Friday, February 18, 2011


I arrived in Strasbourg at about 6:30pm on Monday evening, walked to hotel and checked in – everything went really smoothly!

I was planning to have a Valentine’s dinner on my own at some little French restaurant. I walked all over Strasbourg, and tried to go to three different restaurants that had been recommended to me, but they were all full. I eventually ended up at Les brasseurs, which is the place with tarte flambée and home-brewed beer. It wasn’t quite the quiet dinner I had expected, but it was fun. I ordered the 3 fromage tarte flambee – it really had a lot of cheese, so it’s probably a good thing I had that long walk!

I chatted with the guys sitting next to me who were archeologists from Luxembourg. Did you know that they speak Luxembourgish in Luxembourg? (When they told me that, half of me was sure that they were kidding, and the other half was guilty for not already knowing the language existed.) We started chatting because they were trying to think of a name and couldn’t think of it – they said it was a “famous crime writer… mystery writer… she’s old… she also wrote Miss Marple or something…” I did eventually come up with the name (answer at the end of this post).

After that it was just back to the hotel to relax.

Tuesday was the first day of the conference. It was a really early morning for me – I was having breakfast in the lobby by 7:15am. I met up with Colleen Hartman – one of the professors from the Space Policy Institute in DC, and we also ran into Gale Allen, who works at NASA HQ and was my boss’s boss the first time I interned at NASA. I told them about the idea for my presentation, and they seemed to think it was really interesting, so that’s encouraging. (Gale even asked me to send her the slides, since she wouldn’t be there the day I present.)

The presentations at the conference were pretty interesting. There were quite a few about the type of research that’s currently being done on the Space Station, and about what’s possible for the future. There was a really interesting presentation by Lockheed Martin about the Orion crew capsule that they’re building – it’s been the source of a fair amount of political discussion in the context of the NASA budget, so it was interesting to hear their perspective. There was also a really good presentation about the possibility of putting a human centrifuge on the ISS. A human centrifuge allows you to create artificial gravity, and could be used to allow astronauts to do exercises and things and possibly prevent the bone and muscle loss which occurs when in space.

After the main program of presentations was over, there was a poster session and reception. The receptions at ISU are always very nice – fun hors d’ourves and champagne. I read through some of the posters, and chatted with Megan, who is also from DC. I also chatted with a VP from Lockheed Martin, and with a Canadian and German astronaut – so it was an interesting evening.

From the reception, Megan and I went downtown with her friend. We went to a houseboat that had been turned into a bar and had a few beers. It was a fun night!

On Wednesday, I did a bit of work in the morning, and also went on a little walk around Strasbourg. It’s a really cute town, so there is a lot of pretty architecture to see.

We also stopped in at a really cute little café called La Epicerie and had coffee and tea and a tartine au brie (bread with brie and honey and nuts).

Then it was back to the conference for another set of presentations. After the presentations there was a concert and dinner planned. Megan, who was the main person I knew, wasn’t going, so I was a bit on my own. But then I ran into Romain – he’s a French guy studying to be a space lawyer. He had actually worked at the Space Policy Institute in DC for five weeks this past summer – I only met him once, about three days before he went back to France. It is pretty crazy sometimes what a small world it is – especially within the global space community.

The concert was at the Eglise Saint Thomas – a very old church in the Petit France area of Strasbourg. It has an organ that is famous because Mozart played it and said it was the best in the city. The music was really good, and lasted about 45 minutes. (I wish I had learned an instrument, because I think I would appreciate classical music more, but instead it always reminds me of music you turn on in the background while you’re doing other things.)

From there the whole group walked to restaurant a l’Ancienne Douane for a dinner of traditional Alsatian cuisine. We started with tarte flambee, then had smoked salmon. The main course was fish and cabbage, and dessert was cinnamon icecream and pears. (At least the someone told me it was pears – but they were small and in red sauce, so I’m still a bit skeptical.)

Dinner was fun – I sat next to Romain and across from a guy from the Netherlands Space Office that had done the ISU Executive MBA with one of my co-workers. I was also sitting by a guy named Pedro that had gotten his undergraduate degree in engineering, focusing on propulsion, and was now getting a masters at ISU. I’m really interested in space propulsion, so I asked him if he could explain to me how the various engines work (basically), and we had an awesome conversation about all the different forms of in-space propulsion (electric/VASMIR, ion, nuclear, chemical).

So to explain a bit – there are two reasons I think the conversation about propulsion technologies was awesome. First, new propulsion technologies could really change everything about space exploration. If we could all-of-sudden get to Mars in three days instead of two years, that would completely change the equation. The options for what we could do and the timelines of when we could do them would be radically different.

The other reason it was a really cool conversation is because it was one of the times that I really felt like my engineering background was really useful even though I’m doing space policy. I think space propulsion is one of those things that people always voice an opinion on, but I’m always really wary of whether they know what they’re talking about. And so it’s really helpful to actually understand basically how each of the types of technology is supposed to work, to better understand what’s possible and which arguments for and against developing the technology make the most sense. Even though I felt a bit bad that some of the other people at the table weren’t very interested in the conversation, it was really fun to talk about the science behind the engines – it’s been a while since I was discussing atoms and electrons, magnetic fields, ionization, and all of that.

On Thursday morning I was the first person to present (after the invited speaker and the moderator of our panel). I think it went really well! Presenting at the ISU conference can be a little intimidating, because many of the experts in the field come – people who work on the International Space Station every day and know everything about it. But I thought my presentation was pretty unique – I made the argument that ever since the ISS program was announced in1984, there had been many political debates and milestones, and each time the same seven arguments were given. I showed quotes from primary documents – political reports, newspaper articles, etc. to back up this claim. I felt really comfortable during my talk, so I didn’t talk too quickly, which is my main problem when I’m nervous. I took a few questions afterwards, and that went really well also – nothing too difficult, and I had answers to give. Afterwards a bunch of people said that I did a good job, that it was very engaging, and that they had never seen that data presented before. I had representatives from program partners ask me about specific slides and data. So I felt really good afterwards!

After all the talks in the session were given, they bring up all the speakers and have a forty minute panel session to ask questions to the speakers. That went well, too, and I answered a few more questions, though they were more general than the ones immediately after my paper. It’s pretty cool to be on a panel and asked to give your personal impression on various ideas and events – Part of me feels surprised that a whole room full of people really wants to know what I think about the budget or the current policy situation, or things like that, though I guess I do learn about and discuss these things every day for work.

We had a nice lunch of Alsatian food and then an afternoon of presentations. I had been planning to stay in Strasbourg on Thursday night, but I decided that it made more sense to go to Frankfurt right away, rather than waiting for the morning. Most people from the conference weren’t staying in town, and why explore Strasbourg on my own instead of hanging out with a good friend I almost never get to see? It actually worked out really well, because Megan and her boyfriend were staying the night in Strasbourg, but hadn’t been able to find a hotel in the city – so they just took over my room.

I got to the train station, bought a ticket, and made my way to Frankfurt – I’m feeling very happy with my ability to get around Europe on my own.

Oh, and that famous mystery writer from the first night? Agatha Christie.


Drew said...

Wow, good job Mariel! That looks like a lot of fun.

Mariel said...

Thanks, Drew!