Jason DavisJun 02, 2014

LightSail is happening, and I'll be your new guide

It's been two years since The Planetary Society has reported on LightSail, our effort to launch a solar sailing spacecraft that will use the sun's energy as a method of propulsion. You're forgiven if you assumed LightSail slipped quietly into the night as a well-intentioned effort that didn't see fruition.

You're also forgiven for thinking I met a similar fate. After all, I haven't published anything since February, when I wrote about how NASA and the U.S. Navy are resurrecting Apollo-era methods to pluck future astronauts from the sea (by the way, those sea trials I discussed ran into a few snags).

I'm happy to report that LightSail and I are doing just fine; in fact, we're teaming up. Today, I am joining The Planetary Society full-time as a media producer. One of my main responsibilities is to serve as an embedded reporter for the Society's many projects. And I'm starting with LightSail, because there is big news on the horizon about when the spacecraft will fly. 

In short, LightSail is happening, and I'll be your new guide.

Lightsail 1 artist's concept with Milky Way background
Lightsail 1 artist's concept with Milky Way background Image: Rick Sternbach

During the past two years, LightSail has come of age. The solar sail itself demonstrated a full deployment back in 2011, but the guts of the spacecraft were far from mature. Project manager Doug Stetson and his team have been shaking out bugs and overhauling LightSail's electronics, attitude control, software and communications systems. Next up is a full "day in the life" flight system test on Wednesday, June 4 that includes another sail deployment and full operation of the spacecraft as if it were in orbit. I'll be on hand at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to observe and report.

While LightSail was busy getting ready to fly, I was working on a journalism master's degree at the University of Arizona. It was a challenging, enriching experience, and I got to do some really cool things. I developed the UA School of Journalism's first two iPad magazines, Scientific Tucsonan and SkyView. I spent time watching astronomers work at some of the many observatories dotting the mountains around Tucson. I was a science journalism intern for Wick Communications (Comet C/2012 S1 ISON's chances of surviving were always iffy—you heard it first in the Green Valley News!). 

The work I'm most proud of is a 35-minute documentary film I produced called Desert Moon. The film chronicles the University of Arizona's involvement in the space race, and follows the story of Gerard Kuiper as he establishes the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, one of the world's first research institutions dedicated to the solar system. Kuiper is commonly referred to as the father of planetary science. He oversaw the creation of four groundbreaking photographic lunar atlases that were used by NASA to scout for astronaut landing sites. He was also the principal experimenter (now known as the principal investigator) of the Ranger program, America's attempt to crash-land spacecraft equipped with television cameras into the moon.

I'm enormously proud of Desert Moon. Retired astronaut Mark Kelly graciously provided narration for the film, which debuts June 28 at the University of Arizona Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. I wish I could release Desert Moon online for everyone to view for free, and eventually this will probably happen. But for now, the film will play exclusively at Flandrau. Funding for Desert Moon was provided by a NASA Space Grant graduate fellowship and the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and the film was produced specifically for Flandrau. Like so many institutions around the world trying to educate the public about science, Flandrau operates on a shoestring budget. I sincerely hope the film attracts new audiences to the science center and brings it some additional revenue.

Jason Davis and Mark Kelly
Jason Davis and Mark Kelly Jason Davis poses with retired astronaut Mark Kelly at the University of Arizona Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. Kelly provided the narration for the documentary film Desert Moon.Image: Shipherd Reed

The film and its accompanying website became the basis of my master's graduate project. Check out www.desertmoonfilm.com for bonus scenes and four short stories about the space race, Gerard Kuiper, Ranger and the effort to map the moon.

I feel fortunate that after spending two years being trained as a journalist, my path has led me right back where I started: The Planetary Society. It was Emily Lakdawalla who first gave me a voice here in 2011, a gesture for which I am eternally grateful. I'm honored to be working for an organization whose mission is "empowering the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration."

My transition from systems administration to science journalism has, in fact, been full of these full-circle moments. I was only a month into my master's program on Sept. 20, 2012 when space shuttle Endeavour buzzed the University of Arizona campus en route to its retirement home in Los Angeles. Endeavour's flyby was a nod to local congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the victim of a near-fatal shooting in Jan. 2011. Her husband, Mark Kelly, commanded Endeavour during STS-134, its final mission, in May 2011. At the time, of course, I had no idea that I would later work with Mark on a film project. 

The flyby of Endeavour, however, paled in comparison to what happened to my wife and me later that day. Sept. 20 is our wedding anniversary. Inexplicably, our first child's due date was also that day. The percentage of babies born on their actual due date is pretty low; around 5 percent. Our daughter broke convention. Jessica began having contractions early that morning. As we watched Endeavour, the contractions intensified, and by 7 p.m., our daughter Marian was born. 

I'll close with yet another full-circle moment. During the year I spent working on Desert Moon, I leafed through countless archives of letters, photographs and films related to Gerard Kuiper. Tucked in a large cache of photos were a few shots of Kuiper during a 1973 Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson. One of the photos shows Kuiper at dinner with his most famous student, Carl Sagan. Sagan studied under Kuiper at the University of Chicago, and was a co-founder of The Planetary Society.

It's a big Universe, but a small world. 

Gerard Kuiper and Carl Sagan
Gerard Kuiper and Carl Sagan Gerard Kuiper and Carl Sagan converse over dinner during the 1973 Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Ariz. Seated at Kuiper's left is his wife, Sarah Kuiper, and astronomer Fred Whipple.Image: David Morrison

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