And Many Other Things at the 34th Space Symposium
‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’– Oscar Wilde
Although it was hardly a gutter. My 14-year-old son Cliff and I were at the Space Foundation’s 34th annual Space Symposium at the majestic Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs. The outdoor lights were dimmed, high-power telescopes had been set up, and we were looking at the rings of Saturn, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, and the craters of the moon.
The Space Symposium is the world’s largest gathering of key international players in military, civilian, and commercial space exploration. Every April, the Space Foundation hosts four days of conferences, presentations, and panel discussions at The Broadmoor and provides a 45,000-square-foot exhibition pavilion for Symposium participants to spotlight their space goods and space services.
This year, 218 industries and organizations displayed the latest in extraterrestrial genius to 14,000 attendees. The exhibits ranged from the miniature to the monumental.
For example, at a molecular level the Fralock Corporation revealed polyimide adhesiveless laminate technology – invisible but vital. (It keeps your circuit boards from peeling apart in the temperature extremes of space.)
On a larger scale, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin unveiled the BE-4, a new gigantic liquid-fuel rocket engine producing 550,000 pounds of thrust. (Which it might have done then and there if somebody had ignored the “no smoking” sign by its combustion-chamber nozzle.)
And larger yet was the first public viewing of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s flight-tested Dream Chaser prototype lifting-body spaceplane. The Dream Chaser will be able to resupply the International Space Station with 11,000 pounds of provisions and fly back and land at your local airport. (“Lifting body” means the whole shape of the vehicle provides aerodynamic lift, and the result looks like an enormous, angry brick with wings.)
More than 20 countries – some as big as China, some as small as Bermuda – sent official delegations to the Symposium.
Speakers included the director general of the European Space Agency, the director general of Russia’s ROSCOSMOS State Corporation for Space Activities, the secretary general of China’s National Space Administration, the director general of Japan’s National Space Policy Secretariat, the president of the Canadian Space Agency, the director general of the Mexican Space Agency, the director general of Vietnam’s National Space Center, and the chairman of the Space Agency of the United Arab Emirates.
NASA’s then-acting administrator Robert Lightfoot Jr., National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and Vice President Mike Pence.
My son Cliff.
Cliff wasn’t, per se, speaking at the Space Symposium, but he did speak to many of its luminaries.
I brought Cliff to the Symposium because I want him to become a more worthwhile person than I am, though I suspect he already is. His thoughts are more worthwhile. Standing and staring millions of miles into the cosmos through the telescopes outside The Broadmoor makes me think what a small and insignificant person I am. Staring millions of miles into the cosmos makes Cliff think what a big and magnificent universe it is.
Elsewhere is this issue I’ve made fun (quite fairly) of my education and also made fun (not so fairly) of the education my kids are getting.
But I really don’t worry about Cliff’s education. I worry about his motivations, his admirations, and his understandings of the many things there are to be educated about. And I seem to have found a way to put my worries to rest.
I blasted my son into outer space.
Of course, we’ve all been tempted to do that with our kids. But I did it to Cliff because he was being good.
He’s always been polite and amiable, and has a knack for talking to people. A knack which can be summed up in one word – “listening.” Cliff listens to people.
Because he’s presentable in adult company I can present him to adults who exemplify motivation, are worthy of admiration, and understand understanding.
The most motivated and admirable people I know, who understand the most amazing things, are the people who explore space. And I’ve been able to introduce Cliff to them because I’m a member of the Space Foundation board of directors.
The Space Foundation is a nonprofit organization established, in the words of our mission statement, “to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate on behalf of the global space community.”
How I got on its board – which is otherwise filled with astronauts, professors, engineers, senior business executives, retired military officers of high rank, and, of course, rocket scientists – I don’t know. Maybe they needed to bring the board’s average IQ down enough to give the Foundation the common touch, or maybe it was the amount of time I spent on Mars during the 1960s.
Anyway, there I am. And ever since Cliff was little I’ve been taking him with me to space events.
When he was in second grade I took him to Cape Canaveral to see the last space shuttle launch. It was a learning experience. He learned to stand in awe.
The looming Atlantis shuttle, piggybacked on its liquid fuel tank and flanked by twin solid-fuel boosters, was 3.5 miles from the NASA viewing station, but it loomed anyway, as tall as a 25-storey building.
There was a flash below the engine nozzles. A fiery glory poured out on every side. A few seconds later came the joyful noise, a trumpeting so powerful that the decibels would kill you if you were closer than 800 feet. The shuttle and its engines – the “full stack” as it’s called – stood almost still, trembling with the strength of 6,825,704 foot-pounds of thrust. Then it rose on a tower of smoke with the majesty befitting 2,030 tons of wondrous engineering.
He was like a blind and deaf child suddenly cured… “So this is light! So this is sound!”
Cliff was silent. He didn’t need to say anything. And, having forgotten to breathe, he probably couldn’t. His small, agape face announced that he now comprehended the miraculous. He was like a blind and deaf child suddenly cured… “So this is light! So this is sound!”
At the 34th Space Symposium he learned something else. He and I had the honor to be seated with Buzz Aldrin at one of the Symposium dinners. The second man on the moon is a particular hero of Cliff’s, whose favorite book is Buzz’s No Dream Is Too High.
Midway through the main course, Buzz and Cliff were in earnest conversation. Later I asked, “What did Buzz tell you about the moon?”
“We weren’t talking about the moon,” Cliff said. “Mister Aldrin asked me, ‘Cliff, do you know what I’m famous for?’ I sort of didn’t know what to say. And he said, ‘I’m one of the few people who have ever seen the Titanic.’ So we were talking about the dive to the Titanic he made on the submersible, the Nautile, in 1996. Mister Aldrin told me you can’t that see that much – sort of the opposite of being on the moon.”
“Dad,” Cliff said. “He’s explored more than anyone else ever has. He’s been as far up into space as any person has, and he’s been to the bottom of the ocean, too.” Cliff paused then said, “And he’s a nice guy.”
“They usually are,” I said. “In my experience men and women who routinely face a lot of danger are nice. That is, when they’re not fighting a war or something.”
“Buzz Aldrin was an F-86 pilot and flew 66 combat missions in the Korean War,” said Cliff (exhibiting a 14-year-old’s precise memory for details, as long as they’re cool details – he can’t remember where his other shoe is on school mornings). “And he shot down two MiGs. I guess people like that don’t have anything to prove.”
“You mean by being assholes?” I said.
“Yes,” said Cliff.
Maybe Cliff will grow up to be a space hero. Or maybe Cliff will grow up to be a space nerd. Or maybe there isn’t any difference between the two.
At the Symposium’s opening night ceremony, I watched Cliff listen, rapt, to Lauren Smith explain how space integrates our inner F-86 pilot with our inner geek carrying one of those calculators with more buttons on it than a hotel TV remote.
She said, “I have learned that space is full of these delightfully unexpected dualities.”
Lauren is manager for the integration and test senior technical staff for the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, with dual roles as the team’s mechanical test engineering subproject manager and lead integration and test engineer for all nonexplosive actuators and deployments.
What she said had peer-to-peer credibility to Cliff – she, honest to gosh, looks like she’s about the same age. Her job title is longer than her span of years on earth – a planet she has no intention of confining herself to.
“This industry,” Lauren said, “is the only place where you are required to be a super-nerd and an adventurer, a numerically-grounded pragmatist and a starry-eyed, pioneering optimist… These seemingly paradoxical traits make us special. They enable us to not just look at the night sky with insatiable curiosity but to build the satellites and vehicles that take us there. We are 21st-century pioneers – just as our ancestors – who explored uncharted lands in pursuit of untold opportunity.”
“What Happens When You Set a Rocket Engine Off Upside Down?” You get a mess in your driveway.
Cliff has a way to go, getting his nerd factor up to 3rd-Millennium Davy Crockett in Moonskin cap. His eighth-grade science project was “What Happens When You Set Off a Rocket Engine Upside Down?” (That was not its formal title.)
The experiment was to see if temperature affects solid-propellant rocket fuel thrust. Cliff, using his own lowly, terrestrial yard-chore money, bought 54 model rocket engines in three sizes. He sorted the engines into three sets, each containing six large, six medium, and six small engines. He stored Set A at minus 20 C (mom’s deep freeze), Set B at 0 C (dad’s ice bucket), and Set C at 20 C (his bedroom).
He then built an inverted cradle for the rocket engines out of the aluminum tube that a Romeo y Julieta Churchill comes in. (I smoked the cigar for him.) And he attached the cradle to some gizmo he borrowed from his science teacher that measures thrust in “newtons.”
(In case you’re wondering, “What’s a newton?” it is – I quote from the Internet – “the force required to accelerate an object with a mass of 1 kilogram 1 meter per second per second.” In other words, I have no idea.)
I swelled with pride at the genius of my son. Or, did swell, until the data from his experiment turned out to be random junk numbers with no discernable relationship to the temperature of the rocket fuel or the size of the rocket engines or, for that matter, the quality of the cigar (excellent).
So, “What Happens When You Set a Rocket Engine Off Upside Down?” You get a mess in your driveway.
You also get advice at the Space Symposium. And another experience of learning to stand in awe. Because, if you ask members of the Space Foundation board (other than me) questions about your eighth-grade science project, you get answers.
Space Foundation Vice Chair Dr. Kathryn Thornton, a PhD in physics, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, and former astronaut who flew four missions on Space Shuttles and logged 975 hours in orbit, said, “You should have weighed the stuff.”
Kathy uses model rocket engines for design exercises in her engineering class and has found very little consistency in the amount of propellant per engine.
“And checked the manufacture date. Solid fuel propellant degrades over time,” said Jeff Grant, senior vice president and general manager of Aerospace Systems at Northrop Grumman, veteran of 21 years as a science officer at the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office, and Lauren Smith’s boss.
“Plus allowed for variability by making sure all the propellant came from the same manufacturing batch,” said Ron Sega, professor of systems engineering at Colorado State, retired Major General in the U.S. Air Force, former Under Secretary of the Air Force, and NASA astronaut on the first joint U.S./Russia shuttle mission.
Tapping into expertise of this quality, Cliff should have reached the moon by now. Or, considering the direction he was pointing the rocket engines, China. Yet another lesson…
“Ready, fire, aim!” said Kathy. Cliff had already received the Eighth-Grade Science Project award for “Participation.”
But it’s what Cliff didn’t hear at the Space Symposium… That’s what I want him to learn the most from.
What he didn’t hear was any political rancor. None. Not a whisper. Everyone was greeted with courtesy, and every courtesy was greeted with warmth.
Maybe elsewhere the body politic is a seething, chaotic, stinking mess of conniving vermin biting and clawing and ripping each other’s tails off. But that’s in the gutter.
Here the body politic was men and women with a sense of duty and a sensibility for mission. The Vice President, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of the Air Force and many other civil and military leaders – from various viewpoints not always in agreement, indeed, from various nations not always in concord – spoke with knowledge and reason and were listened to with respect and consideration. We were looking at the stars.