Fun with Lunar Science

by guest blogger Ken

Recently, SMU hosted the awards luncheon for the Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair, wherein all of the winners in the different categories got a whole slew of awards. I managed to wrangle a ticket to the luncheon, and it was certainly an amazing event. I’m not used to the VIP treatment, so it was kind of cool that there was a parking space with a cone, right up front, and a nice young lady to direct me to the entry. Seating was front and center, and the parade of young science and engineering talent was a sight to see. I was quite surprised by the sheer preponderance of young women as compared with young men. Far more lopsided than I would have expected. Plano also fared rather well, though someone mentioned that there are incentives associated with achievement in academic competitions, so the science teachers are all over the science fairs.

I did spot the young man who did the project on growing plants in simulated Moon regolith and gave him a hearty round of applause and a discrete “Moon! Woo-hoo!”. Having won second place in his category, he was part of the inspiration for my three-part article on cynthiculture over at Out of the Cradle, “Of a Garden on the Moon” (Parts I, II, and III). Since I got to sit at one of the VIP tables, I got to lunch with the folks who gave the welcoming comments for the event, and in his comments Mr. Quick mentioned that he had worked at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (the Moon Rock Lab) back in the day. Over salad I mentioned that one of the young winners had done a project on Moon dust, and we got to talking about Lunar science. At one point he mentioned the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), and that they’re looking for a Director. I laughingly suggested that I should send in my resume, given my work with the Lunar Library and my quest to be the most knowledgeable Gen Xer there is regarding the Moon.

So one night, out of idle curiosity, I look up the description. It’s actually an interesting challenge, to establish what amounts to a virtual Lunar network of research to start preparing for when we do start sending crews back to the Moon in a decade or so. The basic idea is to have a handful of reasonably well financed teams of scientists at universities around the nation who will lay the groundwork for the science outlined in the N.A.S. report “The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon”. It envisions three types of science: Science of the Moon, Science on the Moon, and Science from the Moon.

I was also happy to see that the NLSI was working with the NASA Academy to try to implement a Lunar Academy this summer, modeled on both the Academy and Astrobiology Institute models. This is where a group of, typically, post-grad students are gathered together for a ten-week intensive space program. In the case of the NASA Academy this involved topics as esoteric as quantum mechanics and the finer points of wind tunnel operations. I think this is a great first step, and hopefully something that will be replicated in the future.

Well, you know what, this job sounds like just the kind of challenge that I’ve been looking for. I think I would be a great NLSI Director, and would put Lunar studies on the radar of a lot of folks. I’ve been to the conferences, who else in my generation is as much as a Moonatic as I am? So you know what, I went ahead and applied.

I would wager my chances at less than 5%. Not because I don’t think I would be any good, but because my resume is all wrong. I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a degree in planetary geology. I don’t have a list of journal and conference papers (regular readers will remember my recent attempts to foray into that realm). I haven’t worked in a lab or research institute (at least not since my summer job cleaning mice cages back in high school). I’m not from academia. I’ve worked in the financial world for a long time. My space background is rather unusual, and doesn’t work terribly well in the USAJobs database. The fact that I can only do my Moon work during non-work hours means that it’s largely constrained to the Lunar Library, work with NSS-NT in my community, and taking vacation days to go to Moon conferences on my own dime. Actually, it was at one of those conferences that I got to meet Ames Center Director Pete Worden when he came over to check out one of the community outreach displays that I had with me and was showing to a couple of gentlemen between sessions. IIRC it was my map of cislunar space and I was getting their input on its accuracy. I wonder if he remembers it…

I was also thrilled when he did his Second Life presentation from our ISDC last year. If I were NLSI Director, one of the things I’d try to do would be to set up a ‘Lunar Library’ in Second Life as a collaborative virtual resource for Moon science document retrieval. One of the things I’d like to see in the near future is either an undergraduate or graduate degree in Lunar Studies or Lunar Science, or at least a Minor. We’re getting to the point where the folks we do have who are really knowledgeable about the Moon are becoming less and less available to convey what they know to the next round. In the business world this is known as succession planning. Mentoring is the usual way to do this. From a cynthiculture perspective, we need to get to cultivating.

I’ll be sure to let everyone know how things turn out. I figure that the worst that can happen is that they send me four rejection letters this time around. And of course, there’s absolutely no way I could have ever gotten the position had I not applied. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As weird as it looks on paper I do think I have the right skills to do a good job, and put the NLSI on the map and show that the U.S. of A. is serious about going to the Moon, and that our science will not just be about science, but also security and yes, commerce.

Over at NASAWatch, Mr. Cowing has the latest NextGen slideshow up, and it’s much tighter and more focused than the last round. One of the slides shows a terrifying demographic fact that I had wondered about, the percentage of folks at NASA who are under 40. They’re still a bit off in the definition of where Gen X starts. It’s generally considered to begin in 1964, which you can see in another slide in the presentation is where the birthrate starts dropping off the cliff. They have it starting in 1967, my year, the year of the Summer of Love, after which birthrates ticked up a bit before resuming their plummet. So technically, the charts should be of those 44 and under, either way I’m still at the front end of the transition generation, GenX.

So what are the percentages? For those under 40, my cohort, the peak in about 1995 (when I was still under 30) at a bit over 40% was almost the same level seen back in the 1960s, as the Baby Boomers worked their way through the system. This was also the time of the Goldin Years, when NASA kept going to Congress and saying “Please Sir, may I have less?”. Now that GenXers and Millenials are the ‘Under 40s’, that has dropped to 16%.

Let’s see what happened to the ‘Under 30s’. They peaked much earlier, about 1986, at ~15% before beginning a long decline, whose inflection changed sharply at about the same time the ‘Under 40s’ started to decline, and plummeted from the then ~10% to the current 4%.

Comparatively, the ‘Under 40s’ represent 47% of the U.S. workforce (vs. 16% at NASA) and the ‘Under 30s’ represent 25% of the national workforce (vs. 4% at NASA).

They then note two very salient points that have been long under-addressed in national debate:
1) “We realize that there is potential for increased risk on those projects but missions today must take the risk of raising young people and not just hiring already experienced people.”
2) “The agency is facing a human spaceflight gap and we are heading into that gap with a young workforce that has its own experience gap.”

They also note that NASA should be:

“Providing the Next Gen NASA workforce the programs and experience today that it needs to be the leaders in the future.”

Stranger things have happened…

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