Out of this World Constellation Cookies

All Images courtesy of Bridget Edwards

Occasionally I like to think that I can channel Martha Stewart or Delia Smith. It usually ends up with me in a very sticky situation, proclaiming a few choice words over something resembling food. I have tried and failed several times to create Cake Pops, and the closest I have ever come to domestic goddess status was making a rainbow layered cake for my son’s first birthday.

For quite some time now I have been eyeing up the cookies at Bakeat350 by the delightful Bridget Edwards. I purchased some of the equipment in 2010, some more in 2011, and her book Decorating Cookies in 2012. I have actually attempted to flood and fill cookies on several occasions. I have had moderate success, though I still cannot get the consistency done well enough to have the icing set properly. One of my favorite cookies of hers from over the years is her constellation cookies. When she posted these cookies, I was blown away. They look so simple that I think I may be able to do a half decent job with these, if only I can solve my consistency problem!

I love having her book at my side. Bridget gives a step-by-step guide to her methods, and pretty much covers anything the novice cookie fiend could get wrong. Her photography is excellent and leaves you wanting for nothing. On her website, she links to other “how-to” posts for further assistance.

For this particular cookie, I love that she stayed true to the actual constellations. By using a push pin and a print out of each constellation, she is able to give complete accuracy to these constellation cookies. For a space-themed birthday party, a meteor shower, or a NASA event, these are an absolute must.

Take a look around her site and you will soon find other geeky delicacies such as Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, and holy cookies Batman. She even provided a gift basket of cookies to fellow Texan, Jim Parsons. Next up, I’d like to see some more state cookies with some geographical markings for my map-obsessed family. The Texas ones she made for Jim were wonderful.

Live the Astronaut Life: To Infinity and Beyond at ATX Space Camp!

Because space! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Because space! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Over the past year, my son has really gotten into space science. Since we live in Florida, there’s no better place to learn about the wonders of space and space travel than the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Port Canaveral. Thanks to an invitation to the Astronaut Training Experience, my entire family was able to live the astronaut life for a day.

The Astronaut Training Experience (or ATX as I’ll be referring to it in this post), is a half-day program that gives you a small taste of what it’s like to train like an astronaut and be a part of a real shuttle mission.

There are three ATX programs to choose from:

ATX Core—Ages 14 years old and up ($175.00 per person)
ATX Family—Ages 7 and up ($165.00 ages 7 to 11 and $175.00 ages 12 and up)
ATX Team—This is more suited for businesses and group outings (pricing varies)

When we arrived at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, where the training was to be held, we were greeted by one of the trainers and given our ATX mission shirt, hat, and badge. Once we changed into our new gear and put up our belongings in a locker, we were ready for mission training.

I know it was only a t-shirt, but it made us feel more like real trainees than just visitors.

My husband and son wasted no time hitting up the free snacks and sodas waiting for us on the training room floor. I decided to take a quick walk around and after seeing some of the simulators, decided water and an apple danish was the best option for my stomach.

Astronaut Sam Delance and the Sullivans \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Astronaut Sam Delance and the Sullivans \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

At 9 AM, we were taken into a training room for our pre-mission briefing with one of the trainers and Astronaut Sam Durrance. Hearing him talk about his experiences was far more interesting than I thought it was going to be.

Sam was a Payload Specialist and flew on three shuttle missions, including a mission piloted by one of the last remaining Apollo astronauts. He was responsible for helping build the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope and the Astro Observatory.

I found it interesting that it took him 12 years from starting his work on the telescope to boarding the shuttle for his mission.

During the question and answer part of the briefing, my son was curious about the same thing most 9-year-olds are curious about…”Is there WiFi on the space station?” The answer was, “Yes and no. We are never out of communication with the astronauts.” When he expressed why he wanted to know, Sam laughed and asked if he would rather be on his iPad or looking out the window? Of course, Brandon agreed that looking out the window would be pretty cool.

After our briefing, we had a short picture session with Sam and then our four families became two shuttle mission groups. We were put in Mission Delta with Mission Leader Rena and a family of four from the United Kingdom.

First Task—Orbiter Landing Simulation (30 minutes)

For our first task, we were taken into a very small room that reminded me of my first computer class in kindergarten. Stations were set up with two positions at each; one for the Commander and one for the Pilot.

Did you know positions

Image: Dakster Sullivan

This was a challenging and fun way to get our feet wet. This exercise was important because the person with the best score would be the Commander in the mission simulation later on.

Brandon was a bit joystick happy when it came to landing, but he still managed to get us down on the ground without crashing us into an alligator pit.

Once everyone had a chance to do the simulation a few times, it was on to tour our shuttle.

Second Task—Orbiter Tour (20 minutes)

The first thing you notice when walking into the training area is the massive replica of the orbiter in the middle of the room. The scale is very close to the real thing and we were able to go inside and explore. It reminded me of a very tiny playground. I can’t imagine living in such a confined space for days with other people.

This is where my anxiety with ladders and heights kicked in. I braved my fear and climbed inside the top area, which in my opinion is not meant for anyone with long legs.

Did you know heat

Image: Dakster Sullivan


Third Task—Mission Control Training (60 minutes)

My mission script. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

My mission script. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Our Mission control training was another experience that I found to be a really cool experience.

Before any training could begin though, we were assigned our roles in the most scientific way possible. We drew names out of a hat.

The Commander was the only position that our Mission Leader decided and it was based on who had the highest score in the simulator training.

In the family ATX program, the trainers like to have all the kids in the orbiter and the adults in Mission Control. My husband, being a kid at heart, was able to get a seat on the orbiter with our son as Mission Specialist 1 and 2. I was given the role of Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO, pronounced FIDO), which turned out to be more challenging than I originally thought it would be.

After each of us watched a brief 15-minute PowerPoint presentation about our jobs, we were taken to our workstations. The crew went into the orbiter and mission control specialists were taken to a mission control mock-up.

My role had a lot of reading on various screens with more numbers than I thought there would be. It was challenging to read my part in the script and get the numbers in a timely manner. Of all the mission control positions, I think I had the most reading and screen changing to do.

With our mission a complete success and everyone hyped up from the experience, we were ready to do some astronaut training simulations!

Fourth Task—Zero G training and dual seater Multi-Axis Trainer (45 minutes)

The first area up for training was the Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT). The MAT simulated what an out-of-control flight was like and helped to train the astronauts to regain control of the capsule, using the joystick attached to their seat. It was mostly used for the Mercury missions and proved to be a valuable tool for the astronauts.

Later, the original intent of the MAT was lost in translation: Some astronauts would treated it like a game and ride it over and over to see who would last the longest without throwing up. Once they got sick, they would get back on and try again.

The Zero G wall is a 50 foot high ladder-like structure with a pulley system. Before you are suited up, you are weighed so that your weight can be matched on the other end. With the weights balanced, you get the feeling of zero G.

Did you know Zero G

Image: Dakster Sullivan


The Zero G wall was Brandon’s first pick and I was happy to watch him go first before I jumped in.

At 3:51 in the video, my son loses his grip and as a result, laughter ensued.

After he got his feet wet, he asked to go again and this time he went so fast up and down, they had to tell him to slow down. Watching him zoom up and down reminded me how little fear he has.

Once he was done, I decided to overcome my fears so I could properly tell you all about it here (see how much I care about you?). Let me tell you, 50 feet doesn’t look so high up from the ground, but once you’re at the top, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Next up was the Multi-Axis Trainer. Instead of the single seater rig, we were allowed to climb into the dual seater version. In order to participate in this one, you had to be free of heart, back, neck, and any other conditions that would prevent you from riding a roller coaster.

Gosh golly gee whiz, that meant I couldn’t do this one due to medical reasons <dodged that bullet>. Instead, my husband and son were more than happy to do this one for me.

With everyone surviving their training, we moved on to the next and final task of our day.

Fifth Task—Rocket Design and Launching (20 minutes)

Our Mission Leader acknowledged that the activity was more for the younger children and my son’s enthusiasm proved that to be true. Even though it wasn’t as exciting as the mission control simulation or climbing the zero-g wall, it was an easy and relaxing part of the day.

The best part is that it’s easy for you to recreate at home.

Here’s what we did:

1.) Take a 1/2″ diameter wooden dowel and wrap a piece of paper around it.
2.) Tape the seam from top to bottom.
3.) Add up to four fins on the bottom of the rocket.
4.) Tape the top of the rocket shut, making sure cover every hole and crease.
5.) Slide out your wooden dowel and slip it onto a rocket launcher
6.) Pump your launcher to 10 psi and then let it fly!


Graduation! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan


During our humble graduation ceremony, everyone was recognized for their position in the mission simulation and received a certificate of achievement, a signed lithograph of Sam Durrance, a desk paper model of the Orion capsule, and a pen (to fill out a survey with).

Astronaut Hall of Fame

Following graduation, we were given access to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This is where Brandon’s attention span dropped like a rock.

The Hall of Fame is divided up into two parts. The first part is the artifacts and historical side of things. The second is the Hall of Fame itself with plaques representing the astronauts who have been inducted as Hall of Famers.

It only took about 15 minutes for him to tell me he was “NASA out” and ready to go home. Translation: his brain didn’t want to learn anymore and he was ready for some non-educational play time.

There isn’t much to do for kids in the Hall of Fame, but if you can get them to look at some of the artifacts, they’re really cool.

When it came to looking at astronauts inducted into the Hall of Fame, Brandon really wanted to find the plaque that belonged to his favorite astronaut, Neil Armstrong. It took a few minutes looking around until we finally found him in the middle left aisle.

My husband is a big history geek and he could have spent all day in the exhibit. I’m interested in the quirky parts of history. I saw a lone display about patches that I found really interesting. I collect patches from fellow 501st Legion areas and events and the history of the astronaut patches was very interesting to me.

Did you know patches

Image: Dakster Sullivan

Compared to the Visitor Center, the Hall of Fame is quieter and more of a museum. There was so much to see and read, we ended up spending over two hours inside.

If you don’t think your child will be easily entertained by the history in the Hall of Fame, I would consider bringing a quiet toy of some kind and setting them up in the room you are walking around in. Each of the areas in the Hall of Fame is spacious and they have plenty of seating area for kids to read or play on a tablet while you look around.

At the end of the day, I felt we had a nice balance of fun learning and history. Brandon had so much fun, he wanted to know if we could do it again soon. I’ll be sure to keep updated on everything they have going on so our family doesn’t miss a moment of space exploration action.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom was given free access to this experience. 

Solar Eclipse? Don’t Be Left in the Dark


Photo: University of New Mexico (Creative Commons)

On Thursday, October 23, most of North America will be able to see a partial solar eclipse. Things start getting dark in the late afternoon, and viewing will start around 6PM EDT. You can find the time of the eclipse in your area on this chart from NASA.

Of course, when I went to see when the best viewing time would be for my area in New England, I found out that I was out of luck. The eclipse will happen just after the sun sets. Thankfully, we all live in the age of technology. Many observatories will be doing live webcasts of the event. These include Slooh, Griffith Observatory, and the Coca-Cola Space Science Center.

What exactly is a partial solar eclipse? Well, a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, and lines up just right so that it blocks the light from the sun from reaching us on Earth. A total solar eclipse will block the entire sun, so that it looks like this:


Photo: Lutfar Rahman Nirjhar, Bangladesh, 2009 (Creative Commons)

A partial eclipse, like the one happening on Thursday, will look like the moon is taking a bite out of the sun, like this:


Photo: נצח פרביאש (Creative Commons)

There are many ways to observe a solar eclipse, but one definite, absolutely WRONG way to do it: YOU SHOULD NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER EQUIPMENT. Do not watch a solar eclipse even with sunglasses. Never. No way, no how. This will cause permanent damage to your eyes. Instead, go to this website and find out how to build your own easy sun viewer.

Hope everyone has fun watching one of our solar system’s finest shows!

Start Your Day With a…Lunar Eclipse?


Image: Brian Lockett

If you’re in the mood to wake up a bit early tomorrow morning (October 8, 2014), you’ll get a pretty awesome lunar treat. That’s right, it’s total lunar eclipse time!

The eclipse will start at 5:14 AM ESD, and become total at 6:24 AM EDT. There are a few interesting things about this eclipse in particular.

The totality of the eclipse and sunrise will be happening at the same time. So if you have a place nearby where you can see both the east and west horizons, you could watch both events simultaneously! This might take away a little from the color of the eclipse, but will make for a gorgeous experience nonetheless.

Viewers will have a window of about two to nine minutes to see the eclipse and the rising sun in the eastern United States.

Another interesting thing is that there is a bit of volcanic activity happening on Earth right now, which puts particulate in the atmosphere. We can’t really see a lot of the particulate with our eyes here in the U.S., but during the eclipse when the sun’s light passes through the earth’s atmosphere before it hits the moon, when there is more particulate, less light is able to pass. So the moon could be a darker red color than it would be if there were no volcanic activity.

This lunar eclipse is part of a tetrad, a series of four lunar eclipses. The first happened in April 2014. The next two will occur in April and September 2015.

So, grab your binoculars or your telescope and get ready for a morning of astronomical proportions! And if you can’t or if weather doesn’t cooperate, you can check out the live webcast from the folks at Slooh Community Observatory.


Image: NASA/GSFC/Espenak

Welcome to Mars, India!


Image: NASA

India made science news around the world on September 24, 2014, with the announcement that their first Mars satellite, Mangalyaan, entered orbit around the red planet.


Image: ISRO

Thus far the US, Russia, and Europe have led the “race” to Mars. India’s entry, however, is interesting for a few reasons. Mangalyaan (also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM) is India’s first attempt at orbiting Mars, and they got it right on the first try. The US and Russia each had failed attempts before they managed to be properly captured by Mars’s gravity. These failed missions on the US and Russia’s parts were extremely expensive. NASA’s infamous Mars Observer (launched Sept 25, 1992) originally budgeted for a “lean” $212 million, ended up costing $813 million. It disappeared before reaching Mars orbit. Our most recent Mars mission, Maven, cost $671 million. Yesterday’s success by India cost that country $74 million.

That’s right. A mission to Mars cost $25 million less than the budget for the movie Gravity.

Yes, that is disgusting. But it’s also sort of inspiring. I really hope that folks in this country take a hard look at that number, and perhaps think about what we could accomplish. We are so lucky to live in an affluent country, warts and all. What if we took a page out of India’s book? Instead of rushing to do things in part to show that we are better than others, why not slow down and do them right? I’m a great fan of our space program, but that number just totally blew me away. And here’s the thing: investors and tax payer will see that number as well, and they’ll start asking questions. The next time a $600 million project is proposed, I wonder if any eyebrows will be raised.

India did have the benefit of being able to look at other countries’ projects in order to see what worked, what didn’t, and how to make things more efficient. Their labor is less expensive than it is here. I think the important take home value is that we can spend $100 million on a movie and not blink. Yet people want to cut NASA’s budget.

One of my favorite moments in watching news about this mission unfold was this:


Image: Twitter


Yes, on Twitter you can follow @MarsOrbiter, like you can @MarsCuriosity, and get photos and updates about the orbiter.

What else was interesting about this mission? Let’s compare two images:

Photo: NASA


Photo: AFP News Agency

The first is the celebration of the landing of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in August 2012. The second is the celebration of MOM’s entry into Martian orbit. Something seems to be missing in the first picture.

In all seriousness, I find the number of women involved in India’s space program to be inspiring. And lest anyone say this is some kind of PR stunt, Nandini Harinath, a 44 year-old physicist, was the one “driving” the spacecraft from Earth to Mars. Minai Sampath and her team of engineers built three of the instruments on board the space craft, and has aspirations of directing her own space center. The list goes on and on, from engineers to scientists to researchers. Women take a very visible, active role in India’s space program, something i’d love to see more of in our own. And that is not to take away from the role women play in NASA. I was just a little saddened when I purposely went searching for a picture similar to the one in India’s mission control and couldn’t find one. At best, there were a couple women scattered here and there.

The photograph from the India Space Research Organization offers a great opportunity. Instead of telling our kids, “You can be anything you want when you grow up,” show them that it is possible. Men and women from anywhere in the world can make their dreams come true.

Maybe some day, pictures like this won’t give us pause. I hope some day, kids will look and say, “Yeah, so?” because it will become so normal. Until then, let’s celebrate, shall we?

The Mission Is in Sight!

Image: NASA

As a writer of science fiction, as well as a former astrophysics major in college, I usually like to stay up to date on science news. Space news in particular. And when I hear the words, “manned space travel,” I tend to get very excited.

See, when I was a kid, I remember the first shuttle going up. I was completely obsessed with the NASA space program. I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to Space Camp. I wanted to go up more than anything in the world. But then accidents happened, and budget cuts happened, and the political world seemed to get in the way. Shuttles got old and were retired. And there was never enough money, or, it seemed, interest.

On Tuesday (September 16th) when NASA posted there would be an announcement about their Commercial Crew Development contract, I was glued to NASA Television. For those of you who don’t know what this is, you can find some information on NASA’s website as well as the program’s Wikipedia page. In some simple terms, NASA is contracting two civilian companies to build vehicles and launch systems in order to reach low Earth orbit by 2017, followed by missions to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. Companies made proposals to NASA’s committee of career civil servants, who had the difficult job of choosing among them to find one or two that would meet all of their criteria.

There were four main functions that had to be accomplished by the spacecraft of whichever company was chosen for the contract. According to the workshop given by NASA on May 20, 2011, on the requirements of the Commercial Crew Transportation Contract, these functions are:


Image: NASA

1. Perform ISS (International Space Station) crew rotations
2. Deliver and return four crew and their equipment
3. Provide assured crew return in the event of an emergency
4. Serve as a 24-hour safe haven in the event of an emergency
(NASA Commercial Crew Program Workshop, Session 4: Key Driving Requirements Walkthrough; Rob Bayt, Panel Lead; May 20, 2011)

At the press conference Tuesday, NASA announced that Boeing, with their CST 100, and Space X, with their Crew Dragon, have earned the contracts for $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively.

This contract is exciting for many reasons. First of all, it’s fabulous to know that people of my son’s generation will be able to see the Earth from space. That had long been a dream of mine, and while I haven’t been able to realize it (yet!), it’s inspiring to think maybe my son or nephews/niece might be able to walk on the moon or an asteroid—maybe even Mars.

If all goes well and the program meets its 2017 launch date, it will mean humans can go beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in forty years. Forty years!

The Commercial Crew Transportation Contract will also allow these private companies to offer transportation privately, in addition to the services they provide to NASA. This will lower costs of the program, allowing for more research and development, and will allow NASA to afford other opportunities.

With this program, we will no longer be reliant on any other country to go into space. Our entire space program will not be in jeopardy if another country can’t afford it, or if politics get in the way. This will provide jobs within our country and make us a player again in scientific and engineering advances throughout the world. We will, as a nation, be “poised to explore a beckoning universe,” as astronaut Mike Fincke said during the news conference Tuesday.

Space is, in the immortal words of Gene Roddenberry, the final frontier. And fortunately for our endeavoring spirits, it is larger than we can imagine. I’m so happy we as a nation are taking the steps, no matter how small, to explore that place, and to expand our existence beyond what our forefathers ever thought possible.

Building the Future with Lego Space

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future \ Image: No Starch Press

Lego Space: Building the Future. Image: No Starch Press.

All kids go through learning phases where they just can’t get enough of a particular topic. For my son right now, that topic is space and what better way to learn about it than through Lego? That’s where Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard comes in.

I was really excited to check this book out because: 1. My son is really into space and I knew he would love it; and 2. it puts the topic in a way that will not only teach my son, but also inspire him to get creative with his own Lego bricks.

The book doesn’t so much tell the real history of space as much as it tells it’s own story. The first 10 pages are filled with some history, but after that, the book goes its own way and takes some creative licensing. Throughout the story, the authors take some time to stop and show you how to build what you are seeing. I thought this was a neat aspect of the book, because my son already wanted to build what he saw, so this gave him a head start.

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future Sample Page \ Image: No Starch Press

Lego Space: Building the Future sample page. Image: No Starch Press.

The only downside to this book that I can tell is the price. I showed it off at my son’s science fair night and the first thing the librarian and his teacher did was note how expensive it must be. Considering the quality of the photos inside and the fact that’s a pretty hefty size, it doesn’t surprise me that it costs $24.95 retail.

Lego Space: Building the Future has inspired my son to put down the video games and instead got him to focus on his much-neglected Lego bricks. I’m not kidding when I tell you that he spent hours building space stations and looking over the book for ideas. A few times, I would hear him get really excited about a particular fact and he would read it out loud with enthusiasm that I’ve only seen when he’s in a theme park.

If your child is into Lego, space, or both, I highly recommend Lego Space: Building the Future. It might be a bit more expensive than other books, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it if it gets my son reading.

Lego Space: Building the Future is available on Amazon for $19 (hardback) and $12 (kindle).

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

11-Year-Old Writes a Book About Space – and It’s Good!


Walter Levin published his first book at age 11. Image: BusinessGhost, Inc.

When I was 11, I spent the bulk of my time geeking out over mere glimpses of MTV, marveling over E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and secretly hoping I would some day be asked to become the sixth member of The Go-Go’s. I like to think I was a fairly typical 11-year-old. Walter Levin is a totally different story.

After completing his first 10K at the age of 8, Walter went on to become a black belt in Taekwondo, a drummer, and a unicyclist. At 11, he published his first book, The Kid Who Went to the Moon. He’s certainly not the youngest to ever author a book, but he may be the youngest who can call Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, co-creator of Phineas & Ferb, a fan of his work.

“I’m so impressed with the imagination and storytelling ability of this young man! His tale would make a perfect Phineas & Ferb adventure,” says Marsh. “If we’re still around in a few years, I’d happily give him a job. (Heck, let’s be honest, I’ll probably be asking him for a job).”

If his book is any indication of Walter’s future plans, the kid may be a little busy. The Kid Who Went to the Moon is the fun tale of 12-year-old James Gibson, a boy who dreams of going to the Moon. Of course, the title of the book may be a bit of a spoiler. However, it’s really about the crazy lengths that James goes through to make his dream become a reality.


The author. Image courtesy of Walter Levin.

The lengths are indeed crazy—unbelievable, in fact. However, to the book’s target audience, does it really matter how a kid spends his $2 million prize from a combination poetry/baseball contest? That and pretty much everything else that James does to pull off his plan is downright hilarious. At least that’s what I assumed from all of my 7-year-old son’s giggles.

The book does have an occasional fart joke here and a puke reference there. It was written by a kid and will appeal to kids. That said, it also includes a lot of love for NASA and space travel. How can you go wrong with that?

My son and I read this book together, but it’s definitely one that he could have tackled all on his own.  Even though there’s less than a handful of illustrations in this book, at just 60 pages, it’s an incredibly easy read for kids. He was certainly riveted—but really, the adventures of anyone remotely close to his age will do that. The bodily functions, the baseball, and the blasting off into space didn’t hurt, either. However, I could easily see The Kid Who Went to the Moon appealing to readers all the way up to the age of 15. This young author knows how to grab the attention of his audience, with creative ideas and pop culture references aplenty.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Want Your Name on an Asteroid? Let Spacecraft OSIRIS-REx Take It There

About one month and a half ago, on December 9th, 2013, a countdown began. 999 days left before the launch of OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid sample return mission lead by professor Dante Lauretta at the University of Arizona.

What’s cool, aside from the mission itself and the knowledge we stand to learn from it, is that you can submit your name to travel aboard the spacecraft to asteroid Bennu!

The university received its largest grant ever, to the tune of $800 million, for this mission. The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin Space System, while the mission management and launch will be provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as part of its New Frontiers program.

Moreover, the Planetary Society with CEO Bill Nye has helped run the “Messages to Bennu!” campaign. People can submit their names on the campaign website, all of which will be included on a microchip on board the spacecraft. Nye comments on the mission website, “at the Planetary Society, our mission is to engage the citizens of Earth in space exploration and the Messages to Bennu! campaign fits right in with this belief.” Lauretta told me that since opening the campaign to the public on January 15th, they have received over 200,000 names. He added, “no one will be left behind that wants to fly with us!”

Making the mission as open to the public as possible has been at the heart of this project. The mission will be very active on social media, providing daily updates on Facebook, tweets about the spacecraft’s build at Lockheed Martin on Twitter, and 321Science! educational videos on YouTube. The mission website also offers a wealth of information about the project and some of the science behind it.

Because this is, after all, a university-lead project, the mission has provided a priceless teaching tool for students of many disciplines. “We have over 60 students employed at the UA at any given time,” Lauretta told me. “These students work in the areas of science, engineering, business management, graphic arts, videography, and administrative support. It is great to give back to the students in this way—it is one of the biggest benefits to having a university lead a NASA mission like this.”

As to what they hope to get from this mission, Lauretta is keeping his fingers crossed for clues to the origin of life and volatiles on Earth. “My dream sample is something loaded in organic molecules that provides deep insight into the chemistry of carbon in the early solar system. Such a sample would help us not only understand the origin of life on Earth but also help us determine the likelihood of life originating elsewhere in our galaxy.”

The spacecraft will launch in 2016 and return to Earth with its precious loot in 2023. If you are curious, as I was, about the process it took Lauretta and his team to receive the right grants, permissions, and partnerships to lead this mission, Lauretta explains it in detail on his blog.

Geeky States of America: Maine’s Scale Model of Planet Earth


Image: Sarah Pinault

In case you’ve missed the news recently, it has been a little cold in Maine recently.

Once you have exhausted the Children’s Museum, the new play center at the mall, and the various play centers around town, you might consider taking a trip that’s a little more out of this world.

Just twenty minutes from Portland, DeLorme, renowned maker of maps, offers far more than a gift shop for your little (and big) ones to explore on a less than clement day. Eartha is a scale replica of the Earth, complete with a scaled down simulation of the Earth’s rotation. In 1991, at forty-one feet, one and one-half inches, Guinness proclaimed it the ”World’s Largest Revolving/Rotating Globe.” You can observe Eartha from three different levels, and even at a young age my pre-schooler had a lot of fun checking out the planet he lives on, from a unique perspective. We were able to show him where his grandparents live in England, in comparison to us, and where his Australian cousins, somewhat distants(!) live.

Here are some fun facts about Eartha to enhance your trip:

  • At a scale of 1:1,000,000, California is three and a half feet tall.
  • Eartha is constructed of over 6,000 pieces of lightweight aluminum tubing and 792 map sections, each of which covers 8° latitude by 10° longitude.
  • Eartha tilts at 23.5 degrees on a specially designed cantilever arm.
  • The mapping data required to produce Eartha takes up 140 gigabytes.
  • A complete rotation takes eighteen minutes, though it is rumored that the machinery would withstand a sixty second rotation, albeit not too often!
  • While the building is only open from 9 til 6, Eartha is visible 24/7 through the three-story glass atrium that holds it. It’s certainly a sight when you drive off the highway.
  • The next closest replica is the previous record holder in Italy. The Globe of Peace in Apeccio, Pesaro measures only 33 feet in diameter and neither revolves nor rotates.

Astronauts Are Moms Too


Photo: NASA

The Houston Chronicle has a nice profile of recently returned ISS astronaut Karen Nyberg and her family. They’re a bit unusual since Nyberg and her husband Doug Hurley are both astronauts, and their son Jack is three. Hurley was in quarantine for a shuttle mission when they learned Nyberg was pregnant in 2010. She started training for her six month stay on the International Space Station when Jack was only a few months old.

Needless to say, things are a little different when you’re the child of a NASA astronaut:

Nyberg was selected in July 2010 for the space station flight. Beginning a few months after Jack’s birth, she was on the road for two to six weeks at a time. Sometimes she took Jack to Russia—when Doug was in final preparations for the last shuttle flight—and sometimes he stayed home.

“Literally from the time Jack was old enough to comprehend things, he was either going to Russia or Skyping with mommy. That’s just the way it was,” Hurley said.

And it turns out that NASA got Jack a special iPad so that the family could video chat at least once a week.


Photo: NASA

Fundamentally, this is no different than what thousands of military families go through every day; it just feels more exotic because Dr. Nyberg went to space instead of Iraq or Afghanistan.

The article does a nice job of addressing the fact that it feels different for a mom to go into space instead of a dad (many NASA astronauts have had small children), but also highlighting the fundamental adaptability of children. The cutest photo in the whole piece is the cardboard space station that Jack and his mom built together. It’s also got some great pictures of some of the sewing and other craft projects that Dr. Nyberg created on the station.

Let’s hear it for moms in space!

Meet Grace from Outer Space

Grace from Outer Space © Mike Davis

If you’re the parent of a young girl, chances are you’ve been inundated with princesses and Barbie in “girl” books and movies. My daughter has created her own interesting mix with her playtime, with passions ranging from Barbie and princesses to Power Rangers. What I’d really love, though, is to give my four-year-old a story to latch on to that includes not just a plucky heroine, but introduces her to new science concepts as well. I was delighted, then, to come across this Kickstarter campaign for Grace from Outer Space—a picture book app aimed to “get young girls interested in astronomy, science, and technology.”

Project creator Jenna Bryson has a background working with children as a musician and entertainer. She enlisted the help of an illustrator and an astronomy graduate student to create a factually correct story that follows the adventures of a little girl whose home is among the stars.

[Grace from Outer Space] is a rhyming picture book story for kids about ages 4-8 years old. It’s a slice of life story, depicting what it might be like for a little girl to live on a space ship with her family. It’s full of wonder, imagination, and best of all, scientific facts!

In reading the book, kids will learn through the eyes of our curious heroine. Some of the ideas introduced by ‘Grace’ include the concept of black holes, the speed of light, and dark energy.

The fundraising campaign has just a few days left and a long way to go, so consider donating to its efforts if you’ve been looking for an iOS app with a STEM focus for your young kids.

Fund This: Organic Yarn, Blast into Space and App Camp for Girls

Welcome to another edition of Fund This, GeekMom’s bi-weekly section that focuses on places to invest some of your hard-earned cash. Here we highlight a few of the most interesting projects we’ve found on crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and many more. Ready to make someone’s dream a reality?

First up, we have a Kickstarter project that’s to dye for (don’t hurt me for that one). Crafters have already helped the Saco River Dyehouse achieve its initial $25,000 goal. However, there’s still time left in the campaign, and the company is in desperate need of that extra support.

This Maine-based company is pretty darn special, because it has a rich history, and uses organic dyes to color organic wool and specialty fiber yarns. I haven’t really made it past the scarf phase with my knitting, but this project isn’t just for those who are good with a needle. It’s good for the people of Maine and the U.S. textile industry in general. To find out more about the operation, check out the company’s campaign page, which is accepting backers through Thursday, July 18, 2013.

Next up is App Camp for Girls, which has been completely funded with 22 days to go on Indiegogo. That’s understandable, since it looks so incredibly awesome.

When I went to summer camp, I made an ashtray and a few Fruit Loops necklaces. The newly launched App Camp for Girls invites girls ages 12 to 14 to spend a week in Portland, Oregon, where they will learn how to plan, design, and encode their own app. There will also be plenty of women app developers on-hand for inspiration and guidance.

“They’ll get to be creative and geeky, while having a lot of fun,” says app developer Natalie Osten.

The funding will help launch this summer’s App Camp, with 32 girls attending two sessions in June and August. If all goes well, the program hopes to expand to other areas of the U.S. and beyond. If you want to help put someone on a path to a geeky future, the App Camp for Girls campaign runs through Tuesday, July 16.

ARKYD is the first publicly accessible space telescope. Image: Planetary Resources.

And finally, you still have a few days to get in on ARKYD. Designed to satisfy your inner-astronaut, ARKYD is the first publicly accessible space telescope.

For a minimum pledge of $25, Planetary Resources will blast you—or at least your photo—off into the stars. The company plans to launch the ARKYD telescope to make that happen. The more you pledge, the better the perk.

The project has been wildly popular, surpassing its $1 million goal. However, the Kickstarter campaign still has a few days left. That means that you still have time to book your intergalactic trip, as long as you’re willing to wait in line behind the almost 14,000 backers that have already pledged funds.

Gravity is Gripping!

Me to Firstborn Son: Um. You need to sit next to me. Immediately.

Him (sitting next to me immediately): I sense this is important.

Me: I need to show you the trailer for the new Cuaron movie: Gravity.

Him: Cuaron? The director of Children of Men as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Two of my top-ten favorite movies of all time? You have my attention.

90. Seconds. Later.

Him: How does he do it? That is the stuff of my nightmares!

Me: I know! The only thing that could possibly make that scene more disturbing was if Sandra Bullock ricocheted off the space craft into an underwater cave...in space!

Him: How are we possibly going to wait until October for this?

Me: This right here is karma, rewarding me for sitting patiently in the theater during Prometheus

Gorgeous E-book Of Your Home, Free


Alluvial Fan in China (NASA Earth As Art e-book)

Alluvial Fan in China (NASA Earth As Art e-book)

You live in a place more beautiful than you can see with the naked eye. Want to see more? NASA can help. They have captured gorgeous images of the planet we call home.These sweeping vistas of oceans, land, and atmosphere have been photographed over the years by satellites with names like Terra, Landsat 5, Landsat 7, EO-1, and Aqua. The photos not only show vast distances, they also use light outside the visible range so they reveal more color and texture than than we can see.

Those images can be yours. NASA is giving away a free e-book and accompanying iPod app called Earth As Art containing 75 satellite photos of your home and mine.

Should You Bring A Kid To Dragon*Con?

Dragon*Con starts in just nine short days. I recommend going to just about every geek I meet, especially at this time of year when my life is consumed by furious last-minute costuming. Since the people I interact with these days are often also parents, the followup question is usually, “Should I bring my kids?”

It’s a tough question, and one you have to answer for yourself. It helps a lot to have been and to know whether you’d enjoy yourself and be comfortable with your kids there. It also depends on their ages. My personal rule was to bring them when they were less than a year old (which also meant they were still nursing, and thus much easier to have near me), but after that, we’ve left them with grandparents.

The practical matter: Cost

Kids six and under get in free. If you have a kid that age who is potty trained, you can bring them to Dragon*Con child care for the price of an adult ticket. If you use the full 30 hours available, that’s an unbeatable rate of $4/hour! But child care closes at 7 p.m., and there is a lot to do at Dragon*Con after 7 p.m. You, however, will have an early bedtime. Some parents work this out by taking turns–Mom gets to go have evening fun on Friday night, and Dad gets to go out Saturday night, for example. Of course, then you’re not having that fun together, but at least you’re having it.

Stuff for kids to do

The biggest excitement for kids is seeing their favorite characters come to life. You can’t walk across a hotel lobby without tripping over twenty Stormtroopers, eight superheroes, and That Guy From That Movie I Saw, What Is His Name? (That last one is a popular costume.) After about 8 or 9 p.m., the costumes start getting a lot more risqué. Suddenly at sundown, a foot of electrical tape cut and placed strategically counts as a costume. There’s also a risk of seeing a few of these during the day, so if you really want to shield Little Johnny’s eyes, this might not be the best place for him.

What else can kids do?

  • They’ll love the Masquerade and the parade for the same reasons as above. They may also enjoy the Friday night costume contest, but it’s about workmanship, whereas Masquerade is more of a short skit performance show, so the Friday night contest may seem slow to the little ones. There are also track-specific costume contests, such as the Star Wars contest.
  • This year the Costuming track has a session for children ages 9 and up. There are track-specific costume-building sessions as well. For example, the Young Adult Literature track has one for Harry Potter costuming.
  • Gaming of all kinds. Find a Looney Labs Lab Rabbit (who may or may not look like a lab rabbit) and teach your kid to play Fluxx. It’s a great game for any kid old enough to read the cards and entertaining (and occasionally challenging) for adults, too.
  • For those old enough, there is the aforementioned Young Adult Literature track. Remember that spoilers are likely to be discussed. A few of these sessions lean towards being discussions for adults about kids, such as what literature is appropriate for what age and whether you restrict your children’s reading.
  • The Science track and Space track–Dragon*Con is educational! The Space track even brings out their telescopes for your young Einsteins to get a better look at the wonders above.
  • Most of the regular daytime sessions that interest them will be fine. If they’re young and/or impatient, sit near a door in case you have to make a quick exit. An hour is a long time to listen to even your favorite actor wax philosophical about why he became a thespian. Read the pocket program together to find things that interest you both. The Star Wars track seems to be popular with kids, thanks to sessions like “Building the Universe With Legos” and “Saber School,” a session meant just for kids to play with foam sabers.
  • This year there is a new track for kids ages 9-13, the Kaleidoscope track. This track features Dragon*Con-style programming for the preteen set based on live-action TV Shows from Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. Parents must accompany any kids under 18.

Decision time

As you can see, there’s plenty to interest your little geeklings as long as you’re prepared to keep being Mom all weekend. For me, Dragon*Con is a great weekend away, where I get to just be me and not worry about who’s not eating his dinner or who needs to go potty. I just ask that you don’t try to be both. I’ve been going to Dragon*Con for nearly a decade, and every year I see parents dragging children into clearly adult sessions. It’s uncomfortable for everyone involved and rude to panelists who may feel obligated to censor themselves. Or they may not, which will make your evening more interesting when your geekling starts asking questions. Just don’t do it.

Finally, if you’re still not sure, I’ve made this handy flowchart to help you make the choice.

Who Owns the Moon?

Image: Flickr user Slideshow Bruce, CC

So who exactly owns the moon? It is a question that has vexed me for  years. In light of the upcoming shuttle launch I found myself straying back to it more and more often. As a historian I have a pretty set definition of how a nation or country colonizes.  Historically, the Finders-Keepers rule applies: get there first and it is all yours. In the history of space exploration a total of twelve men (yes, just men) have stepped foot on the moon and they have all been American. An American flag is planted on the surface of the moon. And everyone knows that once that flag is planted, ownership is claimed. At least that’s how it works in WOW. So that must mean that the United States of America owns the moon, right?

A Nevada man, Dennis Hope, seems to believe this as well. Under the assumption that the US laid claim to lunar real estate, he petitioned the UN to be allowed to create a government on the moon. Of course it would be run in absentia. When the UN didn’t respond, he assumed he had every right to the moon and its land. He formed a company and began selling deeds to lunar property for less than $30 USD per acre. The US owned the moon, he had the rights to administer its government. And with that much land, every self-respecting government would, of course, begin selling it off. Now to come up with a solid system of taxation…

It’s a logical assumption perhaps, albeit a wrong one. Actually no one owns the moon and no one can. The UN did not respond because what Mr. Hope petitioned had already been decided against.  Long before anyone managed to get a human to the moon, several measures were put in place to protect the sanctity of space (and property) beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Pardon the pun.

In January 1967, a mere 2 years before the US managed to land Apollo 11 on the moon, the United Nations had drafted and approved the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Three depository Governments, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the (now) Russian Federation signed this. It outlines some basic laws regarding space and the moon.

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

The treaty was put into full effect in October of 1967 and stands in effect today. Since then every space-faring nation and many others have signed and ratified the treaty, therefore agreeing to all stipulations.

Technically an extension of this treaty exists in the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It was drafted and proposed in 1979 and ratified by the requisite 14 nations in 1984. However, none of the nations that ratified it has a space program to speak of. They’ve produced astronauts but do not actively work on programs that put those astronauts into space, or even low-earth orbit. This means, roughly, that the treaty is failed and defunct. The countries it would apply to never signed it, so it kind of doesn’t count.

It should be noted that these laws apply to the International Space Station as well. Being that it resides in space, all of the UN’s treaty conditions apply. (I use the word “space” in its loosest term. For NASA’s definition of where space begins, check out their video.) So as Atlantis launches for the last time, it enters protected territory to do peaceful works designed to benefit all mankind.

And no one owns the moon.