Books for Future Astronauts

Marianne Dyson March 2017

March is Women’s History Month, and Wednesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women’s achievements and a call to action for gender parity.

As we celebrate the trailblazing achievements of pioneering women like those in the movie Hidden Figures, it seems appropriate to ponder why, some 50 years later, there is only one female black astronaut, Jeanette Epps.

When Epps makes her first flight in May 2018, she will be the fourth black woman to fly in space. The others were Mae Jemison (in 1992), Stephanie Wilson (in 2006, 2007, 2010), and Joan Higginbotham (in 2006). Yvonne Cagle, class of 1996, never flew and is no longer eligible.

Jeanette Epps is currently the only black female astronaut eligible to fly. (NASA photo)

Why so few black female astronauts?

I suspect the short answer is that not many apply for the position. As dramatized in Hidden Figures, lack of access to educational resources (the latest technical books at the library and advanced courses in engineering) can be a huge barrier to qualifying for high-tech jobs. Besides supporting our local libraries and colleges, what can we do to help girls (and boys) prepare for a bright future in space?

Studies (see Books in the Home Are Strongly Linked to Academic Achievement) have shown that a home library increases a child’s success in school, especially kids in families with little education or low-status occupations.

Don’t have a clue what books to give to your aspiring astronaut or their school? Check out the new STEM book list for K-12 developed by the National Science Teachers Association, in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council.

About a third of the list of 31 books feature female scientists, including three about Ada Lovelace who created the first computer program, one about biplane pilot Ruth Law, one about 33 trailblazing women in science, one about female architects, and another about women computers from WW II. One book is about a young black scientist, Benjamin Banneker. Happily, the list also includes Welcome to Mars, the book I coauthored with Buzz Aldrin.

As the website Fatherly points out, the answers to the question of what kids want to be when they grow up reveals a lot about the cultural influences on today’s kids. Fatherly speculates that boys aspire to be pro athletes because that’s what they see hyped in the media. Girls, who naturally tend toward careers that help others, chose doctor and teacher.

I hope that as more black girls and boys are exposed to movies like Hidden Figures, books about female and black scientists, and hear more about black astronauts in the news, they will be inspired to pursue STEM careers and apply to be astronauts.

NASA had 18,300 applicants for the astronaut class of 2017. Selections will be announced in June. Here’s hoping that the choices move us a little bit closer to gender and racial parity in space.

As cheap as it gets! My memoir, A Passion for Space, was selected by Amazon as a Kindle Daily Deal in celebration of International Women’s Day. Order the eBook from Amazon for only $3.99!

Writing about Space

Welcome to Mars was chosen as a Best STEM Book by the NSTA.

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

March 19-23. I’m attending the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference to gather data for articles for Ad Astra magazine and settings for new science fiction stories. Contact me to schedule an interview or meet-up.

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. I’m presenting “Mission Control: Solving Problems in Realtime.” Free, open to the public.

Saturday, May 6, 10 AM to 4 PM, Southwestern Presbyterian Church in Bellaire. Morning session: Write a Short Story in a Day. Afternoon session: How to Publish a Book. Cost is $30/$35 for either session or $50/$60 for both for members/nonmembers of Houston Writers House.

Mars Needs Moms

I had the privilege of speaking to the brilliant and amazing women at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Rice University January 14. Photo by Rice Professor Marj Corcoran who sadly died in a bike/train accident Feb. 3.

Marianne Dyson February 2017

Space enthusiasts imagine Martian moms and dads happily raising families on the Red Planet. This dream future will not happen if something about the trip to Mars or the environment on Mars causes adults to become infertile or children conceived or born on Mars to have serious birth defects.

Though there is currently no reason to expect such a dire outcome, maybe we ought to reassure ourselves of a bright future in space by flying more women. Not surprisingly, this is the top recommendation that came out of a study conducted by NASA and the National Science Biomedical Research Institute, “The Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space: A NASA Decadal Review,” which was published in November 2014.

Key differences between men and women in space. Image from Journal of Women’s Health, Vol. 23, #11, 2014. © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Page 943.

Flying more women might reduce cost (because women weigh less and require fewer supplies), but even implementing that recommendation is bound to encounter political barriers. Let’s start with astronaut selection. To make up for decades of hiring 20 percent women, NASA increased the last selection to 50/50. But even so, those 4 women are only 4 of 14 available for flight assignments versus 30 men. NASA spent a lot of money training those guys: should they be forced off flight status to make room for more women? Should an “only-fly-once” policy apply to men from now on?

Since the shuttle retired, six women have flown to the station: an average of one per year. (And usually only ONE woman isolated with five guys for six months: I’d like to see how ONE man handles that stress!)

So if this rate continues, we might get 12 new data points before we select the first human crew for Mars.

Will our international partners fly more women? Not in the near future. Currently, the Russians have one woman and 33 men on their roster. The Japanese have seven men, the Canadians two men, and the Europeans have one woman out of 13 astronauts. Combined with the U.S., the total available talent pool is then 98 men and 16 women. The Chinese have flown two women, but their current roster is all male.

Will the commercial sector fly some women? The new crew capsules are scheduled for first test flights at the end of 2018, so the first commercial flights aren’t likely until the 2020s. The pilots are likely to be all male because they will probably follow NASA’s lead on requiring flight test/jet experience and/or use retired astronaut pilots—all but two of them male. As for the passengers, unfortunately, the price is likely to be sky high and there are few female billionaires. Let’s hope that whatever women do fly, someone signs them up to be medical test subjects!

What can space settlement advocates do about this situation? At the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics last month, I suggested that if women want to be part of settling Mars, they need to let their politicians know that space research is important to them, and then be the ones to propose and do that research, find sponsors to fund the research, participate as subjects, and get ready to be the mothers of those first beautiful baby Martians. Because Mars Needs Moms!

Writing about Space

Inspire some future Martian scientists with a copy of The Callahan Kids: Tales of Life on Mars or Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet.

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

March 19-23. Got some exciting new research to share? I’m attending the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference to gather data for articles for Ad Astra magazine and settings for new science fiction stories. Contact me to schedule an interview or meetup (best days Sunday/Tuesday).

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. “Mission Control: Solving Problems in Realtime.” Free, open to the public.

New Year’s in Space & Time

Marianne Dyson January 2017

When does the new year begin? It depends on where you live! When my grandfather’s clock rang in the new year in Houston, it was already 7 PM on January 1 for folks in New Zealand while friends in Hawaii still had four hours to wait.

The space station crew use universal time, so their new year began when it was midnight in Greenwich, England (and 6 PM the day before in Houston). They celebrated by decorating cookies, taking photos of Earth, and sending a video greeting. [Ref. Space.com]

How might lunar pioneers ring in the new year? Will they sing Auld Lang Syne and drop a ball like they do in New York’s Time Square? If they want to use their family grandfather’s clock imported from Earth, they’ll have to adjust the pendulum to keep proper time in low lunar gravity. (My son the engineer suggests adding a tension spring.) Maybe they will just celebrate the new year “live” (actually 1.28 seconds time lagged) while they sip champagne and discuss how the bubbles are bigger and rise more slowly than on Earth?

If they are Chinese, they may postpone the celebration to the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This year that falls on Saturday, January 28. [Ref. TimeandDate.com] They will likely wish friends 新年快樂 (xin nian kuai le) which is literally, new year happy and offer them red envelopes of “luck” money. They’d need fireworks with their own oxygen source since there’s no air on the Moon, or maybe they’d just go with red lanterns for safety reasons. They might also beat drums (indoors where you could hear them!) and perform dragon and lion dances which would be very cool in low gravity!

Red Dragon Eggs on Mars?

The new year on Mars begins at the vernal (spring) equinox when the Sun crosses its equatorial plane going north—making the day and night of equal lengths. Because Mars year 1 was (arbitrarily) set on April 11, 1955, and a year on Mars is 669 sols (each 24 hr. and 37 min.), it is currently Year 33 on Mars. Year 34 (Sol 1, Month 1) begins when it is May 5, 2017 on Earth. [Ref. Planetary Society.]

What might Martians do to celebrate their new year? Fireworks would have to be rocket-based like on the Moon because the atmosphere of Mars lacks oxygen for burning. Dropping a ball would also have to be adjusted for the lower gravity. Red dragons would be appropriate on Mars—especially if Elon Musk is there since he has named his Mars spacecraft the Red Dragon! But because the new year coincides with the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, perhaps New Year’s celebrations will adopt some of the trappings of spring festivals on Earth?

I therefore suggest a red “Easter” egg hunt with coins or candy inside “dragon” eggs. Red eggs would celebrate new life (and good fortune) on the “lucky” red planet. Instead of being delivered by a rabbit, the eggs might be hidden by The Great Martian Galactic Ghoul! (The Galactic Ghoul subsists on a diet of Mars probes. The phrase was coined by Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff in 1997.) What might the Ghoul look like?

However, wherever, or whenever you celebrate the start of a new year, may it be a happy one for you!

Writing about Space

My article, “Reducing the Risk of Long Duration Spaceflight,” which appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Ad Astra magazine, is now available free online. I have an article on Terraforming Mars in the upcoming spring issue of the magazine published by the National Space Society.

My latest science fiction novelette, Europa’s Survivors, will be in the March-April 2017 issue of Analog. Get your subscription (bimonthly print or eBook) now so you won’t miss it!

Speaking about Space

Watch my website Contact Page for appearance updates & Twitter for photos.

Saturday, January 14, speaking at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Rice University.

Thursday, January 26. “The Business of Writing.” 7 pm. Bay Area Writers League. Clear Lake Park (5001 NASA Road One, Seabrook). Free and open to the public.

Tuesday, January 31. 7 PM. Attending (and volunteer for) Exploration Green Open House meeting. Clear Lake United Methodist Church. Free and open to the public. Come and learn about this amazing nonprofit project to convert our old golf course into a beautiful park.