What I Learned at Spacefest X
Spacefest, perhaps the most exciting and intimate gathering of spaceflight figures, professionals, and enthusiasts, was held this year from August 8-11 at its usual venue at Starr Pass in Tucson, Arizona. Novaspace, the esteemed art and autograph company that holds the event, has faced change in recent years with the passing of its founder and visionary, Kim Poor, and their long-time helping hand and well-known Tucson musician Randy Clamons. With the transition to the next generation of Spacefesters, Spacefest X demonstrated change with the times, growing and diversifying in subject, scope, and attendees in what makes a gripping and fascinating new flavor.
The lectures, panels, and events at Spacefest X were carefully selected, thoughtfully curated, and expertly presented. With a structure designed for two lectures at once, one set of lecture halls featured spaceflight experts, while the simultaneous talks were geared towards other scientists such as astronomers, biologists, or engineers. Speakers and topics from the entire scope of spaceflight were present, and their lectures were organized in chronological order, giving the event a cohesive narrative. This curation and presentation was deeply impressive.
In addition to the lectures and panels, Novaspace was also able to swing a performance by the original lineup of Max-Q, the all-astronaut band founded in the 1980s by Shuttle astronauts Hoot Gibson, Steve Hawley, Pinky Nelson, Brewster Shaw, and Jim Wetherbee. It was their first performance together in over 20 years, and the band arrived in Tucson early to practice and refine their repertoire of 1950s-1980s classic rock. Having read about Max-Q and their legendary performances in the 1980s, seeing those same five legendary and accomplished Shuttle astronauts performing again is an all-time Spacefest highlight for me.
On to what I’ve learned! The IAAA Founders panel was the first new panel of the event. An important influence and precursor to Spacefest, the International Association of Astronomical Artists is the official organization for space artists, and its founders make up a significant portion of the art show at Spacefest each year. This year, they gave a panel on how the group formed and evolved into what it is today, and shared some unique insights into their work. Seeking inspiration for painting other worlds, the artists visited otherworldly landscapes here on Earth such as Hawaii, Iceland, or Death Valley. Some of the artists used the landscapes as a model, while others accurately recreated it and added spacey elements. In fact, one of the group’s favorite sites in Death Valley has officially been named “Mars Hill,” and is visited by NASA researchers due in-part to the work of IAAA artist Don Davis.
Regarding the relationship space art has with science, the panel has never sensed a chasm between the arts and sciences, being knowledgeable on both subjects. Panel moderator Andrew Chaikin noted that “artists can go places spacecraft cannot.” A story with this concept at heart is the group’s trip to Iceland with Russian artists, including cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Before the trip, the Americans believed their Russian colleagues would be more materialist than abstractionist. It turns out that not only was the opposite true, but the Russian artists had thought the same of the Americans, and their perception was more correct. Since American activities in space were public and accessible, artists were able to depict more precise technology and material, while Russians relied more on abstract concepts and imagination. The panel concluded on the statement that space art is not just about technique, but focus. One of IAAA’s goals is to help those with good technique find subjects of focus.
The next learning experience was a lunch with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, one of the most accomplished space travellers in history, still holding the record for the most time in space of any person: a truly astounding 879 days split between Mir and the ISS. Spacefest’s Astronaut Luncheon is one of the best times to get to know an astronaut. With ten people to each table, the discussion is close and full of good conversation. I asked Padalka about his recent involvement with Terry Virts’s record for the fastest circumnavigation of Earth via the poles. He was excited to be part of the team onboard the airplane and noted the group’s international backgrounds. It became evident throughout the lunch that Padalka values internationalism and cooperation in spaceflight, mentioning that his favorite moments onboard the ISS were the traditional Friday night dinners; the only time the entire crew is together informally. He also believes that this spirit of cooperation will be necessary for missions to the Moon and especially Mars.
Speaking with the first cosmonaut I’ve met, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore these philosophical subjects. The next question I asked was about overview: a paradigm shift some astronauts experience in space that brings a sense of unity and belongingness to Earth and the universe. Padalka reported that he didn’t experience it strongly, but the idea he then helped me reach brought a paradigm shift to my own worldview. He postulated that space may all be the same civilization. Seeing I didn’t fully understand, he added another hint: what if, in some distant future, humans visit interstellar space and find others like us also exploring? Sensing this Roddenberry-esque concept, I added that humans would, conceivably, join this interstellar community. As Padalka pointed at me and nodded, the thoughts flooded into my head. Before my eyes were images of early humans coming into contact with outside groups, building the first settlements, trading with faraway peoples, eventually becoming the single, interconnected global community that exists today. Perhaps we still have more societies and cultures to join-in and allow to become part of our own. Padalka’s unique expression allowed me to “grip” this in a way I never had. His experience with and love for international expeditions are certainly an agent in his perspective.
A more technical viewpoint Padalka shared is a difference in the psychology of an EVA. Astronauts often speak of the overwhelming elements of spacewalking: flying in your own little spacecraft at 28,500kph with 400km of void beneath your feet, tethered to a football-pitch sized station that you’re servicing with unique tools. Some have written that they pretend they are back in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), the swimming pool where astronauts train for these repairs, to avoid being distracted by the awesome sights. Padalka, on the other hand, reported that cosmonauts spend the first 10-20 minutes of EVA “acclimating” to the view and the environment to prevent distraction later on. Padalka spoke as if the awe and shock were absorbed head-on. Tangentially, he agreed that although the film Gravity is nowhere near accurate in technicalities, its visual depiction of EVA is perhaps the best of any film, and for that ability to inspire young people such as his own children, it has his seal of approval. I’m left with a desire to meet and converse with more astronauts who aren’t American, particularly astronauts who don’t speak English natively.
Continuing with a desire to hear new perspectives, I proceeded to Carolyn Porco’s lecture, which has become one of my favorite experiences this Spacefest. A planetary scientist, Porco is known as “Madame Saturn” for her landmark work with the Cassini probe, as well as other accomplishments in the exploration of the outer solar system. Her career is also distinguished with work as a science educator and public speaker, appearing in documentaries such as the critically acclaimed film The Farthest. For this lecture, however, her topic of scrutiny was humanity’s future viewed through the lens of a planetary scientist. Porco related that she has figuratively spent much of her life on Saturn and other celestial objects for her work. Now that those projects are complete, she has shifted her attention to Earth itself, and found that this planet is in danger of becoming inhospitable to humans.
Stemming from the underlying failure of humanity to view ourselves as connected to Earth, Porco distilled three major issues facing our future: an increasing birth rate, CO2 emissions, and a growth-based economy; none of which crewed space exploration is a practical solution for. Increased human population will cause the suffering of millions of people, if not billions, in developing countries due to lack of resources and disease. Carbon Dioxide emissions are bleak at best. Porco’s calculations show that not enough trees can be planted on Earth’s surface to remove human-produced CO2 from the atmosphere; which now measure at over 1 trillion tonnes. Much of this CO2 is produced by Porco’s third major issue: growth-based economies dependant on unsustainable exploitation. Even if humans became fully sustainable today, reducing emissions to zero, Earth is past the tipping point, and the damage is irrevocable. The oceans are going to rise, temperatures will become extreme, species will go extinct, and perhaps in our lifetimes, there will be conflicts over food and water.
Porco argued that curbing the birthrate is best resolved by improving infant survival, urbanization, and women’s education initiatives. According to current data, these seem to be the chief indicators of a sustainable birth rate in a society. A smaller human population will create less demand for key resources and reduce human suffering in the future. The emissions and pollution problem is a more serious challenge. Humans’ biological instinct is to think in groups of 150-200 people. Now, however, each individual’s output has extended to affect the entire species. Each piece of disposable plastic and each car ride is now a decision on humanity’s future. Achieving a deep, cross-cultural, and well-educated view of Earth as our only home is the true resolution. Despite the fact that this worldview ensures survival, it can not be developed in time. Therefore, artificial CO2 scrubbers and pollution reversal initiatives seem to be the next best thing. Continuing on this theme, Porco established that there should be due suspicion of private industry’s involvement in space, and that space enthusiasm is being “hijacked by profiteers.” SpaceX’s Starlink or Blue Origin’s Moon-based industry are examples. Porco asked whether Elon Musk sees 4 billion more internet users or 4 billion more customers. The growth-based economy’s issues will not simply disappear in space; humans will carry our flaws with us to other worlds, damaging their environments as well, unless they are resolved here and now. “Terraform Mars?” Porco argued. “Why don’t we terraform Earth instead?”
As this lecture was somewhat anathema to the traditional Spacefest attendees, Porco thanked the audience for their attention, and noted there was only one walkout. A group of us went to the stage to meet her. I was pleasantly surprised as people shared that she had changed their view, and I count myself among them. We had a discussion about what to do next. One audience member shared that certain colleagues at the University of Arizona, a leader in Earth and planetary sciences, predict 30 years left before the global economy crumbles from climate change’s effects. A good organization to empower would be the National Resources Defense Council, and grassroots activists that don’t have much overhead or political control. Porco noted that a major influence for her was Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. An audience member recommended Limits on Growth by Meadows et al.
Following Porco’s exploration of the future of Earth and spaceflight’s rationales, Grant Anderson, co-founder of Paragon Space Development, gave a presentation on the challenges of engineering practical long-duration space vehicles and hardware. Specializing in ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System), Anderson discussed radiation, dust, food, bacteria, and other considerations for a space habitat, drawing on Paragon’s decades of experience creating such components for NASA and others. Overall, ECLSS is not yet ready to make the jump to a permanent lunar outpost, much less a Mars outpost.
Unlike other systems, ECLSS testing cannot be accelerated. For a life support system, the danger lies in gradual corrosion and wear that comes with use in the field; e.g. filters or seals may only show signs of decay months into a mission. In addition, long-term exposure to radiation and space poses unknowns not just for equipment, but also for human crews and biological materials. Even with Earth-orbital flights, radiation constrains the amount of time astronauts can spend in space, with limits for cumulative radiation exposure based on the same union standards for workers here on Earth. Anderson reckoned that we may see older people and females assigned to flights involving radiation exposure, as they are more resistant to radiation poisoning. This concern is particularly applicable to a Mars flight. The ability of radiation shielding to protect a crew over time is still unknown. Furthermore, radiation’s effects on bacteria growth and food are also unknown.
Regarding food, a plant-based diet as a primary source of nutrients is not feasible according to Anderson. His recommendation is a more storable and preserved diet, similar to canned food and peanut oil, that can be supplemented by grown food. Mars itself will not easily grow crops as depicted in science-fiction; not enough light reaches the surface for germination. The first crops to be grown on Mars will probably be yeast or algae, and the latter would not be consumed by humans. The primary purpose of plant-growth in space should be the psychological benefits; a reminder of home in an otherwise sterile and mechanical environment. These psychological benefits were already seen in space when flowering zinnias were harvested by Scott Kelly as part of the Veggie experiment, and the small greenhouses that have been enjoyed by researchers in Antarctic outposts.
Another constraint for food-growth on Mars will be its dust storms, which can last for weeks or months at a time. Dust will also be a significant issue on the Moon. Anderson explained the issues Apollo faced with lunar dust, such as seals on EVA suits close to losing integrity, and a not-so-secret secret: the boxes designed to seal lunar samples from contamination never held their environment due to the tiny, abrasive, and invasive lunar dust in the seals. The effect of dust on human health is still largely unknown, with studies using Earth-created lunar dust simulant indicating that long-term exposure causes respiratory disease and silicosis-type illness experienced by coal miners.
Anderson then made a point that stuck with me: Apollo only had to work for two weeks–something that may have contributed to its success. Technology for a lunar base will need to work indefinitely. Anderson also elaborated that the consistency of a component’s construction is intrinsically tied to its success rate. One example from the ISS is the retirement of a certain technician causing the failure of the component they manufactured. The retired technician had to return and explain the nuances and caveats of the process to their replacement. Simply reusing prior hardware, referred to under the “heritage systems” umbrella, is not viable or cost-cutting. The adaptation and implementation of new purposes and engineering standards essentially makes the heritage system a new project anyway. Anderson stressed that brand new systems for mitigating dust and other destination-issues must be devised and tested before constructing a permanent lunar base.
ECLSS must also account for medical issues. What happens if there is a medical emergency? Will a spacecraft need dental tools, antibiotics, or scanners? How will illnesses like cancer be diagnosed? What happens if someone loses a finger, an eye, or breaks a bone? A much more grotesque question must also be considered: what if someone dies? The Moon is only days away, and in many of these scenarios, the crew could return to Earth. Once en route to Mars, however, a crew will be irrevocably committed to a years-long voyage. Because of light-delay, the crew will be effectively isolated from mission control on Earth in critical moments and must be able to monitor their own spacecraft to the same ability of mission control. Crew psychology is commonly cited as the number-one issue for a Mars mission. Researchers recommend an odd-numbered crew so the mission commander can remain separate once two groups of opinion inevitably form. The Orion spacecraft has six seats.
At Spacefest, the opportunity to ask the advice of professionals whose work you admire, and to receive a personal education on subjects not covered in the lectures, is the best it may ever get. As a new spaceflight historian, the most important thing I did at Spacefest was to have personal conversations with my role models and colleagues on what we do and how I can become part of it. It’s a great way to expand the horizon of your abilities. I had a long conversation with a friend who is an expert in planetariums–work that I touched upon in college when our astronomy club began dusting off our campus’s disused planetarium. It was an invaluable crash course that wouldn’t be the same over the internet. Not excluded from these learning opportunities are the more happenstance encounters with groups of friends. At the opening reception, some friends and I talked with Dutch von Ehrenfried, a legendary mission controller, around a high-table over drinks. We touched upon his lecture topic, caves on the Moon and Mars, but overall the conversation spanned the whole length of spaceflight. There are too many of these encounters to include in one article. Regardless of where I go each Spacefest, a notebook and pen are in-hand and ready for use upon sensing great alacrity.
One of these spaceflight historians presenting admirable work was Jay Gallentine, who gave a lecture on new research about a Russian uncrewed probe to the Moon. Luna 15 was infamously scheduled by the USSR to travel to the Moon at the same time as Apollo 11 in July 1969. Though commonly referenced by spaceflight historians, the probe is more often presented as a footnote to Chris Kraft’s worries of potential Russian radio interference with US activities. Gallentine elaborated on this story, bringing astronaut Frank Borman into the narrative, who used connections from a goodwill visit to Moscow as a backchannel to request information on Luna 15. In an unprecedented move for that era, the USSR provided NASA with Luna 15’s orbital trajectory; the first time details of a Russian mission were communicated to the US before flight. Luna 15 was not to be in the vicinity of Apollo 11 at any stage in their respective missions.
Gallentine’s excellent lecture explored the details of Luna 15’s conception, design, mission, and legacy in the context of the Russian space program. Apollo 8, the successful first flight of humans to the Moon, became an agent in the USSR’s decision to bring forth from the back-burner uncrewed, scientific flight. Luna 15 was to attempt a sample return mission from the Moon, bringing lunar soil back to Earth before Apollo 11 did. Ultimately, the mission failed, crashing into the Moon’s surface due to radar failure while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were at Tranquility Base. Gallentine’s research shows that the USSR never intended to interfere with US radio communications, with Luna’s frequencies nowhere near those of Apollo.
The subsequent mission, Luna 16, did successfully return lunar samples to Earth. Emerging from Gallentine’s work is a previously unknown figure: Georgiy Babakin. This humble engineer in the Russian space program was responsible for much of the USSR’s success with robotic probes and sciences. Despite Luna 16, which retrieved the first of only three Russian lunar samples, Babakin was out of the limelight for the rest of his life. This is the power of History: to discover previously unknown details in occurrences that may or may not already have coverage in a narrative, having the potential to improve the field’s perspective overall.
These are only a trifling of what Spacefest X offered; yet they stand out to me as the best representation of the scope this convention covers academically. IAAA spoke of art and culture; Padalka gave a personal, firsthand experience with spaceflight; Porco brought space and planetary science; Anderson brought engineering and hardware development; Gallentine brought historical research; and altogether, the event and its attendees are moving forward, not standing still. Even during the event, good friends and I were debating these different takes on spaceflight’s past and future. This stands as a testament to Novaspace’s curation, and their new mission of expanding Spacefest to be more than just an autograph and art show, but a point of diverse culture and expertise in spaceflight’s community for both professionals and enthusiasts alike.
As a conclusion, here is what I have taken away, in the context of a few years of close examination of this field: the prudent, pertinent, and well-educated scrutiny brought forth by experienced experts such as Porco and Anderson must be addressed by any hopeful spacefaring civilization and/or organization. At heart, I am an idealist and a dreamer. However, the mystique of outer space and the excitement to explore it must also give way to certain truths and practicalities, just as the limited narratives of old History must yield to new perspectives and discoveries. Idealism and excitement, the noblest rationales for spaceflight, are being taken advantage of to obscure the actual political, militaristic, and profit-driven motives. Ceteris paribus, humans will treat space as irresponsibly as we have treated Earth. Recent calls are attempting to reignite the past, but Apollo and its spirit can never happen again. The past is child’s play compared to the work that must be done now for a successful future both on and off Earth.
Special thanks to Novaspace, the Poor family, and all the volunteers that make Spacefest happen.
Images and videos courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover image - the consistently coveted Apollo panel held on Friday night
Anderson, Grant. “Filling the Holes for Long Duration Life Support.” Lecture, Spacefest X, Tucson AZ, 9 August 2019.
Chaikin, Andrew, Michael Carroll, Don Davis, Marilynn Flynn, Joel Hagen, Bill Hartmann, Pamela Lee, and Rick Sternbach. “IAAA Founders.” Panel, Spacefest X, Tucson AZ, 8 August 2019.
Gallentine, Jay. “The Soviet Hail Mary.” Lecture, Spacefest X, Tucson AZ, 11 August 2019.
Padalka, Gennady (former cosmonaut). Conversation with the author. Spacefest X, Tucson AZ, 09 August 2019.
Porco, Carolyn. “Musings on the Future of Humanity… Earth and Beyond.” Lecture, Spacefest X, Tucson AZ, 09 August 2019.