I am preparing to speak to the customers of Virgin Galactic who are here for the events at the Spaceport. We are discussing philanthropy today. Virgin Galactic customers have started a program to support the education projects we are flying from Spaceport America. Granted, none of the education experiments will be flying on the Virgin systems for a few years, however, there is a commitment by the customers to support space education.
Together with my organization, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, we have created the Virgin Galactic Challenges, there are two. Manufacture fuel in space from algae, and create an efficient way to carry cargo and experiments. Currently it costs $10,000 to send one pound of cargo to space. A gallon of fuel weighs 5 pounds. New Mexico State University has world class research programs on biofuel manufacturing. Sapphire Energy, a commercial facility doing research, manufacturing and refining of biofuels, both are supporting this program.
A good deal of the work I do with students regarding designing experiments they fly to space is to help them become familiar with the environment they will be working in. Tough to do since they can’t go to space. Right now, no one can go to space from a launch site in the United States. We are going to fix that with some of the applied research being done at the spaceport. That is part of the reason NASA is investing in Virgin and UP Aerospace flights from the spaceport. But I digress.
Since the students and their teachers can’t actually go to space, we have to re-create or simulate the environment. How do we do that? Mathematically usually. Let’s consider a similar problem, you want to figure out the mileage your car gets. You don’t have to take your car out for a spin to determine the capacity of your tank. Divide the number of miles you can travel on a full tank of gas by the capacity of your tank and you know your miles per gallon. Student and teachers will become familiar with the environment of space through examination first of the performance characteristics of the Up Aerospace rocket. How fast does the rocket go, what altitude does it reach, how long does it take to get to space, how high does it go, what are the temperature fluctuations our experiments will have to tolerate? Those are the kind of variables students and teachers will get familiar with before they can design an experiment to meet the challenge of growing algae in space.
Gaining familiarity is part of any education process. Last time I wrote about the snake in my house. I am familiar with snakes. Not familiar enough to tell it was a Bull snake in the dark, and familiar enough to know it was slow reacting because it was on cold tile. In science as in life, there is a great deal of difference between familiarity and mastery. Familiarity is the pathway to mastery. The environment of space requires mastery. Building mastery requires practice.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell explains the Ten Thousand Hour Rule. In order to gain mastery he suggests violinists, scientists, computer programmers, surgeons or journalists gain mastery in the crucible of practice.
All start the journey to mastery with familiarity. We will start with helping students and teachers understand basics, not only about the rocket but also about algae. What do we have to do to keep the algae alive on their journey? How will we know if algae we fly reproduce differently from algae we grow on the ground? Sapphire Energy and New Mexico State University are helping us with the preliminary steps to help students and teachers answer those questions for themselves. Each team will design their own experiments. We have mentors from NASA helping us, people from the same office that are contracting with UP Aerospace and Virgin Galactic, the Flight Opportunities office. They are tasked with developing technologies to help NASA’s achieve its missions.
My goal today and with the column, is to hope we continue to make our city, county and state leaders as well as our citizens, more familiar with the pathway to the payoff. It starts with familiarity. Try and remember the first time you rode a bike, your first time at the wheel of a car. Mastery takes time but it is worth the work. Know, mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice. We are gaining on it because we have started to practice.