A hell of a good universe: let’s go!

“This is the century of human exploration in space,” astronaut Bonnie Dunbar told the audience at a Science Luminaries event, part of the Seattle Science Festival, last night at the Museum of Flight. It was an interesting declaration as Dunbar and fellow space shuttle astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson, who also spoke at the event, are among the space pioneers of the previous century.

The Pacific Science Center has been the lead organizer of the festival. The Space Luminaries event leaned heavily toward the awe and wonder and dreams of science. It included art, too, as members of Seattle Opera performed selections from “The Little Prince”  and members of Seattle Aerial Arts performed dances called “Weightlessness” and “Space.”

Bonnie Dunbar

Bonnie Dunbar. Photo: NASA.

Dunbar told her story of being inspired by the night sky while growing up in the tiny town of Outlook in the Yakima Valley. The stars got her reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and dreaming about building her own spaceship and flying in it. Her eighth-grade teacher encouraged her to take algebra, a college physics professor nudged her toward engineering, and she eventually did build spaceships and flew on five shuttle missions.

“I was lucky because along the way I had very special people who let me dream,” Dunbar said. “I was always encouraged to share my goals, not to be bashful about them. Always to try to achieve excellence and do the best I could at everything, because in the end that’s really what helps us go forward.”

Nelson’s first shuttle mission was to repair the Solar Maximum satellite, the first time NASA had tried to rendezvous with and fix something already in orbit. He said there were two main objectives for the mission.

“One, it was an expensive solar observatory and we wanted to restore it so the scientists could do their work,” Nelson said. “The other—this was in 1984, at the height of the Cold War—we wanted to show the Russians that we could pluck a satellite out of the sky and do whatever we wanted with it.”

Even with such a serious mission, Nelson said that, as he left the shuttle un-tethered and floated out toward SolarMax, the little kid in him took over.

Pinky Nelson

George "Pinky" Nelson. Photo: NASA.

“One of the coolest things that an astronaut gets to do is go outside,” he said of the experience. He recalled looking around, at the shuttle and the Earth below and thinking, “I can’t believe they let me do this!”

Nelson, now director of science, mathematics, and technology education at Western Washington University, is not shedding any tears at the end of the space shuttle era.

“The space shuttle is an amazing engineering achievement,” he said, adding, “I think it’s appropriate that they retired it. The technology is pretty old. It’s time to move on and do something else.”

The something else is private industry, and various companies are working on spacecraft to get people and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit.

“They are incredibly important and valuable, and I wish them success,” Nelson said. “I hope they all get filthy rich and bring a lot more people into space than we have in the past. But it’s not an easy thing to do.”

One of those giving it a shot is Sierra Nevada Space Systems, whose head Mark Sirangelo was the evening’s final speaker. Sirangelo is another dreamer who was flying airplanes before he could drive motor vehicles.

Mark Sirangelo

Mark Sirangelo. Photo: Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

“Life is really about passion and love,” Sirangelo said. “One of the wonderful things about being in this industry is that you really get the sense of passion. You get a lot of people like Pinky and Bonnie who looked up to the stars and said, ‘I want to do something.’”

Sirangelo has certainly done something, too. Sierra Nevada has been part of missions to the Sun, Moon, and seven planets. It built part of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity that is on its way to the Red Planet, and worked on the system that we hope will land it there safely in August. Their big project is a re-usable spacecraft—the Dream Chaser.

“We called it the Dream Chaser for a reason,” Sirangelo said. “You can follow your dreams. You can go out and do things that are amazing. You can go out and push the boundaries.”

Sirangelo said they did some testing of Dream Chaser just a few weeks ago, and it seemed to excite and energize people. They tried to keep it low-key, but he drily noted that flying a spaceship over Denver was bound to attract attention, and the company received much correspondence and art inspired by the spacecraft.

“That’s what this is really about,” he said, “to be able to inspire the future of who we are and what we’re about. That’s how I was inspired as a little boy to start building things and looking to the stars.”

“Virtually everybody who is in the industry felt that way,” he added.

Dunbar, who is heading up Boeing‘s efforts on higher education and STEM strategic workforce planning, continues to dream of a Moon base or a human flight to Mars and figures it’s not “if” but “who” and “when.”

“We must not forget to explore,” Dunbar said. “We need to inspire the next generation to help us go forward. No nation has ever suffered from exploring, but those nations that have stopped exploring have disappeared into history.”

Nelson said he thinks that art and exploration are the most important things we can do to improve our quality of life and standard of living.

“I’ve been lucky as an educator and a scientist and as an astronaut to be a part of exploration in lots of ways,” he said. “Exploration of physical space, exploration of  ideas; to me there’s nothing more important than that.”

He finished his talk by quoting a line from a favorite poem by e.e. cummings:

“There’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go!”