I’m a bit nervous going up to people. “Can you help me with my project?” Sounds scammy. “Can I ask you about us returning to the moon?” “I’m documenting people’s views about our return to the moon can I ask you a few questions?” How to start? What do you say in those first few seconds that communicates what the project is about and that people should participate?
This is one of the things I will figure out as part of this project. But on December 26, 2019, my sister Christa and I were going to Coldspring. I can’t remember if I was dropping off James or if I was picking him up. Or if I was just transporting him between Maggie’s place where Christa would also be or what. In any case, Christa and I were going from Houston/Spring to Coldspring, and she can’t go to my dad’s property. There is a long history there. So I dropped her off at the Exxon there in Coldspring, and I would pick her up later. And now that I think about it, James was with us when I dropped off Christa. And he wasn’t when I was picking up Christa. See! If you just think it through, it is possible to figure it out!
While Christa was at the Exxon she met April the attendant that was working there. And Christa suggest I interview her.
Looking back over this interview, this is originally what I had in mind. 1,840 of these types of interactions. But the project has definitely changed a lot and I have some really in depth interviews. Also, if I had stuck strictly to the plan of doing these types of interviews, it could have become exceedingly boring. And I’m not sure I would have been able to make it through the year. The variety in the interviews is definitely helping to keep me going. Some short, some long. Some with people that don’t think about the space programs and some that do. Some with random people, and some with people I already know. It is the variety that is key to keeping the project interesting to me.
April was surprised to learn that it has been 1972 since we went back to the moon. She thinks that space exploration could be good. But she does not think about it that much. She will likely just read about us returning, it will not be a moment to celebrate.
How could I improve this? Think ahead to the questions. What am I going to ask?
Can you say a little about yourself?
“Did you know we were sending people back to the moon in 2024?” – explore the answer
“What do you think about it?” — Explore the answer
“If it were safe and affordable would you go into space?” -explore the answer
that is the general pattern. Though I’d like to toss in the “Do you know the last time we went to the moon?” And “Have you heard about Space Hero?” and “What would you hope that we get out of returning to the moon?” are some regular questions that I would ask.
It is about making incremental, step by step improvements. Each interview I learn a little more, and become a little more confident.
My family went to go join the Malhotras for Christmas day. Their two daughters, Radha and Anjani are close to the ages of my two sons Stephen and Christopher. We had been hanging out with each other for years. Also, Sandeep’s parents have been friends with Sonia’s parents. So it has been a nice setup.
It was only natural that I would ask one of them for an interview when we went over.
Just remembering back to how much had changed. Only in about 3 months school would be put online because of the pandemic. We had no idea of what would happen in the next few months with lockdowns, concerns of mass death, and the like. I believe the big news item at the time was the impeachment of President Trump.
Radha mentioned that she felt awkward with interviews. I felt like I was feeling awkward doing the interview. And watching the interview there is a bit of awkwardness. Like we are both not sure what we are doing. But one note is that after 1840 interviews, it should be quite natural to talk to people. The key though is not just to go through the motions 1840 times, but rather to try to improve in some way each time.
There is the old adage “practice makes perfect.” But my band director, Leon Steward pointed out that “perfect practice makes perfect.” Practice actually make permanent. If you practice the mistakes, you will make them over and over again.
As I do these interviews, I think it is key to avoid verbal pauses like “ah” and “uh”. And it is key to walk the interviewee through their thought processes in a logical and comfortable way. But also in an efficient way.
Radha would take a vacation to space, but no more than a month. She does not look for space news, but finds it fascinating when she hears about it at our North Houston Space Society meetings.
She really like the talk by the space architect Suzie Bianco who gave a talk a couple years ago. Seeing the vision of what it could look like inspired her more than the technical talks.
Radha had a few suggestions for questions I could ask during my interviews:
When was the last time you thought about space?
What was the last space news you remember?
Radha’s passion at the time was studying the mind and brain. And she would be interested in more talk on how space affects this.
My mother-in-law was a Hindi teacher at the Indian School in Bahrain. One of her students was Babish Soni. My wife Sonia is several years younger than him, but remembers him coming over for Hindi tutoring. We have all kept in touch. They live in New Jersey. When Babish was flying through Houston, he had stopped over at our house. And when we went to Philadelphia for the World Chess Open one year, they came over to visit. And then when we drove to Exeter, NH from Houston, we had stopped by their house. And we had visited a few times since.
I believe they were on their way to Panama other place last year and they had a stop over in Houston.
Juliean is Babish’s oldest son and I got to sit down and talk to him about NASA plans to return to the moon.
Several things stood out as I re-watched the video.
Julian was surprised to learn that the last time we went to the moon was 1972. “Wow! That is too long.”
Q: “Do you think we should have a moonbase?”
A: “That would be useless now, maybe later.”
This made me think about our base in antarctica. What do we get from that? And are there parallels with how that developed and a moonbase?
“We need to improve down here before expanding up there.”
Global Warming is a concern. “We need to get gas cars out of here.”
And before dealing with poverty, we should make sure that everyone has food and shelter.
“How do we produce electricity?” Solar panels is an idea. But what if we put the solar panels in orbit so they have 24×7 sun light. And what if we made the solar panels using the materials on the moon?
He suggested the movie “Mission Mangal”
Mission Mangal is the incredible true story behind India’s mission to Mars. It shows how Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) and Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) together with a team of brilliant scientists successfully sent a satellite to Mars in their very first attempt, a mammoth feat achieved by no other nation. This is a tale of inspiration which shows how dreams transform into reality with a vision, the courage to pursue it and fulfill it with sheer determination. #MissionMangalTrailer
We talked about fixing local problems and using that to build up to bigger solutions. We talked about Starship and point to point earth travel. That will drive the development and deployment of Starship. And once we have the craft, we will be able to go to orbit and to the moon.
We talked about the CyberTruck unveil. And many other things.
I look forward to seeing where Julian goes and what he does.
A year ago today, Sonia, Stephen, Pooja, and I were downtown. There was a comedy show that Stephen and Pooja wanted to go see. While there I was looking around for someone to interview. There were lots of people to potentially interviewed. But Sterling had come up to ask for a handout. And I thought that since we were already talking he would be a good person to interview.
I was surprised by Sterling’s views. He had some serious points to make that we can all probably agree with.
(Sterling says it was Christmas day, but it was actually a couple of days before.)
He knew we were going to the moon
“Exploration is good to learn, but let it be beneficial.”
“As long as it doesn’t hinder life or stop learning then I am all for it.”
Do you think it will be inspirational?
“Depends on who you are.”
If you could go to the moon would you?
What would you like to see them do on the moon?
“This is what life is about yah, creative questions. Remember that!”
My father-in-law and mother-in-law usually go to the Hindu Worship Society of Houston on Sundays (before Covid). Occasionally my wife would go, and occasionally I would go as well. Back when I was learning Hindi, this was a good place to go to practice. The people are fantastic and willing to talk and share. They also serve food on Sundays which is wonderful too.
This was the obvious place for me to go for the first Sunday of my project. These would be people that I would be fairly comfortable talking to and who would be willing to talk to me.
I was able to strike up a conversation with Tanmay who is going to Brown university studying international development. He had heard that we were going back to the moon. He does think it will inspire people to study STEM.
He wonders what we expect to find on the moon. Are we looking for life? Resources? What is our ultimate goal?
This is a key question that we have got to answer for people. Our goal is to create the ability to start branching out into the rest of the solar system. To start doing space mining and manufacturing. To start using the resources of space.
With my Countdown to the Moon project, I interview people where ever I am. I was taking tennis lessons on Saturdays last year. Sammy was the owner of the tennis club.
The basic theme from the interview was “Why are we going?” “Surely there is some benefit.”
And this is the key thing that we have got to answer. While the benefits seem certain in space people’s minds, they are theoretical to everyone else. But the costs are very, very real.
“IN 2024 we are going to land the first woman and the next man” misses the mark in terms of that long term driver.
What do we really hope to get from the moon?
Find out what is truly there. But do you need humans to do that? Why not just send robots. Well, robots will not be able to fully appreciate nor transmit what is on the moon. They are great surgical instruments that can look for particular things. But I think humans will be able to sense and explore in ways that we can do through machines. But is that true? How to convince people of it? How to show the value?
There are many reasons to go to the moon if you think humanity should go further. There are resources on the moon that we can use to enable deeper exploration. But if it does not make sense sending people into space in the first place, these reasons will not appeal to you.
“Who to interview?” “who to ask?” “How to ask?” “what to ask?”
My niece, Pooja, and my children Stephen & Christopher, and my wife Sonia go to this little coffee shop from time to time. I do not remember who all was with us a year ago, I feel certain Pooja and at least one or both of my children were there. It bugs me a little that I can not remember it clearly.
I do not like asking people at work for an interview. I feel like it is a little more pressure than you should have. And also, I’m not sure that the owner of the place would appreciate their employees taking time out to interview.
Several things from the interview. I think it might need to be shorter, and to set the expectations at the beginning. I feel like Aubrey is really wondering when it will end. Is this the last question.
I think to address this, I should just tell people up front how the interview will go.
I’d like you to say a little bit about yourself. And then I have three questions that I will ask:
did you know that NASA was planning to send people to the moon in 2024?
What do you think about it?
If it were safe and affordable would you go to space?
And we can go into each of these areas a little more if you want.
I’ve interviewed a few other people at restaurants while they were working. This is by no means a complete list:
Over the course of the past year, I reconnected with many people I had not talked to in decades. And I asked people questions that I do talk to regularly, that I probably never talked about as directly or systematically.
Akash is a long time family friend. He and my oldest son Stephen had gone through elementary and middle school together. Akash attended the “Electronics camp for middle schoolers” back in 2010 that I did when I left HP to go focus on ISpeakHindi.com. He is now at UPenn and Stephen is at CMU. But we stay in touch and all see each other probably about a dozen times a year. Though when the Kumashi family lived in Gleannloch where we all met, it would have been multiple times a week.
This was my 3rd interview with my Countdown to the Moon project. I do not remember the occasion for Akash coming over. Stephen was in town and they wanted to meet. I am sure I told Akash something like “Hey, I’m doing this project to interview a person a day till the end of 2024. Can I interview you?” and he said “Sure”.
I hope that these interviews serve as nice reminders of our friendship and our times together, though I know it captures just a little small fragment of our relationships and the people who we are. It is a like a collection of portrait paintings of all the people in ones life, but in a specific style. The “What do you think about the future of humanity in space” style.
Some snippets from the conversation:
A: “No specific thoughts. great step towards achieving adversity (first woman on the moon) other than that, “I don’t know”
A: “needs more context” what is the purpose.. is it just to set a precedent.
N: “ISS – 1998 ISS continuously inhabited. Never a day without people in space
If you come back 500 years, where are we? Are we still on the earth fighting over limited raw materials.
Or have we branched out into the rest of the solar system…”
A “I look at a lot of these goals of NASA with a slight bit of skepticism that need to be solved first before we spend a lot of money to go do asteroid mining. A lot of problems could be solved with a lot of fewer resources than going to space?”
N “What problems do you think we can solve that going to the moon is keeping us?”
A “the common denominator is money. Money spent on NASA is money that can’t be spent on other things.”
We have the technology and resources to
“What is the benefit of colonizing the solar system might be? If you did a cost/benefit analysis. Would it balance out?”
“What is really money? What produces solutions?”
N: “By actually looking at the earth from Space can give us a better perspective of how finite and vulnerable our world is. What would be the effect of that “
A: “We have to make it cheaper. Need more information about what resources are in the solar system”
N: “Are there other ways that we mis-spend money?”
A: “I’m not fully informed about all the ways the government uses the money. But I have to do research to see.”
N: “What about nuclear weapons?”
A: “oh sure”
N: “We spend more money on refreshing our nuclear arsenal than we do on NASA”
N: Where will you be in 2024?
A: That is such a philosophical question
N: Will be celebrating
A: I didn’t know about it until you brought it up. I might see it with some of my friends.
Some thoughts on the conversation.
Emphasizing landing the first woman on the moon makes people think that is the sole point. And it will be a great milestone to reach. But we should emphasize the space development. “In 2024 we will return to the surface of the moon to begin to more deeply understand it and the history it has preserved, to begin develop and test resources and technology that will let us get more value out of the moon and to travel deeper into space, and to discover the unknown which could have a significant impact on the future of humanity here on earth.” Those are the reasons we need to figure out how to boil down to a soundbite. Because “Landing the first woman and the next moon” may be concise, it is shallow reason.
Especially when you consider one of those “Things that can be solved here on earth with less resources” is finding blood donors for patients with thalassemia that need it. I interviewed Syed Muniem yesterday, and this was one of the causes he is champing. He tells a story of when he was in college. A father desperate to save his 8 year old daughters life was going around the campus looking for potential blood donors. Syed talks to him and finds out the daughter has type A+ blood, and Syed is willing to get tested and finds he has O+ blood, a compatible blood donor. Syed gives the blood and the daughter lives.
Several months later Syed runs into the father again. “How is your daughter?” “She died” “How come?” “She needed a blood transfusion but I could not find a donor” He had tried to locate Syed but did not have the number, and could not find him on campus. This event affected Syed deeply and he is working on raising awareness of thalassemia and encouraging people to donate blood.
Would the money spent on SLS/Orion be enough to cure thalassemia ? Would it have been enough to develop an cure? Or perhaps artificial blood? Not sure what it would take there. But surely it would have been enough to create a network to connect blood donors to people that need it.
And it is a false choice of SLS/Orion verses curing thalassemia. I’d rather cancel some weapons systems. Or figure out someway that we could do both.
I think we waste a lot of time in allocating resources. The resources that are spent on affecting the allocating of resources should be spent on solving problems. Creating a website to connect blood donors to recipients seems like weekend work for someone writing an addon for Facebook or twitter. Promoting and keeping it running seems like it could be done with volunteers.
Ultimately we must remember “money” doesn’t do anything. It does not solve anything. What solves problems is people. People working on problems. People trying to solve them. You can spend all the money you want, and without the people actually doing things to solve it, it will not matter. And if you could get the people without the money, then you can still solve the problem.
Douglas Adams summed it up nicely in his opening paragraphs to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
I started the Countdown to the Moon project with my niece, Pooja. Interviewing her was easy. Just turn on the recorder and start talking
The next step was to go and talk to strangers, to people I had not talked to before. That was the point of the project. To get comfortable talking to people in person.
I do not remember all we had done at that time. Remember COVID19 would not be a thing for another 3 months in Houston. We went to the gym because Pooja and my son Stephen are really big into physical fitness. I personally don’t like going to the gym. I don’t know what to do there. I am not used to working out. It is already an uncomfortable setting.
I remember thinking throughout the day “Who can I interview?” At the gym I see the people at the front desk. And I consider interviewing them. I have to work up the nerve to do it.
I remember thinking of “What will they think about me asking about the moon? Will they think I’m a crazy?”
I’m not sure how I approached them. Probably something like “I’m doing a project interviewing people about our return to the moon. Can I interview you?”
They were at work. (Well, at least one of them, the other I think was just visiting.) And I feel a little odd about asking people at work. But they were just chatting to each other, why not ask.
Cole and Evi immediately agreed. And they were supportive of my project. It gave me a lot of confidence to have this first friendly encounter.
I found out later that they went to Christopher’s high school and that he knew of them. Christopher said that they were friendly and good people. And talking to them gave me a lot of hope for our future and happiness that the next generation is positive and supportive.
They did not know that NASA was sending people to the moon, but thought it was exciting. They do not have an interest in going to space. “That takes a special person”. When asked what we might find on the moon, they respond “Aliens”. And that may seem like a goof answer. It seems unlikely that we would find aliens on the moon. But it also seemed unlikely that there would be water ice. And considering that one side of the moon always faces away from the earth, and the other side always faces the earth, what better vantage point is there to hide your activities and to have places to observe the earth from.
“Aliens!” Why are we so sure of what is impossible? Why can we be so sure of what we won’t find? If we focus to much on something, and believe something is impossible, we will never see it.
Consider this awareness test:
Look what we can miss when we focus too much on one thing.
Going to the moon makes them wonder “What else is out there?”
I remember a year ago my project was off to a good start.
Regarding the Chronicle article, it was supposed to be in print yesterday, but they had to make space for something else so it was held. It might go out another day. Lets see…
A year ago I was on Christmas vacation at this time. My niece Pooja (she goes by Shannon outside the family) was visiting from California. I probably. It would have been a Tuesday because our North Houston Space Society Meeting had been on December 14, 2019. Trent Martin from Intuitive Machines had been our guest speaker. Intuitive Machines is one of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) provides and they are planning to put a probe on the moon in summer of 2021.
Doug Loverro had just been announced as the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO). And he was tasked with getting people to the moon’s surface by the end of 2024. To this end, he wanted to keep himself, the people at NASA, the people in government, the public, and the contractors all focused on that date. He had a lapel pin that had the number of days till the end of 2024.
And in order to motivate the people at NASA he started showing a HEO Hero of the day which he would highlight on twitter. He announced this during a visit to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Dec. 9 during Artemis Day.
Doug’s idea was swirling in my head. The enthusiasm of us returning to the moon was swirling in my head. And a couple of other thoughts. “I am at home all the time” (because I had been working from home the 2 years previously.) “Maybe I need a project to get me out talking to people in real life.” We just had a successful North Houston Space Society meeting.
And it struck me out of the blue. “How about I interview regular people, every day till the end of 2024? I suggested this to the family and my niece Pooja (Shannon) Bhatia, and she thought it was a great idea. “You should tell NASA about it”, she said. But I do not think NASA would have much interest in it at that time. And they haven’t shown any interest in it over the first year. But NASA is not the target audience, but those people that will be born decades from now.
The first video was free form, relaxed, and just a conversation with two people about NASA’s plans.
A few highlights and snippets from this conversation.
Jim Bridenstine is the first NASA administrator to be born after the Apollo moon landings.
Pooja, “I wonder if they will discuss anything new.”
Pooja, “What do you say about people who say it was fake?”
I walk through of the evidence of the people involved and the LRO photos, and the fact that the Russians could have easily detected our signals from the moon and triabulated location. The Russians would not have hesitated to call us out.
Pooja: “The Russians would have gotten us”
Pooja: “Putin doesn’t have anything.”
Nathan: “Well, Russia is the only people that can launch people to the International Space Station (ISS).”
Pooja: “Really? Wow”
Boeing would have their Starliner test later that week.
She is looking forward to the live streaming in 4K.
Pooja, “Hoping there are some new discoveries.”
And that is the question that would come up over the next year. “What do we hope to get out of it?”
But what about Doug’s project. Looking back, I see he did not actually kick off his HEO HErO until Jan. 6, 2020.
Doug only started including the number of days starting on his January 8, 2020 posting.
And he started giving out “I Made it Happen – HEO” pins with the number of days remaining. (Which maybe I should give out pins like that to people when I interview.)
And this got emphasized with future postings.
The pandemic affected the awards.
And was back on track on April 7, 2020:
But on May 21st we found out that Doug was leaving NASA, and that put an end to his project.
While it is sad to see that the HEO HErO of the day did not continue on. I’m committed to seeing this project through till the end of 2024.
And after 1 year, I was excited to be interviewed by the Houston Chronicle about this one year journey.