The Sun Has Spots

Marianne Dyson, November 2017

Did you know that the sun rotates on its axis about once a month? Since all sides of the sun look essentially the same, how can scientists tell how fast it goes around? The sun has spots! These spots act as markers for what part of the sun is facing Earth. By tracking their motion, scientists can clock the rate of motion of the surface.

Sunspots seen during eclipse August 21, 2017.
A group of sunspots appear near the center of the Sun in this photo taken during the eclipse on August 21. These spots first appeared on the edge of the Sun on August 14. © Marianne Dyson, 2017.

Back in 1610, Galileo was the first to notice spots moving across the Sun. But some people didn’t believe him. They said the spots were planets crossing between the Earth and Sun, casting shadows like Mercury and Venus. Galileo explained that the spots changed shape and sometimes appeared and disappeared, unlike the known planets.

Galileo also noted that the speed at which the spots crossed from the “left” side to the “right” side of the Sun was not constant. It usually takes about 11 days for a spot to make a crossing. (Because the sun is not a solid, the high latitudes take 36 days and the equatorial region takes 25 days for a full rotation.) Spots near the edge appear to move faster than when they are moving across the middle third of the disk. This effect is called foreshortening. A spot coming around the limb of a sphere is moving towards the viewer even though the disk appears flat from a distance. So it appears to be moving faster than when it is crossing the middle of the disk.

You too can prove the sun rotates by tracking sunspots. But please be careful! Never ever look directly at the sun, and especially not with binoculars or a telescope that isn’t covered by a special filter. As Galileo sadly discovered, looking at the Sun for just a few minutes can cause permanent blindness.

I safely observed sunspots during the August solar eclipse by mounting my 70mm binoculars on a tripod and viewing the image on a white mat placed on the driveway below. Photo © Marianne Dyson, 2017.

If you don’t see any spots, there might not be any. The number of spots varies over a 11-12-year solar cycle. The minimum number of spots is expected in 2019 or 2020. During solar minimum, the spots are closer to the equator and generally smaller that during maximum years.

NASA’s “The Sun Now” shows the state of the Sun every day. The images can be printed out and used to plot the progress of sunspots across the disk of the Sun. (I recommend dividing the diameter into at least six equal sections and drawing vertical lines. Then write the time it took the center of the spot to move from one line to the next to see foreshortening for yourself.)

Galileo proved through observations that the Sun has spots and rotates. Scientists now know that sunspots are areas where the magnetic fields are about a thousand times stronger than other areas. The magnetic fields cause the plasma to “bunch up,” and, to keep the pressure constant (T is lower since PV=nRT), cool off compared to surrounding areas. (Spots are 4000 versus 6000 degrees K.) These cooler areas appear as dark spots to human eyes, though I hope thinking about them has “brightened” your day!

Writing about Space

As my Twitter followers and Facebook friends know, my house was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. We are slowly rebuilding the downstairs while “camping” in my upstairs office. We hope to have floors and bedrooms by Christmas, and a new improved kitchen by early in the New Year. We are very grateful to friends and neighbors who have helped us deal with this disaster. I also appreciate all of you who subscribe to my blog and buy copies of my books and eBooks for yourselves or as gifts for others. You have really lifted my spirits! Thank you!

And I’m happy to announce that the new book I’m coauthoring with Buzz Aldrin for National Geographic Kids now has a title: To the Moon and Back! This book is Buzz’s personal story of the historic first trip to the Moon, brought to you in 3-D pop-up format by the extraordinary paper engineering wizard, Bruce Foster. Expected release is the fall of 2018 in time for the 50th anniversary of the first manned Apollo flight.

Photo © Marianne Dyson, 2017
Me and Bruce Foster show early drafts of our text and art for To the Moon and Back at SCBWI Houston conference in October. Photo © Marianne Dyson, 2017

Speaking about Space

If you’d like me to visit your school or speak at your event in the spring or summer, please visit my website and send an email with program and schedule preferences for 2018.

December 5-7, 2017, I’m attending SpaceCom Expo at GRB in Houston. Will Buzz make a surprise appearance? I don’t know, but he did last year!

No Astronaut Gender Parity

Marianne Dyson July/August 2017

When NASA announced a new group of twelve astronauts in June, I was disappointed to hear that only five of the twelve candidates selected are female, and only one is black. I had expected NASA to select an equal number of men and women like they did in 2013. I even dared to hope they might boldly select MORE women than men and several blacks to compensate for there being twice as many men as women and only one black woman in the current astronaut corps.

L to R, back row: Jonny Kim (Doctor, CA), Warren Hoburg (MIT Professor, PA), Frank Rubio (Major US Army, FL), Kayla Barron (Lt. Navy, WA), Bob Hines (NASA Pilot, PA), Matthew Dominick (Lt. Cdr, Navy, CO), Raja Chari (Lt. Col. USAF, IA). Front row: Robb Kulin (SpaceX Engineer, AK), Zena Cardman (Research Fellow, VA), Jasmin Moghbeli (Major, Marines, NY), Jessica Watkins (Research Fellow, CO), Loral O’Hara (Engineer, TX). Photo Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

With 18,353 applicants to choose from, it is simply not believable that they couldn’t find an equal number of men and women who meet their qualifications. Oddly, I didn’t hear a single news media outlet mention or question this lack of gender parity even though the 50/50 male/female astronaut selection was widely lauded and made headlines in 2013.

The lack of gender parity in the 2017 astronaut selection thus feels like a step backwards at a time when we are finally making plans to venture beyond Earth orbit. It seems these new female astronauts are destined to be isolated for six months on the International Space Station with two to five men (at least two of them Russian) or assigned as the sole female on a test flight of Orion. (And NASA wonders why more women don’t apply?!)

Speaking from my own experience as one of a handful of women in Mission Control in the 1980s, these women will not be in a position to complain about any awkward social or operational issues that arise. If they do, they will be labeled “weak” for not handling the stress or “ungrateful” for their “opportunity.” If any of them are asked in a public forum if it was stressful to be the only woman on the team, they are sure to say that it was not a problem. Neither is having a baby. That doesn’t make it easy.

Actions speak louder than words. The lack of gender parity in NASA’s selection sends the same message we heard in the Super Bowl ad where the dad watches his daughter compete in a cart race:

What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma? That her dad is worth more than her mom? Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?”

The daughter wins the race, and the father hopes for a future where he will be able to tell her something different. Me, too. But if we continue to select fewer women than men and send crews with a token woman on each mission, we’re not only extending gender bias into space, we are forfeiting any right to criticize the Russians or Chinese, who currently have no women on their space rosters, when or if they exclude women from future space jobs or settlements.

At least the Canadians followed gender parity and selected one man (Joshua Kutryk) and one woman (Jennifer Sidey) for their new astronaut class of 2017. The Russians are going to announce their selections at the end of this year. A society known for its chauvinistic ways is not likely to select many, if any, women as cosmonauts.

So, to assure our daughters that they have an equal opportunity to contribute to humanity’s future in space, I suggest that NASA select an all-female astronaut class for 2019. This would serve to balance out the astronaut corps and maybe even turn our space habitats from ugly man caves cluttered with wire bundles into places to call home.

Writing about Space

Read what it was like to be the only woman on a flight control team during STS-4: autographed copies of my shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space, are available for $32 plus tax and shipping.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to encourage some young women to consider STEM careers by sharing my space stories with them! Invite me to speak to your school/university, conference, or library. I’m offering a 20 percent discount for any author visits to Houston area schools or events scheduled in October (International Space Week is October 4-10). I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. For programs and prices, visit: Dyson Author Visits.

Kobayashi Maru, a.k.a. the Loss of Space Shuttle Cooling

Marianne Dyson, June 2017

As a young flight controller, I was assigned to write the crew procedures for what to do if the space shuttle’s cooling system failed. A total loss of cooling was considered a “basket case,” as in the expression, “going to hell in a handbasket” because the space shuttle required electricity to land safely. The fuel cells that provided electricity would overheat and fail within 10 minutes without active cooling by the shuttle’s two Freon loops.

In a cartoon included with a review of my memoir, A Passion for Space, artist Dale DeBakscy aptly compares the loss of two Freon loops case with a famous Star Trek no-win training exercise named after a ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that can’t be rescued without causing the rescuers to be destroyed by the Klingons. The exercise is supposed to reveal a cadet’s decision-making process. Cadet Kirk is the first to beat the simulation, but he does it by cheating: reprogramming the Klingon ships so they lose their protective shields. [See Kobayashi Maru scenario.]

Cartoon created by Dale DeBakscy for Scheduling for Success, Preparing for Disaster. WomenYouShouldKnow, May 31, 2017. Used with permission.

Back in the real world, the Loss of 2 Freon Loops certainly provided a good training experience in real-time decision-making for flight controllers. Our top priority, similar to the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru, was to bring the crew home safely.

The first time the training team threw this failure at the STS-1 Ascent Team, we crashed and burned. It was a humbling experience that led to much discussion of actions that offered a better outcome.

Time was our equivalent to the Klingon war birds. We had to work fast or be destroyed.

An analysis indicated we could use a maintenance procedure called a purge, designed to clear contaminant buildup, to help remove heat from the fuel cells. This bought us 30 to 60 minutes if we could get the power load down to 8 kW within 10 minutes.

My fellow flight controller Carolynn Conley created a power down list, and I redid the entry procedures assuming all that equipment was turned off. We then ran a simulation with the STS-1 crew, John Young and Robert Crippen. We crashed. Three times. We needed a faster way to get the power level down. The crew suggested we use pictures of the cockpit panels showing the switches to be turned off rather than listing them in a checklist. This saved a lot of time. Also, we discovered that if we put the switches into the right position for launch, the ground could send commands to start the fuel cell purge and help shut things down. The crew didn’t have to get out of their seats, a real chore during ascent.

John Young and Robert Crippen

John Young and Robert Crippen in the simulator in 1980. The displays are black, meaning the simulator has crashed. Bob says, “Well, John, it’s the ole Loss of 2 Freon Loops.” (NASA photo)

But we still crashed. So just like Kirk, we had to cheat! We programmed one of the temperature values to stay low (like the analysis said it would) so we’d have power long enough to verify it really was the temperature that was causing the crashes and not something wrong with the procedures. Imagine how awful it would have been if Kirk had used his trick to dispatch the Klingons and then run out of fuel before he could rescue the Kobayashi Maru!

We didn’t uncover any issues with our plans. We put them in a checklist onboard for STS-1, and they stayed part of the flight data file all the way through STS-135.

Could a crew have survived the Loss of 2 Freon Loops, or was it as hopeless as rescuing the Kobayashi Maru? You can read my answer in a science fiction story called “Fireworks in Orbit.” It was published in Analog in 1990 and is included in my collection Fly Me to the Moon (see below for special offer!). Was there a way to beat the Kobayashi sim without cheating? I have no doubt a team of flight controllers could do it. After all, failure is not an option!

Writing about Space

ONE WEEK ONLY! Saturday June 3 to Saturday June 10, my science fiction eBook Fly Me to the Moon is only 99 cents on Amazon. If you prefer a print copy, order from CreateSpace and get 10 percent off the normal price of $8.99 by using this coupon code: FHKGHV2K (posted on my website Book Orders page). Autographed copies are available through my website for $8 plus tax and shipping.

Autographed copies of my shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space, are available for $32 plus tax and shipping.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share my space stories with you! Invite me to speak to your school/university, conference, or library. I’m offering a 20 percent discount for any author visits to Houston area schools or events scheduled in October (international Space Week is October 4-10). I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. For programs and prices, visit: Dyson Author Visits.

Mission Control: Unsung Heroes

Marianne Dyson, May 2017

I saw the premier of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo at Space Center Houston on April 11. The documentary tells the story of the Apollo years (1967-72) through the eyes of the flight controllers in Houston’s historic Mission Control. Based on the book, Go Flight! by Rick Houston and former Flight Director Milt Heflin, the movie consists of interviews with flight directors, controllers, and astronauts interspersed with audio and video footage from the Apollo missions. Chief among those interviewed was the man who invented Mission Control and whose name adorns the side of the building where it is housed: 92-year-old Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.

When I joined NASA in 1979, Dr. Kraft was the Director of Johnson Space Center. Many of the Apollo veterans he trained were actively involved in the Shuttle Program (which first flew in 1981). It was my privilege to train under their guidance. They set a high bar for us newcomers who were expected to learn our systems inside and out (what’s the minimum electricity needed?), to identify potential failures (what would a lightning strike do?), to decide ahead of time the criteria we’d use to abort (what alarms are “go/no go”?), and to respond to unexpected challenges with Flight Director Gene Kranz’s “failure is not an option” attitude. As Courtney McMillan, a present-day flight director says in the documentary, “We wouldn’t be here today without the achievements these folks made.”

L to R: Movie Director David Fairhead, and Apollo Flight Directors Chris Kraft, Jr., Glynn Lunney, Milt Windler, Gerry Griffin, and Gene Kranz at the premier of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Photo by Marianne Dyson at Space Center Houston, 4-11-17.

Even though it was fun to see all our “founding fathers” and hear their stories again, and it was nice that McMillan and Flight Director Ginger Kerrick were included in the show, I found myself wishing they’d included some interviews with the women who worked in Mission Control during Apollo.

I sat next to one of these trailblazing women, Flora Lowes, who supported the Flight Dynamics Officer during Apollo and the early Space Shuttle Program (as “Nav” for Navigation). I could not find her on the Apollo rosters, perhaps because she was in the Mission Planning and Analysis Directorate (MPAD) versus Flight Operations who published the list. I did find Frances M. “Poppy” Northcutt who worked for TRW as RETRO Support for Apollo 8 (and 10, 11, 12, and 13) and who is generally considered the first female flight controller.

However, she never advanced to the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR, pronounced “moh-cur”), the “front room” seen on TV. The first woman in one of those primary positions was Dr. Carolyn Huntoon who served as Experiments on Skylab IV in 1974. (See my list of the first female flight controllers.)

These women proved themselves as flight controllers, thus opening the door for more women, like me, to be considered for MOCR positions during the Shuttle era. And like the two young women I met after the show who are in training to be Flight Dynamics Officers (FDO, pronounced “fi-doh”) for Orion. They said their supervisor is a woman, and there are women in their chain of command all the way up to the Center Director Ellen Ochoa.

They asked Apollo FDO Jerry Bostick (who appears in the film) if he had any advice for them. He told the story of how he and two other men, who had more experience and better credentials than he had, were at the Cape in the early 60s vying to be hired as flight controllers. Kraft tested their mettle during a simulation where everything went wrong. Afterwards, during the debriefing, Jerry admitted he had screwed up big time while the other candidates tried to gloss over their mistakes as not important. “Kraft sent those guys packing,” Jerry said. Kraft wanted someone willing to take responsibility for his mistakes. So his advice for the new FDOs? “Be honest.”

As astronauts continue their explorations in space, and passengers join in the adventure, they can rest easier knowing that a team of bright young people like the new FDOs are in Mission Control watching over them. Thanks to this movie, perhaps some of these “unsung heroes” will finally get the recognition they deserve.

The International Women in Aviation & Space Museum has issued a set of playing cards featuring women in aerospace, and I’m honored to be the Ace of clubs! Decks are only $10, but order cards soon because they only printed 1000 and will sell out quickly! All sales go to support this fine museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Writing about Space

Learn more about what it was like to be one of the first female flight controllers in A Passion for Space: Adventures of a Pioneering Female NASA Flight Controller.

Read a science fiction story “Fireworks in Orbit,” based on one of the contingency cases I created as a flight controller. The story was originally published in Analog in 1990, and is reprinted in my collection called Fly Me to the Moon available in print or as an eBook.

Watch for three of my articles about future plans for the Moon in the summer 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.

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

Saturday, May 13. Comicpalooza at George Brown Convention Center, Houston. Moderating Literary Track panel on Creative Collaborations from 2:30-3:30 & signing books at the Barnes & Noble booth in the exhibit room 4-4:45 PM.

Thursday, June 8. All day. STEM activities/demonstrations & book signing. CCISD “Setting the Trend” librarians conference at Victory Lake Intermediate School in League City.

The First Woman on the Moon

Marianne Dyson, April 2017

Russia is selecting six to eight new cosmonauts this year. The March 14 Roscosmos press release said, “They will be the first pilots of Russia’s future spacecraft Federatsiya (“Federation”). All will be trained under the International Space Program and will be the first Russians to fly to the Moon.”

Will one of these new recruits be the first woman on the Moon?

The Russians proudly claimed the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in June of 1963), the first female spacewalker (Svetlana Savitskaya in August 1982), and the first woman to make a long duration flight (Elena Kondakova in 1994). They have only flown one other woman to date, Yelena Serova (on Expeditions 41/42 from September 2014 to March 2015) who is not expected to fly again. There are currently no female cosmonauts.

But if the new cosmonaut class has women, it may signal Russia’s intent to lay claim to the first woman to fly by the Moon and land on it. Given funding constraints, analysts predict a flyby (in their Federation) no sooner than 2023, with a human landing (using their PTK-L) no sooner than 2030.

NASA has 14 female astronauts and will (supposedly) choose more this summer. Orion on top of the new SLS booster is scheduled for a crewed circumlunar test flight (EM-2) in 2021 which might be moved up to 2019 on EM-1. But to land an American woman on the Moon, NASA would need to fund and develop a new vehicle, such as the Altair lunar lander cancelled in 2010.

Artist’s rendering of Altair lunar lander on the surface of the Moon. (NASA image JSC2007-E-113280 Dec. 2007)

Perhaps ESA could help? They are already providing the service module for Orion. In 2016 they unveiled a vision for an international collaboration to build a Moon Village by 2030 using huge 3D printers. To realize this vision, they need partners. If not NASA or Roscosmos, maybe they will work with SpaceX?

Elon Musk announced that two people have reserved a SpaceX flight around the Moon in 2018 using his Falcon 9 heavy and Dragon capsule. The gender of the SpaceX clients is unknown. Could one of them be the first woman to reach the Moon? SpaceX plans to test a human-capable lander on Mars in 2018. Could it be adapted for the Moon in time to celebrate the Apollo 11 60th anniversary in 2029?

The Chinese have flown six human spaceflights (11 taikonauts, 2 women) starting in 2003, and plan a permanently staffed space station in 2022. They have mapped the Moon with orbiters and landed a rover on the surface that hibernated through 32 lunar nights using plutonium heaters. Chang’E-5 (named after the Chinese Moon goddess) is scheduled to launch in late 2017 and return the first lunar sample since the Russian Luna 24 in 1976. Their official news agency announced a goal of landing humans on the Moon between 2031 and 2036. Thanks to stable multi-year funding and political support, the Chinese have met all their official milestones and are just as likely to meet this one.

So who will be the first woman to walk on another world? Will we call her First Woman like we call Neil Armstrong First Man? What will her first words be and in what language?

Regardless of where she is from or what she says, I know what my response will be: “It’s about time!”

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.

Wednesday, April 12. 6-10 PM. Yuri’s Night & STS-1 Anniversary Party hosted by Clear Lake Area National Space Society & Moon Society. Held at the “party palace” (a member’s home) in Nassau Bay. To RSVP & get directions, email to info@nss-houston-moon.org. Donations for food & beverages appreciated.

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. Presenting “A Passion for Space.” Free, open to the public. Books will be offered for sale afterwards.

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

Saturday, May 13. Comicpalooza at George Brown Convention Center, Houston. Moderating Literary Track panel on Creative Collaborations from 2:30-3:30 & signing books at the Barnes & Noble booth in the exhibit room 4-4:45 PM.

Writing about Space

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.

Black Women 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.