‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Earth+Space: Other than the attractive but questionable title (which sometimes wreaks havoc on precise search engine searches), I love this book. I mean, you’ve got space. You’ve got photography. And I’m pretty sure there are very few people out there who do astrophotography better than NASA. I mean, how many space telescopes do you have?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

With a preface from Bill Nye (the Science Guy, don’tcha know), Earth+Space begins with several photos of Earth from space, including a beautiful nighttime shot. Then it quickly turns its cameras in the other direction, pointing us toward other planets and moons in the solar system, and then out to galaxies, comets, nebulae, brown dwarfs, various other space phenomena, and, one of my favorite things to say, globular clusters. As you move through the book, you get farther and farther away from Earth. Though the distance increases, the beauty does not decrease. NASA’s technology is second to none, and can get clear, detailed, intricate photos of objects far, far away. It also takes us back in time, as we see far away objects as they were many, many years ago.

Continue reading ‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

A New Comic That Is Out of This World!

Image: Alex Kane, used with permission
Image: Alex Kane and Gale Galligan, used with permission

Kickstarter campaigns can attract a lot of attention, and often it can be hard to tell which ones are truly something special. But when one is featured on the Onion’s AV Club, and is publicly backed and tweeted about by Neil Gaiman, and becomes a Kickstarter staff pick, it becomes pretty clear that something spectacular is going on. I took a few minutes to catch up with the writer of Asphodel: A Mythic Space Opera, Alex Kane!

GeekMom Mel: Welcome, Alex! Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?

Alex Kane: Thank you for having me! I guess I’m mostly a short-story writer whose work falls under the broader category of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy and horror thrown in when the mood strikes. I’m also the managing editor of The Critical Press, where I copyedit and typeset books of film criticism and cultural commentary, as well as a submissions editor for Uncanny Magazine and an executive producer on the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back.

GMM: How did you get into writing? What has your path looked like so far?

AK: In college, I discovered there was a whole world of science fiction beyond movies, games, and media tie-ins—Star Wars novels were an early gateway drug for me—and also started collecting comics, like the Dark Horse Knights of the Old Republic series by John Jackson Miller. A few years later, working full-time as a retail banker, comics would become my salvation. But it was the discovery of voices like Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Tobias Buckell, and books like King’s On Writing, that led me to try my hand at getting some short fiction published.

I’d written a really awful novel at thirteen, and had generally thought of myself as a writer for years, churning out attempts at a sequel and a number of embarrassing short stories, but by the time I was nineteen it had grown into an obsession. I made my first professional sale to Digital Science Fiction in 2011, while I was still in college, and soon thereafter earned a finalist status in the Writers of the Future contest, attended the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, and made a handful of additional pro fiction sales, all the while putting pressure on myself to get better.

GMM: You have a new comic, Asphodel, up for funding on Kickstarter. What made you decide to make Asphodel a comic rather than a regular story?

AK: After Clarion West, the world started to look a lot different. I saw that a career in publishing meant making sacrifices, leaping at the first sign of an opportunity, and having the courage to really give it your absolute best shot—something that just isn’t possible when you’re working a job you hate, getting bullied by micromanaging coworkers over the phone, and having to smile through the abuse of yet another rightfully angry customer whom you can’t possibly satisfy.

That year of soul-scarring limbo saw the loss of both my paternal grandparents, a few months apart from one another, and almost zero fiction writing, despite all I’d learned at Clarion West the prior summer. But for one miserable year, I glimpsed the power of the comics medium with maximum clarity: Every day at work, even when management informed us that we were understaffed and not allowed to leave the building during lunch breaks, comic books allowed me ten to twenty minutes of blissful, absolute escape—physically, I was stuck in the break room, phones ringing all around me, but mentally? I was in the world of Eric Powell’s The Goon, or Gotham City, or some galaxy far, far away, immune to the horrors of the inevitable adulthood that lay ahead of me.

The day I put in my two weeks’ notice, I felt like Andy Dufresne crawling out the other side and getting baptized in the rain of renewed possibility. Comics had saved my life, far as I could tell, and I figured I owed it to myself, creatively, to try my hand at writing in the medium myself.

Image: Alex Kane, used with permission
Image: Alex Kane and Gale Galligan, used with permission

GMM: Did you know New Horizons would be reaching Pluto right during your Kickstarter? How does it feel to have a new vision of a place that you have written about?

AK: I had no idea. The story that became issue one of Asphodel began life at Clarion West in summer 2013, as a sketch I turned in for critique by Samuel R. Delany and my seventeen brilliant classmates, and I spent a year revising it in prose form, trying to get it to work—but ultimately it’s a story too big for just a short story. A novel series, or creator-owned comic, is really the best way to do justice to all the big ideas and worldbuilding.

Since it’s sort of the “crowd favorite” among the manuscripts I wrote at the workshop, I’ve made up my mind that it’s a story that deserves to be finished and done proper justice. The New Horizons images, and the incredible timing of that mission with our Kickstarter campaign, feels like only one more reason to get excited about this story I’ve spent more than a year turning into a comic book. It’ll be really useful for researching later issues, if and when the time comes.

GMM: Can you give us a quick overview of Asphodel?

AK: Asphodel is an underworld myth for space opera fans. Whenever you see a “god” of some sort in the realm of science fiction, it’s often in the form of a technologically advanced alien race, or an A.I., and I wanted to play with the concepts in Michio Kaku’s books, giving humanity a shot at godhood for once. But the characters are the real focus, and I think that really comes across well in Gale’s art style, which more closely resembles the work of cartoonists like Bryan O’Malley and Genndy Tartakovsky than mainstream comics artists. The result feels quiet and intimate, despite the galactic scope of the worldbuilding and the postwar aftermath that Vic and Sedna are caught up in.

GMM: What was it like to work with an artist? How well did she capture your vision?

AK: Gale Galligan contacted me after I posted a call for artists on a Facebook group for comics creators, and it was clear right away that she stood out for both the distinctive, professional artwork in her portfolio and her enthusiasm for the project. She really understands the kind of story I’ve wanted to tell for two years, and she’s a fantastic collaborator. It’s been amazing.

GMM: Neil Freaking Gaiman backed your Kickstarter, and then tweeted about it. That must have felt awesome.

AK: Neil’s so cool! He was my teacher during the second week of Clarion West two years ago, and he’s been an incredible source of inspiration and support. He was, by the way, not the easiest teacher to please—he really tore apart my writing piece by piece, and stitching it back together has proved to be one of the most crucial stages of my development as an artist. He really, really knows his stuff, and while I wouldn’t recommend being Neil Gaiman’s “teaching moment” to anyone looking to have their ego massaged, I will say that my writing’s benefited enormously from it. Having Neil on board with the Kickstarter and helping get the word out has really given me a nice boost in visibility, and I just love the guy. No one understands stories like he does.

Image: Twitter (public Twitter quote from @neilhimself)
Image: Twitter (public Twitter quote from @neilhimself)

GMM: What are some of your other interests? Tell us about your geek cred ;).

AK: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, in case there was any doubt, and I play a lot of videogames. I’ve literally logged about a thousand hours in Bungie’s shared-world FPS, Destiny, and I tend to watch just about every Marvel, DC, and sci-fi movie that comes to theaters. I’m that guy who’s destroying pop culture—though I also voice my criticisms about science fiction and film pretty frequently, which I think makes up for it a little. At the end of the day, I always feel like there are too many comics in my stack, too many books on my shelf, too many movies I haven’t see and games I haven’t played yet. There’s no right or wrong way to be a geek—said the guy who’s never seen an episode of Doctor Who or Firefly—but there’s really a lot of great art being made, despite what jaded cynics on the Internet would have us all believe. Feel free to dismiss all my opinions on this if you must, though: I am one of the guys behind The Prequels Strike Back.

GMM: What were some of your inspirations growing up? Do you see ways these are reflected in your work now?

AK: The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Knights of the Old Republic. Halo 2! Really, I think most of my work reflects my love for all these flawed but richly drawn universes. I grew up watching space opera and playing videogames with spaceships and robots in them, so my most fruitful creative periods are usually spent developing worlds that feel a little like George Lucas’s, though mine tend to be a lot darker—more Blade Runner-meets-Alien in tone and feel. I’ll never forget the first time I read 2001: A Space Odyssey, or playing Halo 2 on day one.

Every time I move away from the genre, it’s not long before a book like Leviathan Wakes or Dark Orbit, or a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, comes along to remind me how much life’s really left in it. Space opera has begun to grow up a little, thanks to some of the great SF writers of today. John Scalzi in particular has done a great service in making it more accessible.

GMM: So what’s up next for you? Any big plans in the works?

AK: I’ve gotten a little bit too comfortable with short fiction, and I think I’m at risk of repeating myself if I don’t take a bit of a break from it, so the next thing is either a novel or continuing the story of Asphodel with a limited series. Certainly the world of Asphodel is my focus for the foreseeable future. I have a horror novel I’m also working on, but you can never tell what’s going to happen with a particular project. If sales don’t lead to further issues of the comic book, the most likely course of action will be to write a novel set in that universe. I’ve pitched a nonfiction book on my favorite videogame, as well, and I’m still waiting to hear back from the publisher. It’s been a busy year, but I hope next year will be a whole lot busier.

GMM: Anything else you’d like to add?

AK: I’d love for anyone reading this to take a look at the Kickstarter and leave comments with any questions or feedback they might have about the comic. Asphodel represents two years’ worth of work, and it’s a real passion project for me. It has been so heartwarming and inspiring to see the reception the Kickstarter has gotten, but it’d be great if more people could share the project, and this interview, and help to get the word out—we’ve still got a long ways to go to reach our minimum funding goal, and the comic simply won’t happen if we don’t hit it.

GMM: Thanks so much for spending time with us, Alex, and best of luck with your Kickstarter!

Alex Kane is the managing editor of The Critical Press, a publisher of books on film and culture, as well as an executive producer of the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back. He also serves as a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and works full-time as a freelance copyeditor. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen venues, including the Exigencies anthology from Curbside Splendor’s Dark House imprint, edited by Richard Thomas, and he is the writer of the creator-owned comic Asphodel. His reviews and criticism have been published in Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Signal, and Omni, among other places. He lives in west-central Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.

Deep Water Interests

Blue Abyss
Image: Blue Abyss Facebook page

As a child we would go swimming at our local public pool. It’s an indoor pool in my hometown of Walsall, and was the biggest pool I had ever seen. For some reason there were plastic windows part way down underneath the water. I would swim down to see them, and my shadow looming over them would make it appear as though some creature of the deep was passing by. It was tranquil underneath that water, and I loved being there.

I have always had an obsession with water, a love of marine life, a borderline obsession with sharks, and so I read with interest this week that the University of Essex in England, in conjunction with Blue Abyss, is planning the construction of the world’s deepest swimming pool to conduct research into spaceflight and human endurance. At 164 ft, it would be deeper than NASA’s training pool in Houston, by 124 feet, and they say things are bigger in Texas? Currently the deepest pool is in Montegretto Terme, Italy, but it too would be in the shadows of this planned pool, by 23 feet.

109245The project is being crowdfunded, and personally I’m tempted by the Hollywood star at the bottom of the 50m shaft. You can keep track of the project and its crowdfunding efforts on their Facebook page.

So, beyond my obsession with the water, why the interest in this project?

One of my favorite quotes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing sums up how I feel about most projects of this nature, why I support them, and why I like my tax dollars to go to them when possible.

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” – Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) on NASA’s trip to Mars.

Many people think that we should be exploring our oceans more. That there is much of our own world still left to discover, let alone that beyond the stars. For me, this project seems to have it all. The creation of an environment that would help us study our own bodies, and find better ways of moving in deep space and in deep water. A deep water pool may not be what’s next in terms of exploration, but it’s certainly a step towards further exploration, whether we choose to sink to new depths or soar to new heights.

2 Self-Published Books Take Bedtime to the Moon

A peek at the inside of Little and the Moon. Photo: Justin Gloe.

My son is always asking if we can read stories on the iPad. I personally prefer the look and feel of an actual book, but the digital format gives us the opportunity to sample a lot of really good bedtime adventures.

Recently, I got to peek at a pair of bedtime stories that specifically deal with the moon—but in two very different ways, by different authors. Justin Gloe’s Little and the Moon and Bella Woodfield’s The Girl and the Moon are short, sweet stories designed for young adventurers right before they blast off to dreamland.

Even better, both of these books were self-published, via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform for eBooks and CreateSpace for the print. It’s nice to be able to explore new these stories, all while supporting someone else’s dream.

Photo: Bella Woodfield.

Little and the Moon is a short story about Little, a tabbit who lives a lonely life and longs for a friend to share adventures with. Apparently, a tabbit is a little creature that lives in the forest, and was a something inspired by Gloe’s rural Missouri upbringing. The artwork is cute and the story is even cuter, as Little goes about his travels. It’s short, but just the right amount of time for a bedtime story. Even better, the outcome should leave your little with a big smile right before bedtime.

Even shorter, The Girl and the Moon follows one girl’s quest to find out what the moon would taste like. It’s an interesting plotline, but how “feet” isn’t an option, I don’t know. The story involves the girl trying various ways to reach the moon, in search of a little sample. This one has a bit more color, but just a few words per page. It’s not exactly Goodnight Moon and won’t be very satisfying if it’s the only story in your bedtime routine. That said, it’s a cute concept and a quick, fun read.

Both of the above books are fictional, so don’t expect to end the night on an educational note. We especially loved Little and the Moon, because of the style, length, and the creative main character. The Girl and the Moon would be best for a beginner reader, although it’s certainly a sweet way to squeeze in an extra story at the end of the night.

If you’re interested in more advanced spacey adventures, also check out One Giant Leap, Moonshot, The Magic School Bus Lost In The Solar System, and There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System. Each one is a bit more lengthy (and a bit more expensive), but we’ve really enjoyed each of these at bedtime—and during the day, too.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Lands’ End Redeems Itself With Nerdy Shirts For Girls—And Not One Shirt About Being Adorable!

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of landsend.com taken by Ariane Coffin.

Yesterday, I found a Lands’ End post creep up on my Facebook feed, featuring “Smart Tees for boys and girls.” I got really excited, and even more so when I noticed that out of the 19 shirts on their list, nine of them were for girls. Not one or two, but around 50 percent. No way!

Then I remembered hearing some noise last year about Lands’ End gender stereotyping their kids’ shirts, and I started to feel doubtful. If I removed the filter for “Smart Tees” and browsed everything they offered as a whole, would I find more bad than good?

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of landsend.com taken by Ariane Coffin.

Well, I guess Lands’ End learned their lesson because I did not find a single girl shirt with the words “adorable,” “cute,” or “sassy.” As a mother of two young girls, let me tell you that’s a breath of fresh air. A hurricane of fresh air.

Time will tell if Lands’ End is just waiting for the dust to settle or has really joined the 21st century, but in the meantime, please excuse while I do some online shopping for my little space geeks.

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.

Video: We're NASA And We Know It (Sexy And I Know It Parody)

Yes, I know this song has had its share of parodies, but this one is now my favorite. How often to you get to see those blue polo shirt-wearing engineers busting a move? Never. But this video has them dancing and singing and doing what I’d imagine happened after the cameras turned off once the Curiosity landed. There’s a nod to the famous jar of peanuts and even Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan are worked into the song!

Mars Curiosity Lands Tonight!

Image via NASA

Tonight is the night that years of scientific research and engineering will either pay off, or fail spectacularly. This is one of those moments in scientific discovery that merit staying up all night, or setting an alarm to wake up and watch. Mars Curiosity is scheduled to land tonight at 10:31 p.m. PDT, Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT Aug. 6).

Curiosity will reach the surface in a way that no space craft has ever landed — it will be lowered to the surface on nylon cords by a rocket-controlled hover crane that will return to orbit after the drop. This entire process is automated and expected to take seven minutes. If you aren’t an expert on the mechanics of how this whole process occurs, take five minutes and watch the latest NASA JPL video titled: Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror, below.

When the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, also known as Curiosity) launched November 26, 2011, it started a scientific expedition like no other before it. While the majority of the modules on the MSL won’t start collecting science data until it powers up on the Martian surface, one instrument has already logged 221 days of scientific data:  The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been taking readings of the ambient radiation on the entire voyage to Mars. RAD has recorded five separate solar flares. According to the RAD principle investigator, Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, CO, this data has already been used by scientists planning future manned missions.

Once Curiosity safely lands on the surface of Mars the rest of the science activities begin. Curiosity’s main science objective is to look for areas on the Martian surface that could have sustained microbial life. The Gale crater was chosen as the perfect landing site because it shows many of the properties of formerly aqueous terrain, but its small 12-mile landing zone has always made it too risky to attempt a traditional air bag landing.

Assuming all goes well tonight, the Martian rover — which is as big as a VW Bug — will increase our knowledge base of the Red Planet for years to come. If you would like to catch your own piece of Mars Curiosity fever, head over to the Mars Curiosity Lego CUUSOO site and lend your support to turning it into a retail model.

Not sure where the best place to view the landing might be? Check here: Where to watch the Mars Curiosity Landing Online

The GeekMoms Podcast #27: Fight For Space, Reigniting Our Passion For Space Exploration

Have you ever wondered how the US got to the point where funding missions to space just isn’t that important? Paul Hildebrandt wondered, and he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary and answer that question. GeekMom Nicole Wakelin talks with Paul about Fight For Space: Exploring the Future of Manned Spaceflight and learns what he hopes to achieve with his film. He’s already interviewed notables like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and plans to speak with many more to discover how we can reignite our collective passion for space not just in ourselves, but in our kids.

Subscribe in iTunes, via RSS or direct download
Music: Rebecca Angel

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye in Fight For Space Kickstarter

I cried on July 8, 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched as the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program. I kept wondering why it had to come to an end and how things had gotten to a point where funding missions to space just wasn’t that important. What happened? How can we change it?

Paul Hildebrandt has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his documentary, Fight For Space: Exploring the Future of Manned Spaceflight, which will answer those questions. It will look at how the United States space program lost its edge and why it’s so very important that we get it back.

Hildebrandt has already spent time travelling the country to meet with some notable advocates of space exploration. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, astronaut Leroy Chiao, as well as astronomers, congressmen, engineers, and authors will all be included in the final documentary. They appear in the trailer and it’s hard not to get all fired up listening to them speak.

The goal here is not to solve the problem, but to start a discussion. There are complex social, political, and economic factors that each play a role in where our space program is today, and only by understanding them can we hope to have the program rebound and inspire future generations. It’s a difficult but not impossible task to excite children about the possibilities of space exploration as the whole nation was when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon.

If you’re passionate about space exploration and long for the day when we travel beyond the moon to Mars, then head over to the Fight For Space Kickstarter page to learn more, donate, and make this valuable documentary a reality.*

**I interviewed Paul Hildebrandt on the latest GeekMoms Podcast and he talked about his hopes for the film. Download the episode and hear what he had to say.**

You’re In My Space

Gliese 581 www.nasa.gov

An international team of scientists recently assessed which moons and planets are most habitable. They used two different indices: an Earth Similarity Index (ESI) and a Planetary Habitability Index (PHI) to identify likely prospects.

You may want to start investing in exoplanet exploration ventures.


Help name the GRAIL spacecraft!

Courtesy NASA

The Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission has launched and is on its way to the moon. This mission will use a pair of spacecraft to measure and map the gravity on the moon. Gravity changes can be caused by mountains, valleys and other structures hidden beneath the lunar surface. Scientists are hoping that the data collected by GRAIL will provide clues to the internal structure of the moon and clues to its origin.

When a gravity change is encountered the two spacecrafts will move closer or further away from one another, depending on the type of change, and that distance will be translated into the gravity map. It is a similar method to the way the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft has been successfully mapping Earth since 2002.

GRAIL has always had a heavy involvement from students. A set of MoonKAM cameras were included as part of the spacecraft design. These cameras will provide close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.

Currently the two GRAIL spacecraft have very generic names, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B. NASA is calling all children from Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade to rename these twin spacecraft. NASA is looking for kids to find names that will capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration.

So kids, get your thinking caps out, pick a couple names and a short explanation for your choices! Who knows, you could name two spacecraft that are orbiting the moon! Check out the NASA GRAIL Naming Contest Page for details about how to submit your entry. DEADLINE is Friday, November 11th!

NASA, Shuttles and Space for the Future

Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1

One of my favorite memories of this summer is the day I sat with my daughter snuggled in my lap and watched the final space shuttle launch. As Atlantis took to the skies, I wiped away tears and tried to explain to her why Mommy was crying over a spaceship. This is a little girl who has a room plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars and maps of the solar system and who picked a telescope as a birthday present one year because she wanted to see the planets. We talked about how cool it was, how amazing, that there were astronauts in that ship at exactly the moment we were watching it careen into space. She was fascinated at the idea that it was “for real” and, just like me, sad that it wouldn’t be happening again.

I attended a launch back when I was in college and it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. It was still new and exciting at the time, earning feature story coverage on the news rather than just a cursory mention. We got up at the crack of dawn to drive out to the Kennedy Space Center and got as close as we could before parking up on the grass, wedged between other cars. All of us were armed with binoculars and comfy chairs, some of them perched on top of car roofs, as we waited with our radios tuned to the countdown. And when that thing took off and I felt the noise radiate up through my feet and right out the top of my head, it took my breath away. It. Was. Amazing.

How to explain to a seven-year-old the experience of seeing a shuttle take off in person, the excitement, the awe of what we had accomplished?  We watched a lot of launch coverage that day and talked about how dangerous it is, how brave the astronauts are, and how it’s a worthwhile thing to explore and investigate and to try to do what no one thinks is possible. Now that NASA has a humanoid robot on the International Space Station, we even follow him on Twitter so she can ask him questions.

Space is cool. Exploring is cool. Science is cool. NASA is trying make sure kids think so too by giving schools a chance to own an actual shuttle tile and even some astronaut food. I hope someday my daughter boldly goes where no one has gone before, makes the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs and well, whatever her little heart desires. In the meantime, if her school manages to get one of those tiles, I’m sneaking into class that day so I get a chance to hold it when it makes its way around the room.

Robonaut: NASA vs Lucasfilm vs Stark Industries

Robonaut R2

Robots are cool. The first robot I remember was Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I thought he was amazing. An alien robot who didn’t talk, he guarded his master’s spaceship with fierce devotion and shot a laser beam from his head that destroyed puny Earth weaponry without hurting anyone. I wanted a Gort to guard my tree house from the nasty boy who lived next door. Later, I’d see Star Wars and amend my wish to wanting my very own R2D2. Now, as a grown-up, I am amending my wish once again. I want my very own Robonaut.

On Monday, the brains at NASA activated Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to help astronauts on the International Space Station. The idea is that he will someday do the things that are a bit too dangerous for us mere mortals. He’s been up there since February, but it took a little time to get his software loaded and prep him for his first big test. All went as planned and Robonaut powered up without blowing up, so all the little science types at NASA are very happy.

This first test involved turning on the four visible light cameras that are his eyes and the one infrared camera in his mouth that’s supposed to be for depth perception. Sure, I’ll believe that for now but I’m going to steer clear of what could be a killer-laser-beam-of-doom just in case he gets angry. And as though the guys at NASA could read my mind, they’ve gotten Robonaut his own twitter account so we can all have friendly chats with him and set our minds at ease.

As you can see in the picture, he looks like a cross between an astronaut in a white space suit and Iron Man. That gold head would make Tony Stark assemble the copyright lawyers faster than you could shoot a laser beam. He’s also technically called Robonaut R2 which brings into question approval from the folks at Lucasfilm. Somehow this robot has Iron Man’s head and is named after the droid we’ve all been looking for since we were kids. So, despite my uncertainties about that infrared camera he’s hiding, once the inevitable legal showdown between Stark, Lucasfilm and NASA clears, I am first in line for a Robonaut R2 of my very own.

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.

Happy Birthday, Neptune!

Image: Wikipedia

No, we’re not celebrating the Roman God of the Sea’s birthday today but the actual planet Neptune, although the planet was named after the Roman god. Also, technically we’re not celebrating Neptune’s birth but the anniversary of it’s discovery. July 12, 2011 (at 2:38 PM according to one blogger , his article is really in depth) will be exactly one Neptunian year since Neptune was discovered 164.79 Earth years ago on September 23, 1846 (some say it was September 24, 1846).

Neptune is currently the furthest planet from the Sun as it had been until the discovery of Pluto in 1939. However, when Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, Neptune went back to being the farthest planet in the Solar System.

When I told my friend yesterday that the following day would be Neptune’s first birthday, she replied “I wouldn’t want to live on Neptune in that case!” When I got to thinking of it, I started to wonder, if life were to exist on Neptune how would Neptunians celebrate? With it’s 13 moons and freezing temperatures I’m sure they’d be pretty interesting shindigs!

How about you? How would you celebrate on Neptune?

Image: Wikipedia