerospace career, send them my way and let them know we’re here to help!

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The STARSHINE Demonstrator — Today's Space History Note

Ten years ago today — June 5, 1999 — the STARSHINE passive reflector was released from Space Shuttle Discovery during mission STS-96 by Canadian astronaut Julie Payette. STARSHINE — a.k.a. Student Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite Heuristic International Networking Experiment* — was sponsored by the Naval Research Laboratory and consisted of a hollow, 48-cm (19-inch) diameter sphere, covered with 878 mirrors.

(Starshine-1 at the Naval Research Laboratory. NRL photo by Michael A. Savell, from the Starshine project web site.)

Students from 660 schools in 18 countries, including some nations we don’t associate with spacefaring such as Zimbabwe and Pakistan, had polished the mirrors. An estimated 25,000 high school students around the world tracked the reflector during the demonstration and reported their observations via the Internet.

Pretty nifty, I think.

*According to this NASA page.

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Underperforming … the Story of My Life

Best of the Web Today pointed us to this article from The Boston Globe, which reported that administrators, principals, and teachers in Massachusetts are agonizing over the impact to morale of labeling schools “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” that generate poor test results.

We can only hope that those administrators, principals, and teachers agonize half as much over why their schools turn out so many graduates (and non-graduates) who read poorly, figure poorly, and reason poorly compared to the numbers of graduates they turn out who read, figure, and reason well. Inasmuch as (to give them the benefit of the doubt) they presumably are doing their best, they have a point: hanging a label promotes more shame than improvement, because the label itself doesn’t explain how to improve.

Who among us hasn’t experienced the difficulty of doing one’s best without knowing exactly what to do or how to do it? We might label ourselves as “underperforming” or worse, but if we’re serious about what we’re trying to do we will find someone to teach us what to do and how to do it well. If we’re not serious, we should look for something else to do.

My writing career is like that. Some things I do pretty well, others not so well at all. So I seek out people who, hopefully, will help me overcome my weaknesses; which is why, in six weeks, I’ll be in Utah at Dave Wolverton’s writing workshop.

I hope those educators can do the same: admit their weaknesses, and find real experts who can help them overcome those weaknesses. But as long as these things have been going on (far longer than the decade-and-a-half since my book came out), I don’t have a lot of hope.

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