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Messages planned by Roger That! speakers: vastness of space, elements of life, joy of discovery

  • Roger B. Chaffee
  • Story Musgrave
  • Alice Bowman

Posted on February 06, 2020

One speaker for the upcoming Roger That! conference has seen the majesty of the heavens as only a select number on Earth have, while the other speaker spends each day contemplating images transmitted from the farthest reaches of the solar system.

But the core messages the keynote speakers plan to deliver are elemental. Astronaut Story Musgrave will ask, "How good can you be at what you do?" And Alice Bowman, operations manager for NASA's New Horizons mission studying Pluto and other distant worlds, wants to emphasize that a world of discovery awaits us every day.

The annual conference, held this year on February 14 and 15, celebrates space exploration and the life of Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee. Chaffee, along with Gus Grissom and Ed White, died in 1967 during an Apollo I pre-flight test when a fire broke out in the cockpit.

The event is a collaboration among Grand Valley, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund. Besides the speakers, the event, which is open to the public, includes educational sessions and K-12 STEM programming. Find more information here.

Event co-organizer Deana Weibel, professor of anthropology, said the speakers will "affirm our motto that there's enough space for everyone." They also will address water themes as part of Grand Valley's Making Waves Initiative. 

Here are their stories.

STORY MUSGRAVE

Musgrave's list of achievements include a mind-boggling list of academic degrees in mathematics, operations analysis, chemistry, literature, physiology and a medical degree.

"His work as an astronaut is part of what made us invite him to speak, but his unusual life and varied areas of expertise also highlight the role that education plays," Weibel said.

Musgrave is the only American astronaut to undertake missions on all five shuttle orbiters (Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor). And while the answer is "no" to a common question he gets — "Did you change from being in space?" — he said there is no denying the unique perspective he has.

For instance, when he had a chance to block all light within the spacecraft, the view he saw in space was "quite a user experience." Meteoroids passing between him and the Earth ("You thank every one of them for not hitting you."). Radiation. The way the stars interact with life on Earth. Galaxies visible with the naked eye.

And this: "The aurora is beautiful beyond imagination. It's thousands of miles of red and green flowing across the Earth and shooting into the heavens," Musgrave said. 

Grasping what life is offering is a core motivator for Musgrave and something he works to impart in any of his talks, like the ones he plans for Roger That!

"Look at the mirror. What are we going to take on today?" he said. "What are my passions? Where is my heart?"

In fact, Musgrave draws parallels between water and the human experience, such as its ability to adapt to its situation. His time as an astronaut gave Musgrave unique perspectives on water, from seeing oceans and clouds from above to training in it for spacewalking to seeing its sphere-forming characteristics in space.

"I played with water in zero G. It's kid's stuff but it's a lot of fun," he said.

He also has immense respect for water: "You can be in it all day and it will win."

ALICE BOWMAN

"Alice Bowman is a very important figure among astronomers because of how crucial her work and that of her New Horizons team has been to furthering our understanding of Pluto and other objects in the Kuiper Belt," Weibel said.

Bowman wants to impart to her audience the thrill of exploration. "Science has so many secrets and so many things that are just waiting for us to discover," she said.

It doesn't take long to recognize that Bowman still carries her sense of wonder. She recalls growing up seeing fuzzy photos of Pluto, first discovered in 1930, that essentially left her with an impression that it was a "mysterious gray rock."

Then the New Horizons Mission sent back photos. She excitedly recounts what she saw, which was unexpected. Mountains. Valleys. Canyons. Glaciers. Atmosphere. Haze. A likely underground ocean.

"When we flew by Pluto, Pluto looked more like Earth than Jupiter or Saturn or Mars," Bowman said.

The mission has continued, including images from about a year ago showing a snowman-shaped object that is the most distant one ever explored in space. It is now named Arrokoth. Exploring select stars is on deck.

Bowman said when she takes a step back from the spreadsheets and data, she is amazed at the mission's outcomes. Her professional vantage point has impressed upon her the vastness of space; when the crew sends a signal from Earth to the spacecraft, it takes 6.5 hours traveling at the speed of light to reach the destination.

She is eager to share her work, especially with kids, whom she wants to inspire to take over in the next generation.

"Space is one of those things most anybody can enjoy," Bowman said. "Speaking to the public gives me an opportunity to tell people about a mission their tax dollars fund and make them proud of the discoveries."