Q: What made you get so interested into Whales?
A: In part it was just growing up in Florida, being near the ocean a lot, and just never losing that childhood fascination with big animals. If I had to point to one specific moment, it would be a festival I went to in Iceland in 2001. I met some people there from the Faroe Islands who told me about how whaling is a big part of their culture. It was so odd, these people who seemed so like me in many ways, but had this one thing that was so different: the idea of hunting whales for food instead of just admiring them in the ocean. I started reading about the Faroe Islands and eventually went there to learn more about whaling. That got me interested in other places where whaling happened: Newfoundland, Japan, the Caribbean. I made my first trip to St. Vincent in 2008 and have been going there regularly to learn more ever since.
Q: On the sustainability question: How does the carbon footprint of Caribbean whaling compare to typical North American agricultural meat production? Whale meat vs pork BBQ, for example.
A: No question about it: whaling has a lower carbon footprint than livestock agriculture. Whales are actually carbon sinks—they absorb more carbon than they produce. Hunting them for food doesn’t release carbon (from the whales) into the atmosphere—it keeps it within the food web. The boats used in St. Vincent switched from sails and oars to motors during the late 20th century, so there is the carbon footprint of the gasoline engines to think about. Aside from that, there’s the motorized transport to distribute the meat and blubber around the island, mainly cars and trucks but the occasional ferry boat too. Of course, all this should be compared with the massive release of methane and other greenhouse gases from livestock feeding operations, as well as the jet and container ship emissions from importing meat from large continental countries to small islands like St. Vincent. Even if you compare whaling to local, Vincentian livestock-raising, it’s hard to argue for livestock from a purely climate-based position.
Q: Why had no one in the Caribbean islands done this research previously?
A: Some had. There’s a body of literature on Caribbean whaling going back to at least the early 20th century. It’s mostly descriptive—there was very little criticism of whaling before the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s began. One of my favorite early works on Caribbean whaling is Chapter 2 of Frederic Fenger’s Alone in the Caribbean. In or around 1911 he visited whalers based on an island very close to St. Vincent and went out whaling with them. Even though it was about a century earlier, his experience was remarkably similar to mine.
As for the mercury research, there’s only been one study before mine to measure the mercury in Caribbean-caught whales and dolphins. It was in the 1970s in St. Lucia, and it found high levels but not nearly as high as what I found. Other scientists have studied mercury levels in people throughout the Caribbean and—unsurprisingly—the levels from St. Vincent were consistently near the top.
But to the point of your question, I think there are a lot of interesting and important subjects that science has largely ignored, just because they’re found in remote or obscure places. One of my favorite things about my field, geography, is that it’s place-based. There’s no such thing as a place that doesn’t matter to a geographer; we’re interested in everywhere!
Q: What do the whalers do now to make a living?
A: Most are still whaling. Some only part-time, as there’s a long tradition in St. Vincent of holding multiple part-time jobs (like fishing or farming) at the same time. At least one whaler has shifted to leading whale-watching tours, but this is difficult in St. Vincent, which doesn’t get as many tourists as many other Caribbean islands and has gotten even fewer since the pandemic began.
Q: Where is the mercury contamination coming from?
A: The biggest human-caused sources are coal combustion and gold mining. As Al Dove pointed out in the chat during the discussion after my talk, mercury is a non-point source pollutant, meaning that it’s emitted into the atmosphere and then rains down on the ocean (and the land, but the ocean is bigger) often hundreds or thousands of miles away from where it was emitted. This makes tracking it to its source, or sources, very difficult. I’m working with some other scientists now to try to use stable isotope analysis methods to basically take a “fingerprint” of the mercury we’re finding in the whales and compare it to the mercury emitted from known sources. If that works, I hope that it has implications for bringing justice to the people whose jobs and health were affected by polluters from far away.
Q: If whales have mercury, does that mean that all other seafood have mercury? is there any research done on various seafood to show which species in the sea have a higher concentration of mercury in their body.
A: Yes. A reliable rule is that species higher on the food chain will have higher levels of mercury than species lower on the food chain. It’s also important to take into account the longevity of the species (and the age of the individual fish, whale, etc. that you’re eating). The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program offers advice on which fish species can be consumed more safely and sustainably. See seafoodwatch.org for more information.
Q: Just curious, do you eat seafood?
I do, at least when I’m near the coast. I believe that humans are part of the natural environment and I have no problem with a sustainable carnivorous diet, with certain provisions for the respectful treatment and killing of animals taken into consideration. I respect others who have made different decisions. For example, Sylvia Earle, probably the world’s most famous oceanographer, advocates against eating seafood because of sustainability concerns. I also think place matters. A “good” diet (based on whatever criteria you use) in one place might not be the same as a “good” diet somewhere else. The most important things, I think, when choosing what to eat are to be informed and mindful. Too often we make our dietary choices based mainly on what’s convenient, cheap, or tasty. We should take the time to learn about our food, how it’s made, where it comes from, and—if it’s animal-based—how those animals lived and died. And we should let what we learn guide our decisions, after identifying and reflecting on our values. There are so many good books on this subject but two that I often recommend are Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Eating is so important—to our bodies and to the planet—that we really should give it the thought it deserves.
Q: How has the Arecibo collapse affected you (personally, professionally and emotionally) and what does it mean for the wider scientific space community?
A: Although Arecibo’s giant 57-year-old radio-telescope has helped NASA many times in the past, it was more a member of the science & astronomical community than of the telemetry community upon which the Artemis lunar landers rely. In order to be most useful for tracking (and receiving data from) moving objects such as lunar landers, radio-telescopes have to be steerable over a wide range of directions, whereas Arecibo was mainly a fixed antenna, built into the Earth. Therefore, while we are fortunate that Arecibo’s collapse has not directly affected NASA’s Artemis programs, the fact that it was such a unique radio-observatory makes it a very significant loss for the wider scientific space community, and an asset that is hard to replace.
Although NASA (and the wider science community) does have other radio telescopes, including some with transmitters in them, most are tied up nearly full-time servicing spacecraft command and telemetry needs and don’t have much time for astronomy observations. But while it appears that Arecibo’s observing days may be over, it doesn’t mean that data from the telescope won’t make any more contributions to science. Some very exciting radio astronomy discoveries have emerged from the reanalysis of old telescope data, and hopefully people will continue to analyze Arecibo’s data for some time, and discover new and exciting scientific results in the process!
Q: How do you protect astronauts from radiation while on the moon?
A: Most of the radiation dose comes during solar particle events (solar storms). NASA monitors the sun using various spacecraft to know when those storms are coming so they can tell the crew to come back in to the lander if they are outside performing an Extravehicular Activity. The lander will have a storm shelter, sort-of like a tornado shelter on Earth, but with as much mass as possible between the crew and the outside. That mass absorbs some of the energetic particles and reduces the amount of radiation dose the crew might get during the storm.
Also, the crew is always wearing a personal dosimeter that measures the radiation they themselves receive throughout a mission. Across an Astronaut’s career, their cumulative radiation exposure from space flight is monitored so that they do not get too high a dose to cause them any physical problems.
Q: Is/are there things that going to the moon or space exploration has taught us that can/has helped us with this pandemic?
A: The early Apollo lunar surface missions (Apollo 11, 12, 14) addressed the issue of possible pathogens returned to Earth by completely isolating the astronauts for 21 days, starting with the day they departed the moon. So once they returned to Earth, they were biologically isolated – first in a Mobile Quarantine Facility (trailer) and then in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. The 21 day quarantine period was chosen because most all terrestrial diseases showed symptoms within that timeframe. So Apollo taught us that quarantine for 21 days is a technique to mitigate the spread of unknown diseases, and that quarantine and isolation is a medically proven technique. More detail can be found in NASA’s history archives.
In addition, NASA is using satellites to collect data to help understand how the pandemic is impacting our environment, crops, weather, and air quality. Using this information, scientists are learning how the environment is changing around us and what effects that may have on our planet. More information on this new research can be found on our NASA website.
In order to perform some of the detailed analysis and simulations that enable our systems to be designed and ready for launch day, NASA has some of the most state of the art computing systems. These systems which typically are used to model highly complex rocket systems and analyze data from spacecraft are now assisting us in the battle against COVID-19. For more information on how NASA supercomputers are helping, visit here.
NASA is also very interested in how long term space travel impacts the human’s immune system and response. Many experiments have been performed on the space station in this field as well as right here on earth. Research on on-going studies on the benefits of light, vitamin D and how that impacts the human response to COVID-19 can be found here.
Q: Given the dramatically different technology today, is it much easier to get to the moon?
A: Yes and no. Some technologies have increased exponentially since Apollo (computers, batteries, electronics), and some have increased only incrementally (structures, propulsion). Interestingly, the technologies that have increased the most have the least effect on spacecraft mass performance – the greatest effect on spacecraft performance is in the areas of propulsion and structures, and unfortunately those subsystems have not followed Moore’s Law in the way that electronic systems have. Significant strides have been made in the field of manufacturing, where we can now make hardware with more unique shapes that can help improve performance as well as improve the material properties of a component, but the general physics of getting to the moon are unchanged since Apollo, so it will be the technologies available to us that will affect if it is “easier” to get to the moon today – we will be using the very highest efficiency chemical rocket engines to return to the moon, so that will increase the performance of future missions as compared to Apollo. But until some new physics, or radically new high-thrust propulsion technology is developed, it won’t be at all “easy” to get to the moon.
One incremental step in the ‘next gen’ of propulsion technology being implemented with today’s HLS program is the use of new techniques for storing cryogenic propellants. Previous spacecraft use hypergolic fuels that are stored under pressure that give us our standard performance which hasn’t changed much over the years. But with the ability to store cryogenic fuels of Hydrogen, Methane and their combustion partner, cryogenic liquid Oxygen, we are able to condense the propellants and lose less (fuel and oxidizer) throughout the mission duration due to heat buildup. This effectively gives us more usable propellant thus reducing the size of our cryogenic tanks and allowing us to use engines with higher efficiency rocket fuels.
Q: Where is the planned launch site and will spectators be able to watch?
A: The launch site has not been officially decided, but most likely it will be one of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral launch sites. And yes, spectators will be permitted and encouraged to watch, which is typical for NASA missions.
Q: Could one of the panelists tell us more about what the Artemis Base Camp will be like, and how it will be built, and over what timescale?
A: NASA has not fully determined the layout of the Artemis Base Camp and expect it to evolve as we discover more on our return to the Moon. We anticipate rovers, habitation units, power systems, In-Situ Resource Utilization equipment, communication relays, significant science equipment, and more. With this capability, our lunar explorers will be able to do long duration missions effectively ‘living’ on the moon. This will help us prove out all the capabilities and equipment we will eventually need for our human exploration of Mars. We have teams currently studying the best location for a base camp, what the first elements are that will enable crew to stay there longer and what science we want to perform.
Q: Now that we have demonstrated the feasibility of reusable rockets, what is the next big technical hurdle to affordable space travel?
A: Part of what NASA did was to only have 26 initial requirements permitting the companies the utmost flexibility in their designs to meet their already defined processes keeping costs lower. We have defined sustainable future missions with requirements that could include reusable systems that can stay on the surface longer. That would include more reliable life support systems to help reclaim the used water and air within the cabin space. Affordability may be attained through frequency of travel. The more you go and the more missions you do with reusable systems (that do not require extensive refurbishing, which can cost more than new systems depending on the process), as well as carrying secondary payloads, can help offset mission costs and make spaceflight more affordable. Also, when we can figure out how we can operate in space without having to carry all our fuels and oxygen from the surface of the Earth - that will be a big hurdle to clear. That is why lunar exploration and the ability to use the lunar ice on the moon (which NASA calls “In-Situ Resource Utilization”) to separate it into its two components – oxygen and rocket fuel (hydrogen) is so important to our next ‘giant leaps’
Q: It would be such an impact for my middle school students to hear you speak about your experience. Would you consider this gift?
A: Yes. Please contact Heather Hall at Heather.Hall@nasa.gov for scheduling of someone who can virtually talk with your middle school students.
Q: With the commercial involvement in project Artemis, how do you solve the challenge of learning and sharing information across the multiple teams to continue to benefit humanity as a whole?
A: Even though we have commercial involvement and are bringing together the best of the government and industry, our contracts have Government Purpose Rights clause meaning any penny the government spends towards the effort permits the government to have access to the data and information thus enabling the benefit to humanity you mention.
Q: How does the radiation exposure problem compare with being on the moon vs on Mars? and has it been solved for both journeys?
A: NASA is always looking for lighter weight materials that protect the crew from radiation exposure. The plans for the Artemis Human Landing System contain requirements for the acceptable limits on radiation exposure for humans to keep the crew healthy and save and the commercial partners must comply with those limits. The NASA team verifies the commercial partner met the requirement to ensure NASA can certify the spacecraft before launch. The problem of radiation on the human body when outside of the safety of Earth’s Van Allen Radiation belts has not been solved yet. That is one of the benefits of exploring out beyond low-earth-orbit because we will have to solve that problem to do so. Right now our understanding is that one month in lunar orbit is about the same radiation dose as 6 months aboard the International Space Station. So we have a big challenge ahead of us that we will solve so that deep space exploration will be safe for humans.
Q: How long will it take to get to the moon and back (and how long will you spend there)?
A: Using current chemical rocket propulsion, it will always take 3 to 5 days to travel to the moon, or return to Earth. New propulsion technologies may decrease this somewhat, but those technologies have a way to go. The amount of time you spend on the moon is a function of how many supplies you bring (consumables such as oxygen, food and water), the robustness of your vehicle to withstand “lunar night” (which is a cold 14 days in duration at most parts of the moon), and the timing of your return to Earth (depending on your landing site and the location/capabilities of your orbiting return vehicle, there is a complicated interplay of orbital dynamics that may allow you to return to Earth only once every ~14 days). So Apollo missions were true minimal missions – 3 days out, a few days on the surface, and 3 days back. Future Artemis missions will be longer, utilize unique orbiting nodes (Gateway), and could initially spend 6-7 days on the surface.
Q: What are some of the key learnings you’re hoping to discover or study when we go to the moon?
A: A key discovery for our return to the Moon is seated within the location we are going. We are going to the South Pole with humans for the first time. Thanks to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, scientists confirmed water ice in craters of the lunar south pole. NASA is interested in in-situ resource utilization better known as using what exists where you are. There are other science goals for the mission that will come out later as the specific landing site is selected.
NASA has just released a detailed report of its science priorities for the initial Artemis missions that can be found here.
Q: Is Space X the clear front runner & how much will it cost for a space tourist to go to the moon?
A: NASA does not have a clear front runner as the HLS acquisition has not been decided. Each of the three partners are working to achieve the Moon mission and has passed all of their respective milestones to date. The Artemis program and Human Landing System are not working toward space tourism. Tourism could come later if private industry chooses to pursue that on their own.
Q: What suggestions do you have for STEM educators to attract more women and POC to professions critical to NASA?
A: Diverse teams are typically strong teams and NASA supports diversity and inclusion in the workforce. It is important that females and minorities as well as men who are interested in space, continue their educational efforts around math and science. STEM is important to society with improvements in the medical fields, aerospace fields, business fields and more. Also note that NASA hires engineers and scientists, but also some business majors, procurement specialists, public affairs communications employees, strategic communication teams and professionals in many more fields. Anyone interested in space is encouraged to stay in STEM course study, but people interested in space, but not especially interested in math, science or engineering can still find exceptional careers with NASA. Inclusion is key.
Q: Could you take a few moments and talk about some of the most exciting citizen scientist opportunities that are available to participate in today?
A: Going back to the moon helps scientists better understand fundamental planetary processes that operate across the solar system and beyond. NASA will be working with national and international science communities to determine the best science that can be performed on and around the Moon.
The NASA Space Science Education Consortium has a large citizen science outreach, mostly through Sten Odenwald. Recently he created “A Guide to Smartphone Astrophotography” that has been through NASA product review and been recommended for wide distribution. Here is a link to the website where it is featured: http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov
In addition, there is the lunar toilet challenge that was open to all to submit designs (here) where we received very interesting inputs.
Q: How was emerging technology played a contributing factor in space travel.
A: The International Space Station performs science in low earth orbit 24X7 operations testing new materials and additive manufacturing technologies in space to reduce the amount of hardware future missions have to carry from earth to orbit. The Gateway orbiting platform and the Lunar Terrain Vehicle will conduct research on new emerging technologies in lunar orbit and on the lunar surface. Some of that research will be conducted remotely and some with a human crewed interface. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate assesses key technologies for infusion in various missions. The Artemis Human Landing System is working with the Space Technology Mission Directorate on many such technologies.
Q: How will these findings help us on earth?
A: To see more about NASA’s technology contribution over time, see here. Fabric used on the Mercedes Benz stadium
and Denver airport originally was made for use on Apollo era space suits. It’s an evolution of the material that has unique thermal properties. I discussed in the TedX Nashville talk camera on a chip technology that is now ubiquitous in smart phones and digital cameras. Memory foam, nutritional supplements, aerodynamic innovations for the trucking and airplane industries are additional ones.
Q: Tom discussed the importance and power of writing and the steps to get over our amnesia. Does he have any books he recommends to help healing past wounds or unlocking the writer within?
A: Books-War Of Art, Pressfield and Traveling Mercies & Bird By Bird Anne Lamott. Honestly reading great fiction (think your high school English reading list!) is the most inspiring to me. Such as Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men and so on.
Q: I would ask whether faith is not sidelined if history is a question. Why does faith need to anchor in history?
A: Faulkner says “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”…each life is a history lesson, your past is not a series of random acts as there is a plan as they say if we don’t learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. Instead of compartmentalizing the sorrows, embrace them, learn from them. Those lessons will lead to acceptance/surrender and maybe even joy, your past is not a poison it's a gift. Tears turn into wine over time.
Q: John Lennon has a great lyric "life is what happens when you are busy making other plans". As you think about rehearsing your history and its impact on your life, how does planning for life, particularly in the short term, cause us to lose perspective of the long term.
A: I am not a long term planner. My motto with my art, is create and share with anyone that will receive. I believe if I focus on that simple premise each and every day, the long term takes care of itself.
Q: Tom in his talk said that “lies tend to lead us to isolation and loneliness and amnesia.” What can we do to bring truth back into our public life?
A: The culture in which we find ourselves certainly seems like an unreliable narrator. I believe truth is public life happens. Person to person, brother to brother, sister to sister, neighbor to neighbor, block by block, city by city, state by state. Truth trickles up not down.
Q: So much of our history is what you have referred to as memory- it is skewed based on opinion and perspective. It has then been taught to generations (Ex. Christopher Columbus "discovered" America). Who is to say that your history that you rehearse is accurate and how do you make sure you check yourself and your biases?
A: The critical ingredient in rehearsing your history is doing it with friends, your community, not family. You will tell your story inaccurately, that’s okay. Your friends will help correct the false narrative and the truth will emerge.