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November 25, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 11


Masters Forum 17 was an occasion befitting NASA’s fiftieth anniversary.

When the Academy hosted the first Masters Forum in 1999, the idea was to create an event where practitioners would come together and tell stories based on their experiences, and in doing so share knowledge and begin to build a sense of community across NASA that would transcend the boundaries of programs, projects, Mission Directorates, and field center affiliations. Nine years later, that’s still the guiding principle behind the forums.

Given the focus on storytelling, the fiftieth anniversary presented a tremendous opportunity to call on some of NASA’s most esteemed practitioners from the past to share with some of today’s masters. The purpose was not a self-congratulating look in the rear-view mirror; it was a chance to reflect on what the last fifty years can teach us about the next half century. For example, when Dr. Charles Kennel, former Associate Administrator for Mission to Planet Earth, assessed the future capabilities of our Earth observing satellite system relative to the challenges posed by climate change, he said, “What we see is the urgency of the problem and our capability to attack it going in opposite directions.” In other words, the mission is more important than ever. In addition to Dr. Kennel, former Dryden Center Director Ken Szalei, former Goddard Space Flight Center Director Noel Hinners, former Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate Al Diaz, former Marshall Space Flight Deputy Director Carolyn Griner, and former Ames Research Center Deputy Director Gus Guastaferro all shared insights about their experience.

A highlight for many attendees was an evening screening of “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a documentary that tells the story of the Apollo program using nothing but interviews with astronauts and an incredibly moving musical soundtrack. The film made an implicit connection between art and exploration: both seek to illuminate new vistas and add to our understanding of the universe. Its approach to storytelling, which drew on rare archival footage, fit perfectly with the “practitioner-centered” focus of the forum. It was followed by a question-and-answer session with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and film producer Duncan Copp. By the end of the evening it was clear that the Apollo story, which inspired so many of NASA’s present-day master practitioners to pursue careers in aerospace, still had the power to captivate their attention.

The next morning focused on NASA’s continued exploration of Mars. Dr. Dan McCleese, Chief Scientist of JPL, led a morning of presentations and discussions that was as rich as any I have attended in all my time at the agency. These included frank discussions of past failures and future challenges as well as breathtaking photos and stories of the progress since the Viking landing thirty years ago. Richard Morris of JPL reflected on how in the course of operating a Mars rover for four years, he would sometimes forget that he was exploring another planet. “You have to remind yourself,” he said, meaning that it was part of his daily routine.

It was just a passing comment, but it speaks volumes about how far we have come in fifty years — space exploration is a constant in our lives today — and it brought to mind something Buzz Aldrin had said the night before. Asked about his own role as an explorer, he downplayed the idea that he and his fellow Apollo crew members had a monopoly on exploration. “I was just the tip of the spear,” he said, noting that there were thousands of people on earth who made his efforts possible. He went on to say that exploration was taking place all around us today on multiple levels, such as under the microscope. His answer captured an undercurrent that ran through every story shared at the forum: there will always be other frontiers to explore.


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