In reference to cult classic Star Trek, this year’s Canada Space Society Space Summit’s theme was “Canada’s Next Space Generation.”
Scientists, industry, government and educators gathered to discuss the future of the Canadian space industry.
An overarching theme in panels and speeches was communication and engagement, and how to get people and youth outside of the space sector interested the industry.
How to engage the public? That had as many answers as people at the summit.
Astronauts, More Astronauts
Astronauts were the most popular candidates for space ambassadors. Sylvain Laporte, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), said that last year’s astronaut recruitment campaign generated 22 million website impressions, and social media exploded with comments, requests and questions.
Laporte said that the agency was trying to ignite pride in Canadians, in their talents, and in their space industry.
The popularity of former astronaut Chris Hadfield since his stint as commander of the International Space Station (ISS), permeated these discussions.
Marianne Mader is a planetary scientist and a director at the Royal Ontario Museum. In an education panel she showed a slide of Hadfield with The Martian actor, Matt Damon, holding a piece of Martian rock. This rock, from the museum’s collection, Hadfield delivered to the red carpet as the museum’s ambassador, says Mader. The former astronaut being at the intersection of celebrity and scientist provided the opportunity for this moment to go viral.
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) September 12, 2015
Other Space and Science Ambassadors
Not everyone can be an astronaut. But there are other celebrity scientists, including Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, who have bridged the complex subjects of space science with popular culture.
Arts and Culture panelist, Michael Unger, of the H.R. MacMillan Pacific Space Centre, in Vancouver, B.C. holds an annual Carl Sagan day. They watch movies, eat apple pie, and discuss science. While he’s had some push back from his colleagues, Unger argued that Carl Sagan day is important.
“It is for the science communicators, because he’s our hero,” said Unger. He likens the current science education climate to a war.
Unger is concerned with science-denying organizations, specifically, flat-Earthers, and their belief that the world is flat. A recent flat-Earther convention, has brought more attention to the movement, and Unger said that flat-Earthers have been challenging his science centre on social media.
“It’s something we as science communicators need to take seriously,” said Unger. Sagan and other celebrities provide an accessibility that engages audiences, and hopefully educates.
Other science denying movements that have gained, or maintained recent popularity include climate change denial.
Celebrity is not the only way to engage the public. Isabel Deslauriers, another education panelist, is a manager at Let’s Talk Science. This is a national outreach program to engage youth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She points to many hands-on activities that have been successful in lighting scientific flames in young eyes.
“You’re not going to turn every scientist into an engineer, but it’s important to give the kids who want it to have the chance,” says Deslauriers. “You want all kids to have a love for STEM and the life decisions that have a STEM basis.”
A particularly popular project was sending tomato seeds into space, returning them to Earth, and then distributing these seeds to school children. Children would grow the space seeds, as well as control seeds that had never left the planet, and observe differences in growing patterns. This data would all be sent to the University of Guelph for further analysis.
But beyond children, there are other sectors of society frequently left out of space conversations.
These include artists.
Artists and Science Fiction
Arts and culture panelist, Jim Parker, is one of the founders of the RumbleSat project. In this project, his team sent 150 pieces of art into orbit, then had them come back down. The art then went on tour in Canada.
Parker says that the importance of these art pieces come from the experience of having left the planet.
“Art is always about provenance,” says Parker, “They’re interesting because of where they are and where they’ve been.”
Two of the art pieces came back to Earth modified. In appearance it looks like water droplets got onto the pieces creating a stain, but Parker says, it doesn’t matter what happened, just that it did.
Ultimately Parker is fundraising for an unscrewed art studio in space. Artists’ interests don’t always align scientists’ interests. One of his group’s interests is how far you can throw an InkJet in space.
The arts and culture panel was the least populated of the entire summit, with perhaps a dozen people in the room, it had the misfortune of being placed in competition with the panel on space exploration.
This did not deter lively, and Star Trek reference filled, discussion.
Aerospace engineer and award winning science fiction author, Eric Choi, highlighted the importance of imagination when talking of space.
Scholars have long argued that science fiction has been a point of inspiration for those interested in space. One must just look to the title of this summit.
Star Trek famously predicted communicators in the shape of cellphones, and reading devices that look much like iPads.
“Whatever they’re talking about in other [panel],” announced Choi to the sparsely populated, but enthusiastic room, “Science Fiction was there first, and it has gone further.”