POWER MOVES: Mars NASA Social // $50,000 Nat Geo Contest

Well, it seems that I am making some progress in my attempt to sneak in under the tent as a science writer/photographer/outreacher/visual culture of Astronomy-whathaveyou-somethingerother.  And so accordingly, I would like to take some space to inform and reflect upon some new projects recently completed and currently in the works. I recently connected with an assistant professor of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University who edits a bi-annual national newsletter for the State Park system of the United States.   He reached out on Reddit for writers looking to get some exposure and promote their local state park and so I shot him a link of this blog and my Instagram page (accessible on the sidebar ---->) and pitched him an idea that was well received.  I wrote up a quick narrative about hiking in and around the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and the Lost Dutchman State Park, photographic experiments with the Moon illusion touched on in my last post, star trails, and showing some friends Saturn for the first time through my 8" Dobsonian telescope.  They are currently finishing editing and I should be able to share that story + photos fairly soon.

Paused Along the Treasure Loop Trail


Next weekend I will be flying to Denver, CO to attend the NASA Social event MAVEN Arrives at Mars where 25 social media space enthusiasts will be given press credentials and taken on a tour of the 1) the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics and 2) Lockheed Martin's Autonomous Systems facility in Littleton, CO.  The MAVEN spacecraft launched some 10 months ago and on Sunday will perform an orbital insertion maneuver around the red planet in order to carry out its designed mission to study just how and why Mars lost its atmosphere and how that affected the Martian climate, which may have at some point in the past been able to sustain life.  Expect lots of Twitter, FB, and Instagram posts, some cool stories, sweet photos, and a few slick hyperlapse (motion stabilized time-lapse) videos.


And now for the Big Whoop.

A couple months ago, almost in passing, my father mentioned to me that National Geographic was hosting a contest for a $50,000 grant to fund a "dream expedition".  I thought it sounded cool enough to research, but really didn't have an idea of what I could do with it.  Then one night I was out shooting startrails over the Superstition Mountains for the article on state parks detailed above.  I was with a friend who often joins me on late night shoots and I was describing a new method of depicting Milky Way timelapse videos that I happened upon by accident.  We continued brainstorming how I might accomplish the task, which would require significant amounts of travel around the whole globe when the topic of conversation shifted and I ended up relaying the details of this NatGeo contest and lamenting on my lack of inspiration.

He said, "Do that!"

"Do what?" I inquired.  "Do what you were just talking about, and use the contest to fund it."  Oh dang, I thought, that's not a bad idea.  A seed had been planted.  I started to roll the idea over in my mind for a week or so until it morphed and spread out to include all the different visits, projects, meetings, images, videos, trips, places, and people that I have been wanting to work with since getting involved with all this amateur astronomy and astrophotography stuff.  Community star parties, National Parks Dark Sky team and their artists-in-residence program, podcasters, publishers, outreach coordinators, the G+ Virtual Star Party crew, Bill Nye, 3D videographers, and not to mention all of my artistic friends. I started to see how this could turn into a whole big road trip with amazing collaborations ending possibly in an epic documentary or TV miniseries leaving a wake of art projects, community events, lesson plans for student groups, memories, and unintended consequences along the way.

I put my project proposal together over the span of two weeks with the enormous support and help of family and friends.  The resulting video cost me heaps of stress, anguish, and existential dread.  Check it out!

Are We Losing the Night?


I still have to wait until the 16th of September to find out whether or not I am a finalist, but I am already sharing it around as if I were.  I'm reaching out to the International Dark Sky Association, The Universe Today, CosmoQuest, maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joe Rogan, Astronomers W/O Borders, and all my artist friends.  If I am selected then the next two weeks will be an all out social media blitz to solicit as many public votes as possible. I will be sending out reminders, because I know how busy your lives are.  Everybody can vote ONCE A DAY for one week - most public votes wins.  Feel free to share it around in your own networks using the social media icon buttons on my project page and there is a little comment box at the bottom as well for any questions you may have about the details of my project.

I'm pretty nervous about it all.  I don't mind possibly looking foolish for not winning - what with all the self promotion that this contest requires, but this project encompasses all that drives me creatively and ideally, it would just naturally transfer over into the perfect career. Wish, hope, pray, throw the IChing, call upon the planets, direct your intentional energies, and send all your woo woo vibes out to the Universe in my favor please!


Dem Space Feels: Emotional Connection, Visual Culture, and Saving Our World

CHALLENGE: See how far you can scroll in this model of the solar system If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.  Go ahead, I'll wait. Now that your wrist hurts as much as your brain, familiarize yourself with the relative size of the planets with the largest known stars in the universe GIF.

Teeheehee sorry for the cheap shot, I didn't create it.  Now then, on with the show...

"Space is soooo big!  It just makes me feel so small and insignificant."

I have never fully understood this sentiment.  Conversely, does the subatomic realm or the goings on of the bacterium in your gut make you feel large and in charge by comparison?  I think not.  So what is it?What is this squirmy sensation that gazing at the night sky engenders?  I suppose that I can empathize because in a very rudimentary way I have dimly grasped the vast scales with which we measure the cosmos and it really is astronomically big (that is why that noun was made into an adverb), and I have on many occasions for my own sake and the sake of others around me tried to feel into the feeling of being quite small and quite insignificant.  I have cut ties with beliefs to experiment with drifting untethered in the existential voids which science is so cheerful to drop out from beneath us and I have wandered anonymous under the towering institutional structures of our big, light/noise/air  polluted cities and felt the aloneness of the teeny tiny speck of fleshy self pitted against the sheer steel walls of meaningless postmodern bottom line-ism reality.

And it is real.  This sense of insignificance is emotionally available, perhaps to your edification or perhaps to your depression, but it IS real.  You really can convince yourself that you are alone in a random and meaningless universe.  But it is also somewhat of a trick because if there is one thing that humans do, its create meaning.  We create meaning and then convince ourselves that it doesn't actually matter.  We are involved in a game of hide and seek on a cosmic scale.

Humans evolved in grasslands and savannahs competing for survival amongst large carnivorous animals with powerful jaws and sharp claws and so as a strategy we developed ways to physically and emotionally identify with the bags of skin with which we moved through this treacherous world.  Its called the ego and it served to keep us alive and out of danger long enough to pass along our genes and raise our offspring to sexual maturity.  That's the name of the game.  But this capacity to assess threat plays a devious trick on us in the modern world where many if not most of those big, scary realities cease to impact our daily lives - reality itself becomes very big and very scary.

Not that it isn't.  Science has helped us to understand for the first time our true size if not our true significance in the universe and there are still a smattering of quite serious and impending threats to our continued survival, not the least of which is our own sense of cultural importance and technological momentum.  Through that same technology we have become the first generations to bear witness to the enormity of space which surrounds us, the gaping eons of time stretched behind us, and to face the terrifying prospect that though the cosmos can be rationally apprehended through numbers (which is weird), it is ultimately unintuitive and for the most part seems to be extremely hostile to life.  But then we are also the first to have smack us in the face images like this:




And this:


Not to mention the Hubble Deep Field and Extreme Deep Field  gravitational lensing and all that.  Astronomy is lucky in that way that as big and somewhat terrifying as the sky and its denizens are, they are just as awe-inspiringly wonderful to behold.   But we live in this world everyday and all day struggle to survive and all night we rest to prepare ourselves for the coming day.  Many things seem to conspire to make the world seem ordinary and hum drum and most of us do not own a thousand or million dollar telescope anyway so who can be bothered? That is why it is so crucial for space science communicators to grab the public by their collective shoulders and shake the hell out of them and shove these images in their faces (especially the social planners and politicians) and scream "Wake UP!" Because its a part of nature and a part of you and is going on all round you.  You who are in an insanely unique and privileged part of the cosmos to be conscious and breathing on a living planet with the information technology to have it all served up for your consumption.  Just a couple tappytaps on your pocket computer and away you go!  And again astronomy is special because while we throw away most things after we consume them - we are perpetually fed by the visual culture of space and as we emotionally connect to it, it suffers no depletion, no ablation, no scarcity and no banality.  So soak it up for it cannot be drained.

And so as we wake up to space so to are we changed by it.  As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson points out in his Space As Culture keynote lecture for the 28th National Space Symposium, before the famous images of Earth were captured by Apollo astronauts, the planet was almost never pictured as having clouds even though ~75% of it is covered at any given time.  In those photos we see no borders, no races, no cultural divides so apparently important on the surface - Humans awoke to the Earth as a solitary whole and not just as a metaphor.  These images were directly caught up in the emerging conservation, ecology, environmental movements and were famously featured on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog (a sort of hippy manual for off-the-grid and alternative lifestyles).  Cars, furniture, and various cultural bric-a-brac of the 50's and 60's took on the sleek, sharp styles of rocketry and we called it the Space Age and the intervening years harbor many more examples of this cross cultural pollination.

Flash forward 50 meandering years as we get rolling here in the 21st Century and come to terms with budget cuts to space science and exploration in the midst of financial prestidigitation and the coming realization that America is not a Democracy but an Oligarchy, climate change denial in the face of increasing climate change and increasingly dire predictions.  We must as culture and as a species take pause to look back at that small thing that the hippies, and feminists, and the conservationists seemed to be on about when a generation saw the planet Earth from space for the first time.  We should take advantage of the technology we have now and get connected in the social media to NASA, the ISS, Astronomy Picture of the Day, check out your local observatory or star party, play some Kerbal Space Program, become a citizen scientist and classify galaxies with Zooniverse, watch Cosmos on National Geographic (or FOX)  and gaze out into the abyss of space so that it can gaze back into you.  Look out to the stars if only to look back at our own planet because if there is one small thing that is as beautiful and significant as the stars are massive and overwhelming, it's a romantic human standing on Earth contemplating it all.

Let night have new meaning. yugen

And wash it all down with a short documentary about picturing our local cosmographic neighborhood.