On January 9th, the last day of the American Astronomical Society conference in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to do something quite unusual. I attended a briefing on the State of the Universe presented by the President of AAS and several noted science education experts. It was held in Room 2325 at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Here is the flyer I got describing it:
How I got involved in this is a bit convoluted, which is how these things usually are. Dr. Luisa Rebull, the director of NITARP (which is the program that brought me to the AAS conference in the first place) had been asked if one of the teachers participating in the program could testify at a briefing before congress. It was to be held concurrently with the AAS conference, since the conference was just outside Washington at the Gaylord resort at National Harbor, Maryland. Luisa sent the e-mail on to us and of course I volunteered. Sounded like a fun opportunity. I wasn’t chosen to speak, but as I was one of the first to respond, I was offered the chance to attend the meeting anyway.
I woke up and packed my bags, since I would not be able to return to the hotel. I checked out at the front desk and waited by the front door for the others to arrive. This shindig was planned by Josh Shiode, a public policy intern with the AAS. Several other NITARPers, their students, and SOFIA AAAs and EPO personnel were with us. Hotel cars and drivers loaded us up and drove us up the Maryland bank of the Potomac until we pulled off onto Capitol Hill and unloaded on Independence Ave. in front of the Rayburn Building. I had my luggage, computer bag, and camera with me.
After we went through security, we elevated upstairs and walked down the marble corridor to 2325, which is one of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee rooms. I stashed my luggage under the refreshment table and got my badge. We had some time to kill before the briefing actually started, so I chatted with some of the participants and took photos. I hadn’t had breakfast and we were asked not to eat any of the refreshments until the congressional staffers and others arrived. I got shaky enough that I had to sneak a couple of cookies.
The other guests finally arrived and we could start eating. Since I was the only one with a decent SLR camera, Josh asked me to take some pictures of the speakers. The room was full to overflowing, with people standing up. The meeting was introduced by Senator Lamar Smith of Texas, who spoke of his love for college physics and astronomy courses and how his orange tabby cat is named Betelgeuse. Dr. Megan Urry, President Elect for AAS, introduced the speakers.
Dr. David Helfand, President of AAS, was the lead speaker. He spoke on the State of the Universe, and showed slides comparing what we know now with what we knew 45 years ago when he took astronomy in college. We have truly discovered a great deal in what will probably be known as a Golden Age for astronomy. But this Golden Age might be drawing to a close as reduced budgets slow the pace of discovery. Here is his Powerpoint with the slides from his remarks:
Ari Buchalter, Chief Operating Officer of MediaMath, a business marketing and digital advertisement analytics firm, spoke on the importance of STEM education and science literacy for all areas of business and society. He received a PhD in astronomy from Columbia University (where he worked with Dr. Helfand) and developed programs to analyze data from radio telescopes that mapped the Big Bang at Caltech. He then went into business software development and found his ability to think logically, to problem-solve, to program computers, and to work with data helped him develop their analytical tools. As a computer technology teacher, I have actually heard of him before. He is a big proponent of teaching computer programming in K-12 schools. Here are his notes for his remarks:
Blake Bullock, Business Development Director for Civil Air and Space at Northrup Grumman, spoke on how she has used her knowledge of STEM fields as she led the team that designed and built the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Because it will need a mirror much larger than the Hubble Telescope’s, it can’t fit into any existing rocket, so the mirror had to be made in segments that can fold up. Since it is an infrared telescope, it must be kept extremely cold, so they had to develop five layers of sunshades, each the size of tennis courts, that could unfurl after launch. To detect the formation of the first galaxies, it required instruments more sensitive than ever built, which required new technologies that are already being used in other businesses. For example, the mirrors have to be precisely ground. If one segment were blown up to the size of Texas, the imperfections would be about the size of a grasshopper. The device invented just to measure the curvature of the mirrors for JWST is now being used to diagnose eye disease. The JWST has certainly been beneficial to Utah, since the primary mirror segments are made of beryllium, the only metal light enough and tough enough to work in such a large space telescope. And the only source of beryllium ore is in Utah. Here are Blake’s notes:
The final speaker was Peggy Piper who, like me, is both a SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador (Cycle 0 in her case) and has participated several times in NITARP. She is a high school teacher from Wisconsin and is now transitioning into an informal educator at Yerkes Observatory. She told of how she became involved with Yerkes and how that led to bringing astronomers into her classroom, which led to her involvement with NITARP and SOFIA. She gave examples of students who have been inspired by these programs and developed skills and abilities in math, science, and computers they never had before. Here are Peggy’s remarks:
I don’t know what impact we made on people in the room. Most of the members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee did not attend personally, but sent their aides and staff members. The overall message – that investing in astrophysics and STEM in general is of great benefit to our country – may have fallen on deaf ears. But maybe not. Much that happens in congress is “for the record” and is said not because anyone is listening but because it must be officially said. This was the official position statement of the American Astronomical Society regarding the need for astronomy research in the United States. At least I can say I was there, wearing my SOFIA flight jacket and flying the flag for STEM education.
I took some more photos after the session was over, then got my luggage out from under the refreshment table and headed back outside. I had arranged for my airport shuttle to meet me on the steps of the Rayburn Building on Independence Avenue. Two ladies asked me to take their photo with the Capitol Building in the background, so I asked them to return their favor. It was good to be back on Capitol Hill as something other than a tourist. It’s been a long journey since I was a Congressional Intern here in 1982.
It was a short drive to Reagan International Airport and security took no time at all to get through. I got a Dunkin Donut while waiting and worked on blog posts. I wound up sitting across the aisle from Dr. Eric Lindt from BYU whom I had met at the conference and whom I hope to get a chance to work with. The flight was uneventful but long, having to sit in the same seat for four hours. I was glad to have an aisle seat on the left side of the plane so I could stretch out my right leg. My wife and two youngest children picked me up at the airport.
It was a great conference and expanded my knowledge and allowed me to rub shoulders with the leaders of the astronomy community. Now I must pour myself back into my normal life as if nothing has changed. But I can’t help but think that we’ve come a long way from what we knew at the beginning of the space race, and that the destiny of humanity still lies in space.