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Why science and space exploration needs more than those with a degree

They may seem like areas that require a lot of knowledge and training, but the reality isn’t as black or white as that.

Image: John Raoux/AP Photo

INTEREST IN SPACE is slowly back on the up.

You have missions like the Rosetta comet landing, astronauts like Chris Hadfield and Reid Wiseman tweeting shots from space, and games like Kerbal Space Program fuelling interest in the area.

While there’s an interest there, there’s still a barrier. Explaining concepts related to space usually involves scientific concepts and terminology that may be too dense or technical for most people to understand, and leave them assuming you need a deep understanding before you can approach such topics. 

Yet while that is true to an extent, the reality is such more accessible than you may think and having different perspectives and experiences can really help science as a whole.

That’s something Ariel Waldman has been doing and how she started working for NASA in 2008 is an example of that.

When watching a documentary about the organisation’s early days, she saw how the majority of those interviewed admitted they didn’t know a whole lot about space exploration when they started. A random email was sent to the organisation and she wound up working there because of it (she was originally working for an ad agency before she made the switch).

Not having a formal background does help her when explaining topics like space exploration, black holes or the Andromeda galaxy to name just a few.

When explaining concepts that are complex by nature, it’s easy to fall back on jargon and technical terms but Waldman shares her own experiences in the hopes that it’s relatable to the average person.

“I don’t want to make light of it because it might not be easy for everyone, but for me it’s not too difficult because I don’t have a formal science background,” she says. “I spend all this time researching these topics and talking to scientists so it’s less of me spending time [thinking] what is this like [or] how do I communicate this in a general sense.”

It’s more like this is how I think of the Andromeda galaxy or black holes, it’s just sharing how I see space so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate it. I spend more of my time wrapping my head around science and once I do that, the analogies, they come to me.

Source: TMRO/YouTube

As well as SpaceHack, a hackathon that based on getting the public involved in projects involving space exploration, and ScienceHack – both are to provide the same experience she had working with NASA to those who wouldn’t consider themselves knowledgable – Waldman is also a member of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) which looks at the more radical ideas that could help future space missions.

Concepts like hibernation on long trips or using comets as propulsion systems are explored in the hopes that someday, they will lead to improvements for future endeavours.

Although advancements in technology isn’t the only barrier that faces space exploration. Waldman describes the challenges that space exploration. For example, going to Mars isn’t challenging in just a technological sense (a lot of the technology needed to make a trip feasible doesn’t exist yet), but also financially and politically.

It’s hard to point to one thing, a lot of people want to say there’s not enough money but that doesn’t really paint the picture of what’s going on. There’s a lot of issues over a number of dimensions we really need everyone to collaborate… which if it does happen, it would be a really exciting time.

On top of her current work, she’s also working on a book called What’s It Like in Space?, a collection of stories from astronauts about their time in orbit.

A passion project of Waldman, she describes it as a collection of “silly stories from astronauts,” covering the more lighthearted moments of space exploration. One of which is the nickname ‘moonface’, given to those whose face becomes bloated when they go into space.

Why that happens is on Earth, your blood, a lot of it is held below your head but when you go into space without any gravity, your blood equalises and you become really puffy face and bloated. It dissipates after a few days but for the first few days, you have a puffy face.

Something to keep in mind should you ever find yourself in space anytime soon.

Ariel Waldman will be speaking at InspireFest 2015, and will be giving a talk ‘At Home in the Universe‘ at the Dublin Science Gallery on Friday 19th June.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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