It was an invitation I couldn’t resist. When writer and editor Bob Gleason asked if I wanted to join some science fiction authors for an exclusive tour of NASA’s Goddard campus in Maryland, of course I said yes! The tour was arranged by Tor/Forge Books, a publisher I don’t write for, but Bob had enjoyed my novel GRAVITY and he generously asked me to join their Tor/Forge authors in a behind-the-scenes look that the public seldom gets to see. In return, NASA hopes more novels will be written — accurately — about the space program.
Among our group were writers lready well-known in the SF and thriller genres including Thomas Allen, Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Jim DeFelice, Bill Forstchen, David Hagberg, Jim Born, and Heather Graham. I was particularly happy that Heather was along — otherwise the testosterone in the air would have been overwhelming!
We started off with a peek at the James Webb Telescope, due to be launched in 2018. Once in space, this infrared space telescope will give us a look at the very beginnings of the universe.
Next it was on to a tour of the Integration and Test Facilities, where they see if their equipment is up to the rigors of launch. In this chamber, they subject instruments to ear-splittingly loud noise — so loud that even though the chamber’s encased in concrete, workers can still hear it through the thick door.
Our tour of the test facilities included an enormous centrifuge and vibration and vacuum chambers. Then it was on to Earth Science Mission Control Centers, Satellite Servicing, and — my favorite place — the Detector Development Lab, where we suited up in bunny suits to see where they build micro-shutter array chips for the Webb Telescope.
After a visit to the propulsion facility, where we chatted with rocket scientists who love their jobs “because we get to blow things up!”, it was on to a special reception where 150 folks from NASA came just to meet… us! Many people we met there were inspired to go into the space program because of their love of science fiction. So while we writers were thrilled to meet real space scientists, the scientists seemed just as happy to meet writers.
The next day’s tour included lectures about how they develop instruments and a visit to the Integrated Design Center. Here I learned the amazing fact that anyone can submit a scientific proposal to NASA. You don’t have to work for NASA. If you’re some twelve-year-old genius tinkering in your garage and you come up with a brilliant idea, you can submit a proposal whenever NASA sends out its “Announcement of Opportunity” bulletin. If NASA’s screening panel thinks your idea has merit, it might be used for a future mission. (They’ve even received proposals written by kids in crayon.)
Here I am in the Mission Services Evolution Center where they develop some of those proposals into real engineering hardware. I’m seated at the team leader’s work station where I was warned “not to touch anything!” (As if I dared.)
That afternoon, we got to spend an amazing hour at the IRAD Poster Session, where scientists presented their emerging technology innovations.
A sample poster:
I have to admit, I had no idea what many of these people were talking about. But I tried to keep up my end of the conversation anyway.
Finally, we ended up with the highlight of our visit: a panel discussion on extraterrestrial life. It was a lively exchange between writers and scientists as we discussed what life on other planets might look like, whether it was necessarily carbon-based, and would we recognize it. The most thought-provoking question of all was asked by one of the writers: “If E.T. called earth looking for inhabitants, would you pick up the phone and answer?” It sounds like a simple question, as most scientists would immediately say “Hell, yes!” Until you stop and wonder what E.T. wants with us. Is E.T. hostile or benign? Would we endanger mankind by letting aliens know we exist?
I’m not so sure what my own answer would be.