I had the pleasure of being on a NASA/Star Wars panel last weekend at Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, Florida. The fan panel consisted of International Space Station (ISS) Flight Controllers Holly Griffith, Michelle Fitzgerald, and Travis Fitzgerald, moderator Eric Geller from TheForce.Net, and I. Eric and Holly assembled the panelists and coordinated our attendance at the event, the Flight Controllers travelled from Johnson Space Center and I’m a Digital Strategist tasked at NASA HQ in Washington, DC. Not being officially sanctioned by NASA or Lucasfilm allowed the panel to freely describe the influence Star Wars and the space agency have had on our lives and our interpretation of the relationship between science and science fiction. Interest was high for the fan panel, nearly 900 attendees filled the room to capacity. Eric moderated the discussion with carefully crafted questions about future technologies, life on other planets, and relevant political themes in the Star Wars films.
The panel opened with an exuberant applause for the recent Mars Curiosity Rover landing and it’s purpose on the red planet. Describing the headed-mounted MSL laser led to a few words on light sabers. I noted the development of everyday tech from our investments in space technologies. The panel described NASA research on bone density loss and radiation risk mitigation, the latter which may lead to breakthroughs in combatting cancer.
Talk then turned toward the influence of Star Wars on engineers. Michelle noted the power of dreaming, our ability to imagine the impossible as a path toward a better future. Holly shared that we need films and stories like Star Wars to inspire children, she described that as a kid watching Star Wars she’d say, “I want to do that, I want to go there when I grow up.” Travis took that opportunity to discuss his job at Mission Control Center helping to “drive” the International Space Station by keeping it in orbit. It was at this point that jaws in the audience hit the floor.
It quickly became clear that science fiction helped inspire panelists throughout their careers and currently influences the work they do at NASA. I spoke a bit about data visualization and the affect Ralph McQuarrie and Doug Chiang have had on me while helping to create visualization platforms. One could see the Star Wars art collectors in the room nodding in approval. Discussion turned toward concept art of distant planets and plans for long duration deep-space missions, Voyager 1‘s adventures into the Heliosphere where noted by Travis. Eric took this cue to challenge the panel to discuss how the discovery of life on other planets may affect our species. We talked about how our differences can make us stronger, how international partnerships may make future deep space missions possible, and that the future is in cooperation not division. Star Wars, the panel argued, helps us imagine a galaxy where we are not alone.
The panel ended with a Question & Answer session with the audience. Great questions and comments were made about propulsion technologies, advanced research concepts, and further study of Mars. Michelle and Travis thanked the crowd for making the time while at a convention to talk science and encouraged everyone to visit the NASA website for more information on the ISS and the Mars Curiosity Rover. I’m a huge proponent of accessible data and encouraged people to check out the open government initiative at NASA. Holly encouraged participants to consider NASA’s budget and the return we receive from investing in the future.