Archives for category: Education
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Avi Schiffman & team mates demonstrate Debris Hunters at NASA SpaceApps Challenge 2019

The Seattle chapter of the 2019 NASA SpaceApps Challenge was an enormously fun and educational event.

My team, The Debris Hunters, created an educational 3D arcade shooter where players destroy space debris with a variety of tools including laser, harpoons and more. The goal of the project was to increase public awareness of orbital debris and enable them to take action.

The problem of orbital debris explained

The primary problem of orbital debris: bits of metal and paint break off of satellites and spacecraft in orbit and have nowhere to go: they keep spinning around Earth at high velocity and eventually damage our orbital infrastructure and injure astronauts working in orbit. The worst-case scenario of orbital debris is Kessler Syndrome: an unstoppable cascade of orbital collisions that destroy all infrastructure in space — trillions of dollars of investment.

The secondary problem of orbital debris: not enough people know about it, and there’s no international momentum behind controlling it.

That’s why it’s important to find ways to raise awareness of orbital debris and identify paths to remediating the problem. Enter: The Debris Hunters.

Debris Hunters: The Game

The Debris Hunters - Game interface - 2019Components of the MVP

  1. Player is positioned on a space station in orbit around Earth Read the rest of this entry »
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Unity VR Principal Designer Timoni West speaking at Dent:Space

Scientists, educators, startup founders, and authors came together for Dent:Space, a fantastically free conference at the Innovation Hangar.


Susmita Mohanty, whose company builds deployable space habitats, called for a softening of US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), as it’s interfering with rapid global innovation.

Then we heard about a way to build Martian habitats from Keegan Kirkpatrick, who advised Mars-bound engineers to consider in-situ additive construction. If we can figure out how to make Mars soil nontoxic to humans, we’d save a ton of money on the trip.

Timoni West (photo above), who runs Unity’s VR team, shared the most dazzling space-themed VR titles available.

And Scott Manley convinced an audience that they should finally try playing Kerbal Space Program. He remarked that the game had made it easier for students of rocket propulsion to understand the math, because they had developed a feel for rocketry while playing Kerbal.

Favorite quotes

“The space industry doesn’t yet fully realize they need people of different skill sets and backgrounds.” Ariel Waldman, co-host of Dent:Space

“Most space companies work in a very engineering-centered approach. But I think the ISS is over-engineered and under-designed. If you were a consumer or a scientist, you wouldn’t want to put up with that habitat.” Susmita Mohanty, Earth2Orbit

“$20 million usually doesn’t get you a space vehicle. Usually it gets you a 50-page powerpoint presentation.” Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic

Selected slides


NASA Advanced Exploration Systems Director Jason Crusan speaking at Dent:Space


Christianna Taylor talks space debris at Dent:Space

And read a detailed writeup of the event at Popular Science.

At San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the planetarium team hosts an event called the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lectures.

Here’s what I know about astronomy based on five months of lectures:

1. Most astronomy presenters, like most people, aren’t that good at telling stories.

Most of the time, when I walked out of a Benjamin Dean lecture, my companions would turn to me with excitement, and I would feel confusion. What was that about? If I could recap the lecture quickly enough aloud, some of it would stick.

Sometimes when I sit in one of these lectures, I become irritated with the presenter’s inability to guide the audience through concepts and their poor type design. I feel annoyed that they won’t say at the outset of the presentation what we’re going to learn. One presenter, coming near the end and just at the point of making a possibly useful summary, decided to skip ahead, because her talk was running long. All the spinning plates in my head drop to the floor.


I am not well-read on astronomy. Here are my astronomy-related non-credentials: I took an introduction to astronomy class in 1998, at the University of Arizona. One of my college roommates at UC Berkeley was an astrophysics student. I have seen Gravity once and Interstellar twice. I have watched most of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos but none of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I follow 4 astronomers on Twitter and Patreon-ize my spacealicious acquaintance Ariel Waldman. One of my best friends, who is a smartie and general geek, frequently sends me links to Sixty Symbols and Crash Course videos, about half of which I watch. So I can kind of explain what a Lagrange point is and describe the light spectrum. My favorite kind of star is the neutron star. Because that shit is tight.

So when I say I went to five astronomy lectures at the planetarium and hardly understood them, it might be safe to say they weren‘t that well-done. If I then say that I mostly disliked them, maybe you should be concerned. Because I have an interest in astronomy and want to find a way to relate to it, but I’m not finding a way to dig in.

I’m either not smart enough for astronomy, not curious enough — both possibly valid points — or perhaps astronomy still isn’t accessible enough to the public.

That being said…

Even video bloggers, the most engaging of science presenters, talk too fast, include too much information, and use too few visuals to give their presentations a good chance of sticking. Unless 10-year-olds have mutated new biotech for absorbing information at rapid speeds. Which I wouldn’t put past them, the rascals.

2. Astronomy departments don’t know how to grow their audience.

At the first astronomy lecture I attended, the host asked the audience, “It’s Monday night. Do any of you care that this is happening at the same time as Monday Night Football?”

Cue twenty seconds of laughter, groaning, and loud dismissals from the audience. “Okay, okay, thanks,” said the host. Great job, everyone. Our biases have been confirmed. Because everyone who DID care about Monday Night Football was not in the theater: they were watching Monday Night Football. So that poll was the least effective way to find out if any people had been considering attending an astronomy lecture but decided not to because it was football night.

Do I think there are lots of football fans who wish they could have made it to CalAcademy? Not really. But if CalAcademy wanted to reach football fans for their opinion, they failed and didn’t even notice they failed. So much for science.

Pop science content creators are still serving only people who seek knowledge. Nerds. And while there are many more nerds in the world than there used to be, thank goodness, few people consistently pursue knowledge for its own sake. Most people seek knowledge to aid them in an immediate purpose.

And I come in…how?

Okay, I’m slightly embarrassed at all the ignorance I displayed above. I’m hoping I get better at this. Because I want to help. It’s important to me that people care more about the space sciences, rocket science, whatever science gets us closer to building an off-world habitat. This post is me making a note on my way to figuring out how I can help.

Comedy producer and writer Seth MacFarlane (famous for Family Guy) is planning to help return the cult favorite PBS show Cosmos to television. Cosmos, originally hosted by Carl Sagan, will be rebooted, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, on the FOX network.

The reboot of the show may help popularize interest in astrophysics and the possibilities of space travel.

Says Forbes:

MacFarlane’s path to Cosmos started with the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an organization set up by Airplane director Jerry Zucker to help Hollywood work with scientists to ensure shows like CSI are factually correct. Through the group he met the famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “He said he was going to host Cosmos, and he was trying to sell the show to a cable science network,” says MacFarlane. “I said, ‘Let me take you into Fox and we’ll see what happens.’”

Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and the force behind the new Cosmos, says that the network has agreed to make the show using cutting-edge visual technology (the original was one of the first to use green screens) and is letting her have control over the content of the show. “Seth was already a hero in our household because of Family Guy,” says Druyan, who has two sons. “I knew he would be someone with a skeptical nature and an impatience with superstition and nonsense.”

Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey will debut in 2013.