Searching the stars paid off

I was just trying to decide whether I should write a post explaining why I trimmed my beard to almost nothing today when my phone started receiving alerts.

The first was from the New York Times. Not long after I started reading about the discovery of SEVEN EARTH-SIZED PLANETS, my phone buzzed again.

This time the alert was from NPR, where I make radio. Here’s a link to the NPR story based on findings published in the science journal Nature. And here’s a short video NASA posted to Twitter.

Days like today make me jealous of my newsroom colleagues. While I’m on my day off, avoiding house work and trying to figure out how to start a silly post about my beard, they get to wrap themselves in the sort of story that has eager space nerds gushing.


“The Martian” called the newsroom this week

I was on deadline this week when a newsroom colleague popped up from her cubicle and said, “Hey Giles, Mark Watney is on the phone. He says there’s water on Mars. Wanna go live with him?”

I knew right away she had to be joking.

Mark Watney on the phone?

Not possible.

Mentioning a man named Mark Watney in the same breath as Mars was obviously a reference to the fictional hero in Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian.” Even in the middle of deadline pressure, I picked up on that fairly quickly. Fictional characters can’t make real-life phones calls, even ones who are problem-solving NASA astronauts with improbable survival stories that are made into major motion pictures.

The odds are much better that “Star Trek’s” William Shatner would call the newsroom. He may never have stepped foot in space while playing the fictional Captain Kirk, but at least he’s a real person who is on THE SAME PLANET!

In the little time I had left before the final newscast of my shift, I decided my colleague was just having some last-minute fun with me, an impression that was reinforced when she laughed at the joke and returned to her conversation with “Watney.”

Besides, I had just finished listening to Weir’s book on my commute, and with the movie in theaters this weekend, new developments about water on Mars seemed to be too much of a coincidence.

Without another thought on the matter, I put the finishing touches on the news I planned to present and headed into the studio.

It was only afterward that I discovered my failure to make like Mark Watney and look beyond the impossible. When I got back out in the newsroom there was an alert on my phone from the “New York Times” saying scientists are pretty sure there is liquid water on Mars.

They haven’t found anything like a lake or a flowing stream stocked with Martian trout, but a new analysis of photos taken by a NASA orbiter has space enthusiasts buzzing.

The photos show dark streaks down Martian slopes. Scientists say they are seasonal and are the best evidence yet of moisture from liquid H2O, although the water is said to be on the briny side.

“You weren’t kidding,” I said to no one in particular.

Not entirely, anyway.

As it turned out, “Watney” was really one of our science reporters, presumably calling to coordinate coverage of NASA’s announcement, the one about liquid water on Mars that I had just whiffed on.

I told myself later that I would have been hard pressed to fit it into my newscast, that the call came too late for me to reasonably include it without courting an on-air disaster. But for a space buff like me, missing a chance to help report on a story like that was disappointing.

Maybe I’ll take it more seriously the next time I’m told Mark Watney is on the phone.

A Nerd’s Vicarious View From Space

It’s a stunning view.


Karen Nyberg, the latest American astronaut to take up residence at the International Space Station, is tweeting pictures from the orbiting outpost. That one was apparently taken over the South Pacific. Nyberg tweeted it today. And as awesome as it is, it’s this one that’s a real eye-catcher.


Nyberg sent that one out last night and when I came upon it, I immediately showed it to my wife.

I may have been a little too breathless when I displayed it for her and told her how I’d tweeted back at Nyberg to thank her for the vicarious view and how cool it is to be able to communicate with someone in space and …

My wife smiled, took a swig from the glass of water she was drinking and muttered “nerd” as she walked away.

You can follow Karen Nyberg on Twitter @AstroKarenN

Mars? It’s Up to My Wife

English: artist interpretation of the Multi Pu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It looks like my options to go on a mission to Mars have expanded. But to take full advantage of this latest opportunity, I’m going to have to convince my wife.

In January, I made public my desire to try to qualify to be a Mars colonist. A group based in The Netherlands called Mars One is looking for pioneers.

I think I made a pretty good case for myself. You can read about it here but the Cliff’s Notes version is this: I live so far away from my job in Washington, D.C. that my co-workers already think I’m from Mars. Plus, I actually saw the Mars flop “John Carter” in the theater and liked it, despite the critics.

Now, space tourist and financier Dennis Tito, the man who paid the Russians $20-million to let him tag along on a trip to the International Space Station back in 2001, is looking for a couple of explorers for his Inspiration Mars mission.

He revealed a tight schedule in a press conference last week.

A blast off date is set for January, 2018.

It’s a hard date having to do with planetary alignment. Otherwise, the group says it will have to wait 15 years for the planets to give the mission another window of opportunity.

Besides, Tito says he doesn’t want to wait until the mid-2030s for a possible NASA mission. He says it’s about inspiring kids, the next generation to reach for the heavens.

Tito’s plans aren’t as ambitious as attempting to plant a permanent human outpost on Mars, but anything having to do with the Red Planet is ambitious enough.

He’s looking for a man and a woman, preferably a middle-aged married couple, to blast off on a 501-day, 140-million mile journey. And, while Mars One says its colonists won’t be coming back, Tito says his mission will return to Earth after orbiting the Red Planet. The couple chosen to go will never set foot on Mars, but at least they’ll get closer than any other human has ever gotten as they whiz by and then use the planet’s gravity to slingshot back home.

One of the scientists working with Tito likened it to a “Lewis and Clark mission.”

Tito’s group doesn’t have a spacecraft and he readily acknowledges that he doesn’t yet have the money to finance the trip.

But he’s got five years.

It’ll take me at least that long to persuade my wife that spending well over a year cooped up in the close confines of a small spacecraft with no shower and little to do but dream about a home-cooked meal and a cold beer is a good idea.

If I work hard enough at it, though, I think she can be convinced. After all, she’s already put up with me for more than 20 years. That alone should be enough to prove to Tito’s group that she can cope with no one else to look at for long periods of time.

There is just one thing I can think of that could be a deal-breaker for my wife and that’s dairy. Too much milk makes me a little gassy. The Inspiration Mars spacecraft is going to smell bad enough by the time it gets back.

Other than that, how could she possibly refuse?