Saturday, April 4, 2009

National Space Symposium

I just got back from a week at Space Foundation's 25th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO. It was a great experience - I had the opportunity to watch a lot of very interesting panels and speakers and meet a lot of interesting people.

I'm going to write other entries about the actual content of the symposium, but I thought I'd have one blog entry about the fun side-events and highlights.

Opening ceremonies was awesome! There was an orchestra, which played mostly space music - Star Trek and Star Wars theme songs, among other things. Behind the orchestra, on a giant screen, they played video of space highlights - photos and video from actual missions throughout history, news paper clips of space achievements, and computer-generated vidoes of future plans. I really think space is the industry with the most cool and inspirational media in the world. Who can't be amazed by the hubble photos of the galaxy? How can you not feel that the moon landing was an incredible event for all of mankind? I could have watched those videos all night. Also, as an appointed confetti-cannon-operator, I got to watch the whole thing from the catwalk and had an amazing view!

Another cool aspect of opening ceremonies was that they awarded the "Space Achievement Award" to China's Shenzhou 7 Manned Space Flight Team. The China delegation that accepted the award included Dr. Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the China Manned Space Program, and Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang. (A Taikonaut is a Chinese Astronaut, kind of like how Russia calls their astronauts Cosmonauts.) Also, Zhai was the taikonaut that carried out the space walk during the mission!

I was extra lucky, because at the reception after the opening ceremonies, I had the chance to meet the Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang. He was really nice, though he didn't speak English. I used my one Chinese phrase to say, "Hi, my name is Mariel." (Thanks to Janet for teaching it to me about six years ago on a Chinatown bus trip to NYC.) Some colleagues said later that the Chinese delegation was really impressed with how friendly and supportive everyone at the conference was. Among national space activities, there is often a lot of competition, and relations between the United States and China have not always gone smoothly, so this was a great thing to see.

On each evening of the conference there was an event to give people the opportunity to meet each other and talk (and with 7,500 attendees, you don't ever run out of people to meet). Wednesday night was "hospitality night," where companies host parties with nice food, drinks, and usually some give-aways. One of the funniest was run by Harris, which had a super-hero themed party and gave away boas and light-up glasses. Wednesday night also included fireworks, which were incredible over the backdrop of the mountain and the freshly fallen snow (we had a blizzard that afternoon).

The final evening of the conference there was a dinner, with Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) as a speaker. I've watched hours and hours of his show, ever since I was pretty little - I even remember our teaching playing it during class in Middle School (At John Glenn Middle School, actually - I was destined for space even then). In fact, my sister and I can both still sing the theme song from memory. Anway, while I was finishing up my notes from the day, Bill Nye was in the auditorium getting the AV set up for this speech. It was so odd to hear such a familiar voice (hours and hours of watching his show, I'm telling you) and look up to see him right there. He was talking to Neil DeGrasse Tyson (arguably the most famous astrophysicist in the world - the guy responsible for making Pluto not a planet, he's been on The Daily Show, Latenight, and lots of other things). I have met Neil before, and he's very friendly, so I worked up the courage to take this chance to go say hi and get a picture. It was pretty awesome - if only my middle school teacher could see me now!

Bill Nye's speech on the last day was really entertaining. He talked a lot about climate change, showing pictures and talking about scientific trends. He made a couple points that I thought were interesting. He noted that fixing the environment wasn't just something he wanted to do because it was nice, it was something he wanted to do for himself, to make sure he could continue to live here comforably - he argued that people can't just think of it as a altruistic activity, but rather as something fueled by self interest. He also argued that people have been put off by environmental groups telling them to "do less" - drive your car less, use electricity less, etc. He said this was impractical - instead we need to develop technologies to "do more with less." We can't continue with business as usual, but we can't just stop doing things. He talked about green technologies, like solar and wind. He acknowledged that these need to get less costly and more efficient, but argued that that shouldn't stop people from adopting them now. "Why do you re-model your kitchen?" he asked, "Because it's cost-effective? No! Because it's cool!" His house runs on solar energy, and he said he gets a lot of satisfaction out of watching his energy meter run backwards all day.

He talked about future technologies that will help us advance. For example, he talked about the promise of carbon nano tubes, which will be light and strong and cheap. Eventually everything could be made out of carbon. In thirty years, kids would ask, "Did you really use to drink out of cups made of stone?" And we'll say, "Yes, and we had to lift them over and over, it was practically impossible!"

Overall, his speech was interesting and entertaining. He was funny, and it was cool to see him present live. I had a great time at the 25th National Space Symposium - hopefully I'll get the chance to see the 26th!

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