I saw this moon yesterday evening on U.S. 290, driving home to Austin from Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country. I say this moon, like there’s more than one moon (for our planet). But I’d never been in this moment, in this space, and I’d never seen this moon and these shades of blue and gray in the sky, like a new box of crayons waiting to be opened. I’d never seen these clouds. I was tired. I wanted to get home before dark. But I stopped, got out, and took a few pictures. And then I wanted to see this moon in black and white.
When the National Geographic Society held its first meeting in March 1888, its president called himself a student of exploration. This place called Earth, Gardiner G. Hubbard said, conjured the image of an enormous globe suspended in space, one side in shadow, the other bathed in sunlight.
For the society, the late 19th century signaled a new era of organized research relating to the geography of land and sea, the geographical distribution of life, and the science of geographic art and mapmaking. “When we embark on the great ocean of discovery, the horizon of the unknown advances with us, and surrounds us wherever we go,” Hubbard told the group. “The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.”
But the ignorance of which Hubbard spoke evoked the humility of simply not yet knowing — not a lack of smartness or determination.
On the largest scale imaginable, it is the same brand of intelligent resolve with which NASA scientists and engineers today are building the Space Launch System (which will be the world’s most powerful rocket) and the Orion spacecraft being designed and tested to someday carry a human crew to Mars millions of miles from planet Earth.
With all eyes on Mars, it’s the same kind of scientific spirit that’s driving the One-Year Mission aboard the International Space Station as scientists and physicians study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans.
And it’s the same zest for knowledge that last week brought a small group of science-based educators and journalists to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for a first-of-its-kind event: the #spacED education media workshop. I was thrilled and honored to be a part of this 12-member group that was chosen by application to participate in the Sept. 15-16 event.
We toured Johnson facilities, ducking our heads to fit through passageways on an International Space Station mockup. We peeked inside an Orion capsule mockup and took turns sitting in the side-by-side front seats on a Space Exploration Vehicle. Some of us (I watched, and learned) operated space station and Orion docking simulators, the latter complete with spine-tingling sound effects.
We visited the Apollo Flight Control Room, preserved and designated as a national historical landmark, and the historic White Flight Control Room now being used to support NASA’s Orion spacecraft. We toured the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (above) where astronauts train for the microgravity conditions of spaceflight in a 40-foot-deep pool that holds 6.2 million gallons of water.
On day one, Tuesday, Sept. 15, we were swept up in the festivities surrounding two momentous occasions: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko marked the midway point of their One-Year Mission aboard the space station; and Mackenzie Davis and Sebastian Stan, cast members in “The Martian,” starred in their own media day at Johnson Space Center, with TV crews and photographers following the actors’ every move.
The #spacED group was present for almost every moment involving Davis and Stan. Activities included two panel discussions led by Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa and the day’s most significant event: the actors’ live downlink conversation with Kelly and fellow NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren that took place in Johnson Space Center’s International Space Station Flight Control Room.
#SpacED day one ended with a wild ride of an assignment: don 3-D glasses for a private, full-length screening of “The Martian,” the 20th Century Fox movie set for release Oct. 2.
The #spacED group had a great time during the two-day workshop. It was heady stuff listening to, observing, and photographing astronauts and Hollywood actors.
But we were not mere tourists. Based on criteria we eagerly accepted, the #spacED group was here to work: Our mission was to gather information, establish connections with Johnson Space Center officials, and pledge our efforts to serve as conduits between classroom teachers and students and NASA’s fascinating journey to Mars.
As educators and journalists with diverse social media presences, we aim to help Johnson Space Center cultivate students’ interests in space exploration and in the supporting fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Our task is to help shine a light on NASA’s multifaceted education programs for students and teachers — which I will be detailing in upcoming blog posts — that include research projects directly connected to the space station, all-expenses-paid educational visits to Johnson Space Center, interactive online learning experiences, and internship opportunities.
For me, the most meaningful interactions of the two-day workshop came during lunch with astronaut Ricky Arnold and briefings with key NASA experts. Most notably, the #spacED group learned about Orion spacecraft flight from engineer Kelly Smith and the One-Year Mission from John Charles, chief of NASA’s Human Research Program International Science Office who is the main researcher working with astronaut Scott Kelly.
Orion’s first flight to outer space on Dec. 5, 2014 — called Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT1 — “was a smashing success,” said Smith, an EFT1 flight controller who helped design the spacecraft’s guidance and navigation controls system. “It was an unbelievable feeling.”
But as Johnson Space Center education officials Arturo Sanchez III and Bob Musgrove told us, not all classrooms are familiar with NASA’s research, including space-station activities and the related quest to send humans to Mars.
Sanchez recounted a recent conversation he had with Houston Independent School District educators. Some of the educators said they didn’t know what was happening on the International Space Station and that they weren’t hearing much about NASA’s space program in general.
A lot of people, says Sanchez, Integration Manager to the International Space Station in Johnson Space Center’s External Relations Office, don’t realize that NASA will celebrate 15 years of continuous human presence on the ISS in November. Many people, he says, aren’t aware of the global cooperation that’s enabling the scientific research experiments that characterize the historic One-Year Mission aboard the space station.
His hope for the #spacED group, Sanchez told us, was that during our two-day stay we would see the rest of NASA’s story: “That as an agency we’re thinking ‘What does our journey to Mars look like? What are the things that we’re having to learn?’ ”
Sanchez encouraged us “to help connect the dots for people in the classroom,” for teachers who are encouraging students to think about science and math. “If it’s what inspires them in the classroom today, that ultimately brings them to work at NASA,” he said.
Such students, Sanchez continued, might also work for high-tech companies and in career fields connected to exploration and innovation. “We know that you guys are critical voices to help us do that,” he told the #spacED group.
Musgrove, director of Johnson Space Center’s Office of Education, said he hoped that after our two-day stay we would be “NASA ambassadors that we can turn to to help tell our story and get the message out about all of the cool things that we do.”
Mission accepted: Beginning with blog posts over the next several weeks and months, I will help tell the story of Johnson Space Center, which serves as NASA’s lead for International Space Station operations and oversees Orion spacecraft development, including crew module, crew training, and mockup facilities, through its Orion Project Office.
I will tell the story of the One-Year Mission and the investigations under way that address health concerns in long-duration spaceflight, such as the loss of muscle and bone strength and fluid shifts suspected of negatively impacting vision.
I will continue writing about the highly sophisticated LED lighting system being designed for the ISS and how this astronaut-friendly lighting, based on the much smaller size of the Orion spacecraft, will be further tuned for deep-space travel to asteroids and beyond.
And I will tell of connections between students and space — including my own. At 9:56 p.m. CDT on July 20, 1969, I and more than half a billion people glued to their television screens watched Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong slowly descend a lunar module ladder to set foot on the moon.
I was 6 years old. More than four decades later, that black-and-white scene from my family’s rabbit-eared TV remains seared in my mind.
Astronauts were my heroes. They still are. So my next #spacED blog post will feature Arnold, the astronaut who provided delightful lunch company for the #spacED group in a Johnson Space Center cafeteria. Arnold, a former public school teacher whose international classroom stints included Indonesia, Morocco, Romania, and Saudi Arabia, was selected by NASA as a Mission Specialist in 2004. He completed Astronaut Candidate Training in 2006 and in March 2009 flew on the Discovery Space Shuttle to the International Space Station where he conducted two spacewalks in the course of installing power-generating solar array wings and a truss segment.
Arnold immediately put the #spacED group at ease, sharing his background and his love of education. He repeatedly made eye contact with each member of the group around the table, engaging us and fostering a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Spending an hour with an astronaut is the closest I’ll ever come to space travel, and I and my group team members heartily laughed when Arnold passionately described his experience.
“Going to space is fantastic,” said Arnold, who is waiting his turn to serve another space station mission. “I highly recommend it.”
Over the past two years, I’ve gotten to know Bill Neiman: a man of sunlight and soil who likes dirt, not asphalt, beneath his feet. My profile of Neiman, his family, and their Native American Seed farm operation appears in the October 2015 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.
My story aims to bring into sharp focus the connections between native habitat, the management of water, and the sustainability of wildlife.
Seated northeast of Junction at the intersection of nine of Texas’ 11 ecoregions, Native American Seed (www.seedsource.com/Default.asp) specializes in the harvest and sale of wildflower seeds and prairie grasses native to those regions and the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana bioregion. As the most easily recognized of Native American Seed’s operations, the West Texas farm itself, as a research laboratory for seeds harvested at off-site locations, provides the best examples of how native habitat sustains wildlife.
Within the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana bioregion, so much of the native vegetation upon which ecosystems depend is gone. But trying to move such a complex issue into mainstream consciousness is a tough sell, Neiman says. Generally speaking, city dwellers who spend most of their lives on concrete don’t consider the full implications of what’s being lost as urban development creeps farther into the countryside.
It’s an issue that will be front and center tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 24, at the Hill Country Alliance’s Annual Leadership Summit in Fredericksburg (see my related blog post “Protecting the Hill Country’s Resources” at https://thelightoftheroad.com/category/hill-country-alliance/). Neiman, who sits on the HCA’s board of directors, will be in attendance, along with many other conservationists.
The balance between native crops and wildlife on the Native American Seed farm teaches us the right questions to ask. Instead of asking “Where has all the wildlife gone?” we should be pondering: “Where have all the native grasses and wildflowers gone?”
Case in point at Native American Seed: During the extreme drought conditions of 2011, clouds of painted buntings (above) descended on rows of Texas cupgrass (Eriochola sericea), surviving on the nutritious seeds of this tall grass that has almost been grazed to extinction.
Milkweed varieties grown on the farm provide nectar and breeding habitat for migrating monarch butterflies, whose numbers are dropping at an alarming rate.
The American Basketflower (Centaurea americana, as seen below) that’s growing successfully on the farm is a common, but relatively unknown, pink-bloomed pollinator for bees and butterflies. This healthful nectar wildflower favored by many native pollinators while in bloom offers large, nutritious oily seeds for songbirds, quail and turkey later in its life cycle.
The entire Neiman family, along with 21 full-time employees, is involved in Native American Seed’s daily operations: Bill’s wife, Jan, oversees business administration; their daughter, Emily, a marketing and public education specialist, coordinates the production of fall and spring seed catalogs; their son, Weston, handles long-range projections; and George Cates, Emily’s partner, specializes in landowner consultations, research and educational public speaking.
But the Native American Seed story is much bigger than what happens on the Neiman family’s 63-acre farm. And the story of Bill Neiman and Native American Seed is best visualized in seeds: millions and billions of seeds primarily harvested during large-scale tall-grass harvests in the fall. Weston Neiman, the farm’s 26-year-old special projects coordinator, estimated that the 2014 fall harvests — conducted in the Lost Pines, Pineywoods, Coastal Bend and Blackland Prairie regions — yielded 6.25 billion little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grass seeds: almost one seed for every person on the planet.
For more than a quarter century, Neiman, now 61, has been bringing value to native plants, encouraging landowners and homeowners — anyone with a patch of ground — to read the land: to understand where they live and what grew there, natively, 150 years ago without human interference. He teaches that the fundamentals of restored native prairie lie beneath the surface, where root systems act like sponges, holding water and slowly releasing it back to aquifers, rivers, and other plants.
Any landowner, Neiman says, can build basins of swales and berms that create a stair-stepping, self-irrigating system of water. It’s good, he says, to create depressions — old-fashioned mud puddles — in one’s own yard, just as he did as a 5-year-old playing beneath the gigantic horse apple trees in his family’s rural Dallas backyard. As Neiman croaks in his familiar, fired-up voice, “Gee, that’s where the butterflies hang out! That’s where the frogs go! The earth worms!”
Neiman’s work circles back to water, and the healing of native habitats, time and again. In June, two weeks after catastrophic Memorial Day weekend flooding on the Blanco River claimed lives, destroyed homes and crumpled centuries-old bald cypress trees, a host of entities including Native American Seed, the Hill Country Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Hays County Master Naturalists, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department partnered to hold riparian recovery workshops in Wimberley and Blanco.
The workshops epitomized Neiman’s vision: Any ecosystem, no matter how badly damaged, can be ecologically restored.
Neiman wrestles with his own philosophical question: Are we behaviorally qualified to receive a restored environment? The answer, he says, hinges on instilling a code of land ethics in the hearts and minds of young people. For a paradigm shift to occur, it will fall upon the next generation to plant new seeds of ecological restoration.
“People can rebuild this,” Neiman says. “All is not lost.”
I’m looking forward to attending the Hill Country Alliance’s Annual Leadership Summit tomorrow, Sept. 24, in Fredericksburg (
). The summit — titled “A Vision for the Hill Country” — is placing a sharp focus on the region’s most critical resources: water and land.
The Hill Country Alliance’s outreach covers a lot of ground in a region encompassing 17 counties, 11.4 million acres and more than 3 million people. It’s an outreach that honors the special beauty of the Hill Country — a magical, mystical place, says HCA Executive Director Christy Muse.
But the Hill Country’s natural resources are under attack, Muse notes, threatened by prolific population growth and a lack of oversight for development outside city limits. Most alarmingly, the aquifer recharge zones and spring-fed streams and rivers that make up the region’s diverse water-supply system can accommodate only so many drinking straws before they run dry.
The fragmentation of rural land into smaller chunks for residential and commercial development puts more pressure on a water system repeatedly, and historically, stressed by drought. Something has to give. So Muse and a broad-based team of experts are asking residents, new and established alike, to give more than they take: to understand the limitations of the region’s water resources and to grasp the connection between the pumping of groundwater and the lowering of the underground water table.
In a recent conversation, Muse explained how she’s framing the main issues: “Everyone in the Hill Country ultimately wants prosperity and quality of life for future generations,” she says. “No one would argue about that.”
But Muse says concerns about water threaten that future in many ways. In conversations about water — the availability of water, the price of water, the quality of water — Muse is noting a glaring omission. “There’s very little attention being paid to the land, and everything that happens on the land has everything to do with the water,” she says. “The water’s the burning issue.”
To that end, Muse envisions a regional land-use plan that features large areas of protected land, such as heritage ranches, with a passenger rail transit system enhancing the vibrancy of tourist locales such as Fredericksburg and Kerrville.
“If you think outside the box,” Muse says, “there’s so much possible.”
Good land planning, Muse continues, necessitates innovative thinking that places less stress on the land, thereby protecting water resources. It involves developing away from sensitive river, or riparian, areas. It means developing in a low-impact manner that doesn’t require massive infrastructure, such as mazes of new roads and big pipelines. It involves creative strategies such as rainwater harvesting and the use of gray water (reusable wastewater) on lawns.
It means growing drought-resistant native plants — see my related story about native plant guru Bill Neiman and his family’s Native American Seed farm operation in the October 2015 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. And I share a little more of Neiman’s vision in my blog post “A Native Plant Paradigm Shift” (https://thelightoftheroad.com/2015/09/23/a-native-plant-paradigm-shift/).
The ultimate idea, Muse says, is to take a holistic view of the entire Hill Country region and the links between the natural systems in place.
In terms of development, “What I really oppose is just letting whatever happen, happen, with an attitude of ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do about that,’ ” says Muse, who grew up in Riverside, Illinois, a planned, walkable community of open green spaces designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “That’s unacceptable. There are things we can do. We have a responsibility.”