Syzygy: Queen’s Brian May, A NASA Scientist, And Me, On The Topic Of Space
My wife and I had a wonderful dinner in late November with our neighbors, Dave and Cynthia Draper, and Dave’s sister, Juli. Dave and Cynthia recently moved here from Houston, and we like to think they are enjoying the variety of seasons we have here in Northern Virginia. Our dinner conversation did not include the usual Washington-Inside-The-Beltway recitations of whatever the hell is going on with you-know-who. That is not what friends speak of when gathered for a post-Thanksgiving meal of Dave’s marvelous New Mexico-based carne adovada enchiladas, guacamole, chips, and copious quantities of wines — red and white.
Instead, the table talk turned to a much higher plane of discourse — so high, in fact, Dave was the only one at the table really qualified to hold forth on the subject: NASA and the Artemis Moon mission (among other above-this-world topics). You see, Dave Draper is Deputy Chief Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. His job is to help NASA plan to develop a sustainable presence on the Moon and take what is learned to send astronauts to Mars. According to NASA’s Chief Scientist, Jim Green, “[Dave’s] lunar and planetary exploration expertise will be instrumental in helping to achieve NASA’s goal of returning to the Moon to stay and bridging the gap from science to the future human exploration of the Moon and Mars.”
Dave is also the most unabashed cheerleader for NASA I’ve ever met — and I’ve met two NASA administrators, quite a few NASA employees, and a handful of astronauts whose enthusiasm for NASA and its many missions are the stuff of recruitment posters. On a passion scale of 1–10, Dave’s affection for his employer, mission, and colleagues easily tops 1,000. And here’s a really wonderful part of his pep-rally excitement: it’s genuine and it’s infectious. Most importantly, Dave excels at sharing his enthusiasm with the rest of the world, believing that the more we know about NASA — probably the most respected brand on Earth — the more we will understand about ourselves, our origins, our present conditions, and our place in the universe as the decades, centuries, and millennia spread out before us.
Long-time readers of mine know I share Dave’s vision, although I am hardly qualified to speak to the science of extraterrestrial geology or even the geology of my back yard. What he and I do have in common is the belief that no matter what earth-bound trials consume the media’s and public’s attention, we must not take our eyes off the long-term value of space exploration. Further, we must illuminate the topic of space exploration and spaceflight — human and robotic — with the bright beams of education and public information. In this mutual agreement, Dave and I share a most unlikely syzygy with Brian May, widely known as Queen’s lead guitarist, singer, and composer of “We Will Rock You,” among many other soaring hits.
May (Dr. May, to be precise) is heralded in the science community for his PhD in astrophysics and for his many scholarly and popular astronomy-related texts and presentations as well as for his significant contributions to the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. I would need several more blog posts to list all of Dr. May’s scientific accomplishments and contributions to the public’s understanding of astronomy.
Over dinner, Dave recounted his meeting with May, who, while performing with Queen in Texas, stopped by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston for a tour of the facility. May’s doctoral thesis, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud,” concerns the reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System. Although Dr. May earned his doctorate on the subject of “space dust,” he had never seen an actual particle about which he wrote. Dave and his colleagues at JSC were delighted to show May just such a particle, collected during a NASA stratospheric aircraft flight, and placed in a high-resolution electron imaging system, from which it could be viewed on a screen in one of the Center’s analytical labs. Much to May’s delight, what he theorized, he finally realized, thanks to NASA.
Suffice to say, Brian May, Dave Draper, and I are all in agreement on this point: As a nation, as a global community, we must bend the curve of our understanding of space and its myriad treasures — known and unknown — toward an ever-steeper and accelerating path.
There is a beautiful, 100’ tall, gold-colored stainless-steel spire on the Mall side of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The spire pierces a constellation of stars. The title of the sculpture by Richard Lippold is Ad Astra, meaning “To the Stars.” While this title is most apt for the sculpture, and the sculpture itself is inspiring, I prefer the longer Latin phrase, Per aspera ad astra, or, “Through hardships to the stars,” because no journey of such significance can be begun without great effort supported by education at every level.
Like millions of kids who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, space exploration — from Sputnik to Apollo — was an integral part of the national narrative. Not just a science narrative, but an overall conversation about the value of setting and meeting difficult goals here on Earth and far beyond our planet.
I was a kid in Germany when Sputnik was launched in 1957, and we all listened through the static to its beeping signal as it circumnavigated the globe with its not so subtle message of Soviet space accomplishment. That same year, I took part in school activities inspired by the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957–58, and even as an eight-year-old, I was drinking deeply from the fire hose of science that was pouring out of the IGY’s discoveries.
I remember watching Alan Shepard’s flight in Freedom 7, first of the Mercury series, boosted into a suborbital arc on my 12th birthday, May 5, 1961. My wife lived across the street from John Glenn’s family, and she saw the gaggle of television trucks parked outside the Glenn residence during Glenn’s three-orbit flight in Friendship 7, February 20, 1962. LIFE magazine secured the rights to publish nearly everything knowable about the Mercury 7 astronauts and it seemed as if every week there was something new and interesting to read about their lives and their missions.
I did all the geeky things a science nerd of that time would do: learned the Greek alphabet (crucial in understanding star charts); hand-built several reflector telescopes (even grinding my own mirrors); volunteered to help build a large public-access telescope near Shreveport, Louisiana; camped out almost every weekend under the vast dome of the University of Nebraska’s Mueller planetarium in Lincoln; and subscribed to the Edmund Scientific Catalog, spending untold hours perusing its pages and spending even more untold dollars purchasing many of its products, including a humungous chemistry set and my first “real” space-observation binoculars.
Other than English, my best subjects in high school were chemistry, biology, algebra, trig, and introduction to physics. In college at the University of Colorado, I fell in love with anthropology and geology. Were it not for the inexorable pull of journalism — which, like the Great Attractor in interstellar space, grabbed me and held me in its thrall for the rest of my working days — I might well have become one of Dave’s older colleagues.
All of which is to illustrate the neuron-wiring power of science-made-accessible-and-understandable within the inquisitive sponge-like brain of a young person. And that brings me back to our winter-night dinner-table conversation about NASA’s 2024 Artemis mission to the Moon and then to Mars. At 70, my brain’s neurons may not be firing as fast or growing exponentially as they did 60 years ago, but they still got jazzed and lit up by Dave’s passionate telling of NASA’s near-term plans and the scope of the agency’s vision for the future of spaceflight — whether crewed or robotic.
Now, I can already hear the distant grumblings about precious resources, and NASA budgets that could be better spent in the darker, sadder sectors of our own country or around the world. To be frank, I’m not going there in this missive. A simple review of NASA’s budget as it compares to the outrageous spending habits of this administration, the farm-crippling tariffs, and the massive debt our country is burdened with, will reveal a relatively lean science budget dedicated in an almost miserly fashion to the pursuit of knowledge that time and time again has paid back benefits to almost every segment of our society. As I write this, the $1.4 trillion FY 2020 budget just passed by the Congress and signed by the president, and as outlined in SpaceNews.com, is barely dented by NASA’s share of federal expenditures: “NASA’s exploration programs get a little more than $6 billion in the bill, which adopted the Senate’s funding levels for Orion, the Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems. However, it cut exploration research and development work by more than $200 million, to $1.435 billion.”
What the grumblers don’t understand, or don’t bother to understand (or reject entirely), is that NASA, through the efforts of all the men and women who work hard every day to move us closer to the stars, is one of the few gateways we have left that opens upon scenes of a better tomorrow for everybody on the planet.
I often talk about the difference between tactical planning and strategic planning, between playing a short game, or playing the long game, between the pitfalls of short-sightedness versus the rewards for patience. From an historical perspective, among nations, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans (both North and South), and their cultural allies around the Pacific Rim, are all strategic, patient, long-game players.
Unlike the United States with its Constitutional constraints limiting political cycles to four and six years, and budget planning that never seems to be nailed in place, many of our geopolitical competitors operate on game plans that can be played out over generations and millennia. To the casual observer and caustic skeptic, it seems Americans are not particularly patient when it comes to looking down the road. But a close examination of U.S. history reveals some evidence to the contrary.
Although there are more examples, I like to cite five long-game plays the U.S. has executed — in which almost every state had a stake and/or role.
· The building of the transcontinental railroad (at huge fiscal and tragic social costs);
· The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 which established our system of state universities;
· The Homestead Act of 1862, which opened up tens of millions of acres of the west;
· The planning and construction of the Interstate Highway System (See Earl Swift’s “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways”);
· And, of course, America’s space program, which achieved almost impossible goals from its early beginnings in Hampton, Virginia in 1917, to Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital leap, to Neil Armstrong’s step on the Moon in 1969, to the Space Shuttle, to the Hubble Space Telescope, the establishment of Mars rovers and orbiting surveyors, the deep planetary missions like Huygens, Juno, and Cassini that have revealed mind-boggling images and exciting chemical and biological discoveries, and to the venerable Voyager I and Voyager II missions that are now sending data to Earth from beyond the boundaries of our solar system. (For extra credit, read or listen to, “Apollo”, by Charles Murray, Catherine Bly Cox, et al., and watch “Apollo 11” a film by Todd Douglas Miller). One only needs to go to NASA’s missions pages covering more than 250 robotic and human-crewed programs launched since 1958 to appreciate the broad sweep of the space agency’s mandate to explore, discover, and teach.
So, tonight over dinner, or maybe tomorrow during lunch, or perhaps next weekend in between games, put aside the usual topics of conversation — forego the political fisticuffs and impeachment imbroglios — and devote a few minutes to discussing the marvels of spaceflight, the beauty of planets, the swirls of distant galaxies, and how your appreciation for Queen has been realigned with the help of a guitar-wielding astrophysicist with an out-of-this-world interest in star dust.