Category Archives: water

Prague Highlights

I attended the International Astronautical Congress last week in Prague, Czech Republic. I attended the Vancouver Congress years ago, but as an exhibit staffer, not a presenter. This was my first time to present papers. Quite an experience.

I presented three papers in four sessions (one with co-authors Joanna Scorsone and Angela Triano) — all about sharing “space” in non-traditional ways.  I must say, trying to find sessions to attend was like navigating a college course catalog. You can browse the IAC author’s index.  Quite extensive, impressive, and absolutely overwhelming. I had trouble finding my own sessions.

Space Expectations: Involving the Public in Space Activities.Rise Above the White Noise

Calling Planet Earth — Space Outreach to the General Public.Rise Above the White Noise

Water from Space: Societal, Educational and Cultural Aspects.LAUNCH:Water — Accelerating Innovation for a Sustainable Future

To Boldly Go — Space Station Education and Outreach. “SpaceSmart: Shifting Public Perceptions of Space”

I’ve posted “Rise Above the White Noise” on SlideShare. I’ll post the others too.

After each session, we had amazing conversations — sharing ideas and programs. I’m still sorting and processing. Here are a few highlights.

My fav presentation was European Space Agency’s Mars WebCam project. You’ll just have to check it out. The best example of “participatory exploration” that I’ve seen. They turned an unused mission camera back on to take photos of Mars. They offer the data to the public to process. The Mars WebCam folks post the “processed” images back on their site. Quite wonderful. They’ve created an amazing, enthusiastic community of Mars-watchers, who participate in the mission voluntarily with hundreds of hours of processing time to their credit. You can read the Mars WebCam blog. (Congrats on your shout out for the Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement 2010!)

I spent a delightful lunch with a Canadian teacher who wants to create a classroom version of LAUNCH:Water. We talked about the process for planning, how we pick the topics, background research, innovator selection, thought-leader selection, presentation format, impact rotation conversations, and follow-up. I’m so thrilled to see her move from concept to implementation in her school setting. If this works, we’ll spin-off our first LAUNCH x — which was always our plan.

A representative from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute shared his excitement about space. He visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida a decade ago and has been waiting all this time to take his family back. He finally got the opportunity recently. He’s still glowing from the experience. He’s busy creating his own little bit of space paradise in Korea, and wants to use some of our space outreach activities to help the public experience the thrill and drama of space.

The UK-based EADS Astrium CubeSat guys are eager to learn from us on how to use social media to build enthusiastic communities around satellite opportunities. Lots of CubeSat excitement, btw. I saw a number of CubeSat presentations. They need launch opportunities to prove their concepts.

The German-based EADS Astrium folks want to share ideas on outreach and community-building tools.

I loved seeing the Spanish-language website,, presented by a professor from Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya on behalf of his Argentine colleagues. The site translates NASA mission updates and programming into Spanish and adds commentary by volunteer Spanish-speaking reporters. Well done. We hope to work more closely for future missions.

A representative from the China Academy of Space Technology wants to learn from us on how to reach out to the public. They don’t engage in “outreach” yet, but he is eager to understand how we make personal connections outside employees of the space sector. He liked Buzzroom, our NASA conversation collector, as well our newest social media note taking tool, Mind Mapr, which we’ll debut at the LAUNCH: Health sustainability forum.

I spoke on several occasions with a number of representatives in the South Africa space community. With Daughter #2 Steph in South Africa, I feel the need to touch all things related to her life. I was amazed to see plans for their new Space Port in Cape Town. They are forming a South African Space Agency. So cool!

I bartered two NASA pins for a South African delegation scarf, and wore it proudly!

South African Space Delegation Scarf

I’m excited about next year’s International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town. Hopefully, I’ll be able to present papers again. Fingers crossed.

A note from our sponsors. Prague is an amazing city. Ancient, but urban. Beautiful, but worn out. The language sounds quite close to Russian, but the city feels more medieval than what I’ve seen in Moscow. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn, sat on top of the castle ruins of the Bohemian Empire. Walking to dinner every evening was a visual feast, with churches and gorgeous architecture all around us.

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul next to our hotel.

I must say, the search for bars in Prague took on a totally new meaning. By “bars,” I mean wifi and data roaming hotspots. The more “connection bars” the better. Picture us waving our iPhones in the air to get the best juice. Totally comical. Once we found connections, all conversation ceased. Heads down and fingers flying, we read and responded to as many email as possible in the shortest amount of time.

At times, we put down our digital devices and simply soaked in the culture…and an occasional serenade. (I have a few video recordings of our adorable Czech accordion player.)

UFlecku Accordion Player

UFlecku Accordion Player

The greatest highlight of this conference was the amazing opportunity to experience Prague with Daughter #1, Carol.

My daughters come from a Czech, Germanic heritage. (I’m more a a Celtic mutt with Scottish Irish roots mixed with English and French.) Pretty powerful and moving to learn the history of the Bohemia (I had no idea it was a place — I thought it was a state of mind) while walking on the cobblestone streets where my daughters’ ancestors may have walked. Czech phrases my mother-in-law taught me when the girls were little kept popping out of distant memories. We even found a little Czech bakery with poppy seed kolaches–a HUGE deal in Texas.

Thank you Prague for being such a wonderful host.

Traditional Czech Pastry
Traditional Czech Pastry in Street Vendor Carts


Filed under Africa, Earth, environment, federal government, humanitarian aid, leadership, NASA, social media, space, technology, water

Gov 2.0 Hero Day

In celebration of Gov 2.0 Hero Day, I want to highlight a few visionary ROCKet stars at NASA: Robbie Schingler, Nick Skytland, Chris Kemp, Astronaut Mike Massimino, Astronaut and Innovator Ron Garan, and Sean Herron.

Robbie SchinglerRobbie Schingler: Chief of Staff, Office of Technology at NASA Headquarters. I met Robbie a few years ago in a Communications workshop. He was working at Ames at the time. Robbie is a powerhouse for change. He is the catalyst for much of NASA’s most innovative Gov 2.0 incubator projects: CoLab, OpenNASA, 2007 Participatory Exploration Summit, OpenGov, LAUNCH:Water sustainability forum, and Random Hacks of Kindness. Robbie tirelessly works to insert collaborative processes that can bring about social justice. Twitter: @schingler

Nick SkytlandNick Skytland: Project Manager, Johnson Space Center. I first met Nick at the 2007 Participatory Exploration Summit that Space Operations Mission Directorate and Innovative Partnership Office sponsored out at Ames. Nick is another energetic creative visionary at NASA. He and Robbie have teamed together for multiple Gov 2.0 collaborative projects including CoLab, and Random Hacks of Kindness. Rumor has it that NASA astronauts consult Nick on how to use Twitter effectively — but you didn’t hear that from me. He’s the Powerpoint Communications King. With a few simple words and pictures, he makes clear how social media can change how we do business at NASA. For me, Nick’s main claim to fame was snagging the @NASA account back in 2007 and holding it until the agency was ready to adopt Twitter as a communications tool. Twitter: @skytland.

Chris Kemp and Steve WozniakChris Kemp, NASA Chief Technology Officer for IT at Ames. Indefatigable is the word that comes to mind for Chris. I met Chris at the same Communications workshop where I met Robbie. Chris is a whirlwind of change. Through Chris, our office collaborated with Microsoft to use it Photosynth as a tool to share our on-orbit mission images of the Space Station and Shuttle. He worked with Google to bring about Google Moon.He’s best known outside the agency as Mr. NASA Nebula for the cloud computing initiatives he’s championed. Twitter: @ChrisCKemp

I’m always on the lookout for game changers — ideas, technology, people.

Robbie, Nick and Chris are passionate, energetic change-agents. Through the last few years, these three guys really taught me a great deal about the endless possibilities for change that social media offers. We’re lucky to have them at NASA.

Astronaut Mike MassiminoAstronaut Mike Massimino: Mike agreed to try out Twitter as the first astronaut to take social media in space with him during the STS-125 Hubble Repair Mission. He paved the way for all the other astronauts and many NASA folks to follow. Because of his thoughtful, poetic and often humorous tweets, he became a celebrity practically overnight. He has three times the followers the @NASA account does. He’s a Gov 2.0 hero because he caught the vision of social media and expanded to YouTube segments about space with his Behind the Scenes series. Twitter: @Astro_Mike

Astronaut Ron GaranAstronaut Ron Garan: I met Ron through NASA’s LAUNCH:Water sustainability forum last March. Ron’s Manna Energy water filtration and carbon credit model was selected as one of the ten innovations to present to a group of 40 international thought leaders. What is amazing about Ron is his humility (remember that he’s an astronaut) and passion for making the world better for those who experience the inequities in access to food, water, and basic necessities of life. Through Manna Energy, Ron worked in Rwanda on his own time to bring clean water and sanitation to over 300 schools. Twitter: @MannaEnergy

“Since the Kyoto Protocol was established, only a very small percentage of the carbon market has benefited developing areas; with Africa seeing only 2.5%. We believe economic sustainability and large scale success can be born from an innovative development model that leverages the emerging global carbon credit market and integrates advances in renewable energy, water purification, and other renewable technologies into a comprehensive and compelling offering.” —Ron Garan, Director, Manna Energy Ltd.

But the story isn’t over. Ron is training for a six-month mission on Space Station beginning March 2011. He’ll launch on Soyuz from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Right now, he’s in Star City, Russia training for his mission. His training is conducted in Russian. Next he trains in Japan. Then back to the Johnson Space Center. He’s my Gov 2.0 hero because he has an amazing vision for a unique interactive social media presence during his training and space travel. He wants to share space — virtually, AND shine a spotlight back on Earth and the needs on our planet. We’re working on pulling together a really cool virtual space place where we can all gather to celebrate his life off-planet, and projects that make life better for those living on-planet. Stay tuned for more details in the near future. Twitter: @Astro_Ron

Astro_Ron in Sokol Spacesuit

Sean HerronSean Herron, Syracuse student and NASA intern. Sean worked with me in the Space Operations Mission Directorate and Robbie on Open Gov issues. Sean is someone to keep watch for in the future. He is fluent in social media and helped shape NASA’s Open Gov Plan with Robbie Schingler. He started a blog on the NASA People site to offer insights on his experiences at NASA. He was our voice on the LAUNCH:Water twitter account, and so much more. Sean gives me hope for our future. I hope he goes on to get his graduate degree then comes back to NASA for a long and fruitful career. Twitter: @SeanHerron

Yes, I notice that I’m only highlighting men. We have a number of game-changing women in leadership in the IT arena, but I don’t travel in their circles. I hope others will celebrate their Hero-ness today, as I celebrate these Gov 2.0 Guys.

Thank you Robbie, Nick, Chris, Mike, Ron and Sean for leading the way to NASA’s future in the Social Space Frontier!

Cross post on


Filed under astronaut, federal government, leadership, NASA, OpenNASA, social media, space, water

Heavenly Answers for Earthly Problems

I’m SO excited to share details about NASA’s newest, coolest, never-been-done-before sustainability initiative, LAUNCH:Water.


Launch:Water logo

Accelerating Innovation for a Sustainable Future.

We’ve been working on this project for some time — an innovative collaborative process to “launch” ideas, or disruptive green technologies, that address some of this planet’s growing pains.

All props to NASA’s Robbie Schingler, who envisioned a barcamp-type atmosphere to discuss sustainability challenges. We’d been looking for ways to tell our Space Station green story, and this concept fit the bill. We pulled together a team of creative folks, all bringing together different strengths, to birth the LAUNCH:Water incubator we’ll debut next week.

We wanted a TED-style event but with teeth, where we can chomp into issues and mash-up new approaches and solutions.

We created LAUNCH as a global initiative to identify and support the innovative work that is poised to contribute to a sustainable future. We want this process to accelerate solutions to meet urgent challenges facing our society. That’s the goal: to make a difference, leave this world better tomorrow than it is today.

We chose water as a logical starting point because it’s an issue we deal with on Space Station every day in orbit. Not only is water a critical commodity for our orbiting pioneers, but for so many living on our home planet.

Scarcity within a hostile environment is something we Earthlings and space travelers share.

So what is LAUNCH:Water? We are working with our founding partners, USAID, State Department, and NIKE, to allow 10 water-related emerging technology innovators the opportunity to present their ideas to a small group of thought-leaders from varied disciplines for a two and a half day conversation about possibilities. We break into small impact rotations to discuss content-focused issues/opportunities that affect each innovator individually. We have a team working with the innovators to develop how we shape these impact sessions for maximum benefit. Our hope is to use these structured conversations to leap-frog these ten innovators further down the path toward success in solving water issues facing our planet.

Why NASA? Because we’re problem-solvers — against all odds.

We solve problems. That’s what we do. I like to call it our brand reduction sauce– after all the ingredients are thrown into the pot and cooked and the essence is left behind. So why not convene a group of expert problem-solvers in various disciplines to address issues we face both on Earth and in the heavens above? LAUNCH is a gathering of problem-solvers to solve one MAJOR problem:

how to sustain life ON and OFF Earth.

We’ll live-stream the innovators’ presentations on Tuesday March 16th and Wednesday March 17th, so you can be part of this glorious experiment with us. We have a LAUNCHorg twitter account that we’ll keep updated, as well.

Astronaut Ron Garan

Astronaut Ron Garan

I’m looking forward to meeting all the innovators in person next week. I’m particularly excited about one of the innovations that bubbled up in the process: Manna Energy, run in his spare time by astronaut Ron Garan or @astro_ron on Twitter. You can go to their website or @MannaEnergy twitter feed to learn how they’re deploying water filtration devices in more than 400 schools in Rwanda, along with biogas generators and high efficiency cookstoves at 300 locations. Gives me goosebumps.

We’ll have so much to share as we move toward our inaugural event next week. We plan to serve “recycled water” just like our astronauts drink on Station, BTW. I guess we can’t serve it in paper cups or plastic bottles — neither are friends of the environment. Yet, if we serve in glass cups, we’ll have to wash them with water and detergent — not nice to the our planet either. Our most sustainable option will be to squirt “reformed urine” directly into the mouths of our guests. Now that will be a sight to see, won’t it? Good thing we’re live-streaming the event. 😉

Stay tuned for frequent updates from the field.

Crosspost on OpenNASA and GovLoop.



Filed under Africa, Earth, environment, federal government, humanitarian aid, leadership, NASA, social media, space, water

Life Off-Planet Affects Planet-Bound

In a discussion thread on NASA Facebook, several asked:

What do we get out of research that supports humans traveling off this planet, since the rest of us don’t get to tag along for the ride?

I decided to post my thoughts here. This is, by no means, a comprehensive argument for space. Rather, I offer a few brain bubbles on the topic…to get them out of my head, really. So here we go:

Most advancements in science and technology from space are used here on Earth to benefit humans living on this planet.

Shuttle docked at Space Station 220 miles over Earth

Take the issue of radiation. The sun bombards this planet every day. Look at the alarming rate of skin cancer. I know it well. I lost my Daddy to it. Outside the thin blue line of protection our atmosphere gives us, radiation is much worse. We protect our Space Station crews as best we can. But they’ve taken extra precautions, lining up water containers against the walls in certain areas to give them more protection.

Going out further in space, humans will endure much greater exposure to radiation. Any anti-radiation measures we create for space travel will find their way to market back on Earth. That’s just the way it works. We invest in the solution. You benefit from the technology.

What about the humans who sign up to go “out there.” Why should anyone on Earth care what happens to them, right? I mean, they applied for the job. They volunteered. So what do we (the planet-bound) get out of their choice?

Astronauts are human science experiments.

@StationCDRKelly tweets about drawing his own blood for Station science

Astronaut Scott Kelly tweets about Station Science

Astronauts get poked and prodded, spun around, submerged under water, crushed under g-forces, and suffer bone loss — all in the name of science. Oh yeah, they float weightless too. Well, that’s another grand experiment in itself.

Space pioneers, and their families, endure great danger and discomfort to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. They willingly sacrifice themselves for what we don’t know — to advance the cause, to break the code, to peek under the curtains. If we knew everything we ever needed to know about the Universe in our how-to-live-on-planet-Earth guide book, we wouldn’t need pioneers to go out there and  scout out answers for us.

Space Station sodium chloride crystal

Space Station experiment: sodium chloride crystal. Credit: NASA

Humans who travel outside the boundaries of Earth teach us about living and working in a hostile environment with constrained resources. Their space ship is a closed–loop, self-contained biosphere — just like Earth.

Our home planet is a self-contained biosphere with finite resources surrounded by hostile environment of space.

220 miles overhead on Space Station: we make our own energy (solar), recycle our waste water, filter our air, and conserve all our resources. Astronauts/cosmonauts use considerably less water and energy per person than the average AmericanNot by choice really. By necessity. Just like the many citizens of this planet who live without easy access to water or electricity or clean air.

Off-planet living= green living!

We are working to apply these efficiencies back home to help conserve precious water and energy and air on Earth.

And don’t forget this one: unparalleled point of view from SPACE.

We give you a no-borders look at our fragile planet from the outside in.

NASA imagery offers us the big picture view of deforestation, shrunken polar cap, massive weather patterns and more. We help nations address global issues that might not be visible standing on the front porch. Our eyes (cameras and satellites) capture the whole planet for objective analysis.

Earth: the Dark Side of Carbon

Earth: the Dark Side of Carbon. Credit: NASA

We can’t solve all the world’s problems, nor is it our charter; however, we push the envelope. The issues we face off this planet are the Earth’s issues, but magnified.

Make no mistake, Earth faces the same issues: as we stretch our limited resources across the globe to meet the needs of the world’s population. I can say this with certainty based on our 50-year history at NASA:

Whatever we learn about humans living outside this planet will be leveraged to make life safer and better here on Earth.

Your life may depend on it.

Two NASA links you may find of interest: NASA technology and the story of the Universe.

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Filed under Earth, environment, federal government, leadership, NASA, social media, space, water

Going Green for Green Sake?

In the mid-1990’s, I traveled to Norway to negotiate NASA’s Sounding Rocket agreement with the Norwegian Space Agency to study Northern lights. (Note: This project nearly caused World War III when the Russians mistook the Black Brant XII, launched from the Andøya Rocket Range, for a U.S. Trident missile.)

NASA Sounding Rockets: Black Brandt XII

NASA Sounding Rockets: Black Brandt XII

In my tiny little hotel on the Norwegian island of Andøya I encountered, for the first time, thegreen hotel’ concept where guests are offered the opportunity to reuse the towels and sheets to save the environment — saving precious water, reducing energy required to heat the water and power the washers, and preventing spread of pollutants caused by cleaning detergents.

Since that time, the idea spread across the Atlantic. I rarely stay in a hotel that doesn’t offer me the opportunity to reuse my towels and sheets.

For the record, I wholeheartedly support the option of green services at hotels. I feel quite nobel for my contribution to help save the world by using ‘dirty’ towels and sheets. (Ewww. Sounds pretty awful though, doesn’t it?)

My sister Aimee, however, doesn’t think it’s noble at all.

In fact, she refuses. Her rationale: she’s paying full cost for the service.

Why should the hotel save money on water, energy, detergent, AND staff labor at the guest’s expense?

My sister believes hotels reap financial reward from environmental do-gooders. Hotels charge daily rates. Guests willingly opt for less service. Hotels come out ahead. She sees the environment less of a concern to the hotel than the bottom line.

She makes a good point!

In the article, “‘Green’ hotels juggle conservation with customer service ,” Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin points out a totally different issue — hotels boasting green service without the follow-through. Towels and sheets are changed out each day even when the guest wants to save the planet. I guess I prefer the hotel erring on the side of clean.

Tangent: I once stayed at a very nice hotel only to wake in the middle of the night to the pungent smell of dirty hair (not mine) on the pillowcase. Evidently not all the pillowcases had been changed from the previous guest. That’s a little too green for me.

So how do we get this right? You know, the whole saving-the-world-one-choice-at-a-time thing….

What if hotels offered a discount on hotel rates for green services? 10% off the cost of the room, perhaps?

Guests might be persuaded to sleep on the same sheets a couple of nights in a row…and reuse a towel or two IF they have financial incentive.  Going green to save green (money, I mean). It’s only fair, really. Hotels DO save money. Personally, I’d LOVE a discount on my room.

Or, it could go the other way. If we’re not careful (with our precious water), we may find ourselves facing additional fees for water-based services, like clean towels. Look at all the places around the world where people live daily with water shortages.

Zambia: Mukuni Village Water Supply

Zambia: Mukuni Village Water Supply

But in the places-of-plenty, where I live, sometimes the green (dollar) speaks louder that the green (environment).

A “green discount” might just be the place where water conservation and wallet conservation meet.


Filed under Earth, environment, leadership, NASA, water

Zambia: Thanks for Serving!

If you’ve read earlier blogposts (listed at bottom) that I wrote about Africa, you already know my aunt Melody.

We visited Melody in Zambia this summer while my uncle Phil came back to the U.S. for a medical procedure. Phil is my Daddy’s youngest brother. He’s not that much older than my brother and me, so we grew up more like cousins. I have so many stories I could tell you about Phil, but…I won’t. (Talk to me later.) I met Melody for the first time when my superstar basketball player uncle brought his cheerleader girlfriend home to meet the family. Melody taught us cheers out in my grandparents yard.

We loved bubbly, fun Melody at first glance. And she’s still the same!

Phil and Melody Stephens serving God in Zambia

Phil and Melody Stephens serving God in Zambia

Now Phil and Melody serve in Zambia. I asked Melody to share some of their life with you. I held this post until today, Thanksgiving Day. Seemed like the perfect time to share what they do for a living — a life serving God and giving thanks day by day.

Feel free to fall in love with them too!

I sent Melody a list of questions. Here are her answers:

How long have you and Phil served in Zambia?

3 years. We arrived October 12, 2006.

Downtown Livingstone

Downtown Livingstone, Zambia

What brought you to Africa?

Phil came to see the work of another missionary in 2000 and fell in love with the people. I came the following year and loved the people, but although I knew God wanted us to serve Him here, it took a couple of more years before this “city girl” agreed!

Boy in Mukuni Village

Boy in Mukuni Village

Why Zambia?

Zambians are the people group that God placed in our hearts. I sometimes wonder myself…Why Zambia?? Why not Ireland or Hawaii?? Now, I could really feel the love there if only given a chance. 😉

But no, God chose Zambia and now I am so thankful. I love the people and feel a great burden to teach the children of the love of a Wonderful Savior  — the One who would call me out of my little boxthat I fit so well in– and bring me to this place half way around the world and open my eyes to the needs of the people here. Everywhere we go here becomes an opportunity to share the Gospel with a lost and dying world.

“Zambia was not on my top 100 places to live but it is now the ONLY place that I want to be.” — Melody Stephens, missionary

What you see as the greatest need physical need of the people?

Right now I would say that I think the greatest physical need of the people is clean water. There is a water shortage in the compounds and quite often there is no water for them to drink. The water that is available is dirty and loaded with who knows what. We (Amerians) know when it is so hot that we need to drink more, yet they drink less because of the diseases that come with bad water.

What surprised you most you the most about living in Zambia?

Where to begin…. Here are my top ten:

#10. Weekly power outage (often more frequently) because the government officials say we have excess power to sell to neighboring countries. So, if we have so much power why am I sitting in the dark?? And why can’t they let me know when it will be off so I can plan my life??? (Oops! I’m back in the box!)

Zambia Zebra

Zambia Zebra

#9. I am totally surprised by elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys…okay all the “zoo” animals roaming around freely with no barriors.

#8. I am surprised by little village boys who don’t often see vehicles using their flip flops as pretend cars making roads in the dirt and adding the correct “noises” to their game.

#7. Going to the store to buy bread or milk or eggs and finding none…because management didn’t think to place an order.

#6. The beauty of the sunsets and flowers.

#5. No one is in a hurry.

#4. The crude tools used to create works of beauty.

#3. The “Thunder” of Victoria Falls.

Children caring for babies.

Children caring for babies.

#2. Children carrying bables on their backs, and being responsible for siblings at such a young age.

#1. But, the most surprising thing of all is the joy of the Lord that a soul set free has here in Zambia. They are not in a hurry to worship. They will sing and praise God all night and all day. And can they sing!

I love to hear the Zambian voices lifted up in praise to the God who set them free.

What do you like the best about your life?

Serving the Lord day in and day out with Phil. I love the people both young and old. I love the adventure, the animals, the flowers and the opportunity fo depend on God daily to supply our needs.

Pastor Kebby preaching

Paston Kebby preaching

How can readers donate?

Tax-deductible donations can be made to our missions agency:

BBFI (for Phil and Melody Stephens–011310)
PO Box 191
Springfield, Mo.65801-0191

Phil and Melody Stephens on the Mighty Zambezi!

Phil and Melody Stephens on the Mighty Zambezi!

You can catch up on our adventures/observations in Southern Africa:


    Filed under Africa, leadership, poverty, water

    Space Invaders in Nation’s Capitol

    Crazy week at NASA. Space Shuttle Discovery completed her cross-country piggy-back ride from California back to Florida. We announced the discovery of water on the Moon…and more on Mars. The 2009 Astronaut Class and the STS-127 crew came to visit NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. We hosted a Tweet-up with Space Tweeps and the STS-127 crew. (Thanks all you Space Tweeps who joined us!)

    STS-127 Crew @ NASA HQ

    STS-127 Crew @ NASA HQ

    Since I work human spaceflight issues, I love having our astronauts come up to DC. So, I’ll share a few stories with you from this week.

    Jules Verne in Orbit:

    Veteran Astronaut Dave Wolf talked about his time with the Russians on Mir vs. time on Shuttle and Station. He described Mir (precursor to Space Station) as Jules Verne-like with ivory keys on the control panel and a red leather chair. Who needs a chair in Zero-G, if you think about it? But Dave said he spend time in the red leather chair as best he could on orbit. Velcrow, perhaps?

    Smells in space:

    Julie Payette answers question

    Julie Payette answers question

    Both Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and Dave Wolf talked about how the U.S modules on Space Station differ from the Russian side — look, feel, taste and smell. Dave said the smell of the Russian modules reminded him of his time on Mir. You gotta’ wonder exactly what that means…right? But then, if you think about it, our senses are assaulted walking into someone’s home — smell of cookies or fried foods, smoke or new carpet, candles or dirty clothes. Space Station is their home in space. They eat, sleep, exercise, work for up to six months at a time. They will leave their scent, I assume. Hmmm.

    Fear of Falling:

    Astronaut Chris Cassidy

    Astronaut Chris Cassidy

    First-time astronaut Chris Cassidy spoke of his first moments after opening the hatch for his spacewalk. He looked out to see the Earth spinning under him. As he watched, he realized he held onto the handle with a death-grip. His brain had to process the reality that he wouldn’t fall…he would float.

    Our human brains are gravity-wired. Even with years of training, astronauts have to mentally, as well as physically, adjust to the differences zero-g present.

    One-way ticket to Mars:

    When asked if any of the STS-127 crew would jump at a ticket to Mars, Chris Cassidy spoke of family and how they factor into the decision. He and Commander Mark Polansky both said the decision might be different if family could go along.

    Would you go, if given the opportunity — knowing you would never see our blue planet or other Earthlings EVER again?

    Wouldn’t it be cool, though, to have that choice? Someday our planet will be asking our global citizens for volunteers on humanity’s quest for knowledge. Someday.

    In the meantime, we’ll host space invaders fresh from our orbital outpost 220 miles overhead.

    STS-127 Lift Off

    STS-127 Lift Off. Credit/NASA

    The Office of Space Operations hosted the brand spankin’ new astronauts for an early breakfast. Our Exploration colleagues joined us.

    Astronaut-Africa Connection:

    Breakfast with 2009 Astronaut Class

    Breakfast with 2009 Astronaut Class

    I spent some time with Dr. Kate Rubins, one of 14 members of the 2009 Astronaut Class. She’s an expert on infectious diseases — HIV, Ebola and Lassa viruses, which primarily affect West and Central Africa. She’s been given her “call-sign” already by her fellow astronauts: Bola (as in E-bola). I really enjoyed hearing about her time in Africa working with the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She lamented how so many diseases are preventable with education and simple steps.

    Kate is taking action to relieve suffering by founding the Congo Medical Relief Organization to provide medical supplies to the poverty-stricken.

    You can become a fan of Congo Medical Relief on facebook. Their first support site is: L´Hôpital Général de Référence de Kole in a remote region of central Democratic Republic of CongoKate told me the Astronaut Office supported her work and encouraged her to continue her efforts. So cool!

    Now, if we can only link NASA advances in supporting human life in the harsh reality of space to relieve those facing harsh realities here on our home planet.

    Side note: After spending time in Africa (as you can obviously tell from my Africa blogposts), I left my heart there. I would LOVE to find a way to collaborate in some way — taking the best NASA has to offer to lift up those who can’t help themselves. That’s the missionary in me, I guess. Ideas on how to do this?

    Viral Space Fever:

    Space Shuttle on launch pad.

    Space Shuttle on launch pad.

    I spoke with many of the Astronaut Candidates about the importance of sharing the magic of space outside our circle of influence. They are SO, SO eager and enthusiastic now.

    Jeanette Epps, 2009 Astronaut Class, told me,“We’ve been given this amazing opportunity to live out our dreams.

    She and the others can’t imagine NOT wanting to share this experience with anyone willing to hear it.

    Sadly, my experience predicts otherwise.

    Editorial comments (i.e. Soapbox Moment):

    Sharing the astronaut experience through public appearances — school visits, events, speeches, and more — must be approved by the Astronaut Office in Houston. The decision to honor the request or not is viewed in light of the mission: sending humans safely to space and back. Here are a few considerations:

    1. Fact: Our Astronaut Corps is shrinking with the close of the Shuttle program in 2010.
    2. Fact: We have fewer slots for longer duration missions on the International Space Station (which increases time needed to train).
    3. Fact: Everyone (or almost everyone) wants a chance to meet an astronaut.
    4. Fact: We have too few astronauts to meet all the requests for public appearances.
    5. Fact: Every minute an astronaut spends attending a public appearance translates into one minute less training for a task on a mission.
    6. Perception: Mission training is more valuable to NASA than public appearances.

    Here’s what I have observed of the astronaut culture over the years:

    An astronaut who enjoys “speaking with the public” risks being seen as less technically-credible by fellow astronauts.

    A less technically-credible astronaut may jeopardize selection for the highly coveted slot on space missions — which take years to secure. Astronauts who are the best “Space Ambassadors” may risk ridicule as “attention-seekers.” Ah, those pesky unwritten rules on how to get one of those few seats on a spaceship leaving Earth.

    Several members of the new Astronaut Class commented that they’d been advised to keep a low profile. Yet, I want them to have the HIGHEST of ALL profiles. I say, BRING it ON: hand-held video for YouTube, blogposts, Twitter and Facebook updates.

    Let the world be part of astronaut training — right along side them!

     Spacewalk: Coming out of the Space Station hatch.

    Spacewalk: Coming out of the Space Station hatch.

    One of the former Astronaut Office chiefs told me they worked hard to balance mission-critical training with all the outside non-mission-critical requests for their time. Public outreach/educational events remove the astronauts from the job each was selected for — going into space. Training requires single-minded focus.

    ‘Really hard to argue against that logic. Mission-critical sounds like it should trump anything non-mission-critical. Right? But really, isn’t that just an assumption within our traditions and culture?

    I really don’t envy the Astronaut Office folks. I can only imagine the pressure they’re under to juggle all the competing requirements for their time. I also get our NASA culture: we stick with what’s worked well for us in the past. But…is that the only way to succeed?

    Can tradition handicap us, get in the way of creative solutions?

    Enter technology — tools that could lighten the load and create new ways to share the training process with the rest of the world. Social media tools make sharing so simple. At one point, we were all afraid of e-mail. Now we can’t live without it for accomplishing work.

    So here’s what I would do — in my imaginary world where I’m King of the Universe:

    I would rewrite the equation: 1/2 unit technical + 1/2 unit inspirational = 1 Astronaut

    NASA HQ employees crowded around STS-127 crew.

    NASA HQ employees crowded around STS-127 crew.

    In my opinion, social media should be a ‘given’ throughOUT the entire training process. Equip the astronauts with the iPhone 3GS (video) so they can instantly post pics and video inside the simulators, water training, T-38 practice time, and more.

    Allow the tax-payer an opportunity to participate and interact WITH our incredible national treasure — the space travelers who’ve broken the bonds of Earth gravity.

    If I were King, I would craft a career path that includes time at NASA Headquarters for EACH and EVERY astronaut in the Corps — prior to promotion consideration of any kind. (I realize this sounds harsh for uprooting the family structure, but kids/family members can benefit from time in our nation’s Capitol.) The time would be split evenly:

    1. six months in the Office of Legislative Affairs (sharing NASA’s story with Members of Congress and staff) and
    2. six months in the Office of Public Affairs (learning and practicing communication methods and representing NASA at outreach-type events outside NASA).

    Our future as a space-faring nation depends on the will of the people, as expressed through decisions by their elected representatives.

    STS-127: Discovery docked to Space Station

    STS-128: Discovery docked to Space Station

    Our astronauts and our images of the heavens offer our citizens a window into the universe. Our images show the story of what’s beyond our reach. Our astronauts tell the story — how it feels to GO beyond our reach. Yes, training is crucial to get the job done. But, the real job, is getting OUT THERE…in the Universe! We need political will to get there.

    Astronauts embody the human drive to push beyond the boundaries of our knowledge.

    Yes, the technical aspects of the mission are CRUCIAL. We have human lives at stake. Totally. Absolutely! And, we, at NASA, are incredibly good at conducting missions safely. However, without the storytelling — how it tastes and feels, complete with hair-raising near-misses and close calls — we may not have future space missions to conduct.

    Humans are addicted to the drama behind the story.

    Why else would we have an entertainment industry that we throw money at — for the privilege of losing ourselves inside the storytelling in novels, movies and TV shows?

    So let’s tell our story…using every tool we’ve got!



    Filed under Africa, culture, Earth, federal government, leadership, NASA, poverty, space, water

    Zambia: Land of Livingstone

    Mukuni Village: Home of the Lion King

    Mukuni Village: Home of the Lion King

    Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

    Do you even know where this quote came from? I knew the quote, but not the context. Traveling to Zambia at the end of July brought the quote to life as we learned more about the country’s history.

    David Livingstone statue @ Victoria Falls

    Livingstone @ Victoria Falls

    Before traveling to Zambia, I’d read about Scottish missionary-explorer Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873) in Perspectives, a 16-week course about God’s global purpose through a biblical, historical, and cultural perspective. When I learned (though Facebook) that my aunt and uncle live and serve as missionaries in Livingtone, I was amazed. They live in a city named after the missionary I’d studied. I really like David Livingstone’s life story.

    Not only was he appalled by the inhumanity of the slave trade, he believed Christianity + self-sufficient commerce could help eradicate the nasty practice at its roots.



    He explored for viable trade routes to open commerce for the people he came to serve. In his travels, Livingstone “discovered” the massive falls (110m/330 ft down) on the Zambezi River in 1855, named by the locals Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders.” He renamed it Victoria Falls to honor Queen Victoria. During a later expedition to search for the source of the Nile River, Livingstone was tracked down by a New York Herald reporter, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, near Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania. Stanley is said to have stated, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

    Dr. Livingstone headed several expeditions and published his findings. He blazed a path for other missionaries and explorers to follow. I assumed the present day town, Livingstone, is named after the missionary-explorer. My aunt tells me some of the locals disagree. They believe the town name comes from tribal heritage. Who’s to say?

    Bungee Bridge over Batoka Gorge

    Bungee Bridge over Batoka Gorge

    Livingstone — the destination — is a paradise for extreme-sports fanatics.

    Tourists flock here for bungee-jumping, white-water rafting, microlight flying, and more. Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of high places I can fall from. I call it fall-o-phobia.

    Microflyer over Victoria Falls

    Microflyer over Victoria Falls

    It’s not that I’m afraid of heights as much as that long journey down, should I happen to slip over the edge. The fact that human beings WILLINGLY choose to tie-their-legs-together-on-an-elastic-band-and-leap-from-a-towering-bridge-of-their-own-free-will utterly escapes me. My buddy Mike Boon (see previous blog posts) told me he jumped with his son off the Victoria Falls Bridge into Batoka Gorge a few years back. I shudder as I type. I think I’ll stick to the terror of moving a government project forward withOUT the required 95,000 signatures on the concurrence page. 😉

    Giraffe at Zambesi Sun Hotel

    Giraffe at Zambesi Sun Hotel

    Tourists can stay at the Zambezi Sun Hotel which is part of the Mosi-oa-Tunya World Heritage site. The current Lion King (more about him below) sold off sections of his people’s land, such as the site of the Sun hotel, which sits on a prime location along the Zambezi River next to the Falls. You can see the spray from the falls from the water-side of the hotel. Giraffe, zebra, impala, and monkeys roam freely among the guests.

    Romping Zebras

    Romping Zebras

    We stopped for a pot of tea at the hotel (July/August are winter months in Africa). As we sat by the pool drinking tea, the zebras joined us. They romped and played for hours. What a surprise and delight! The hotel employs a “zebra-handler” to keep the guests safe. I found myself precariously wedged between the hind-quarters of several zebras. (I was innocently trying to take pictures.) The handler rescued me, leading me to safety. Evidently, zebras like to kick unsuspecting humans…like me.

    If I could take home a pet zebra, I would.

    Can I take him home?

    Can I take him home?

    Being close enough to touch wild animals and live to tell about it is the most amazing experience!

    Melody welcomes the children

    Melody welcomes the children

    I’m so thankful my aunt Melody invited us to visit. Two days before we arrived, my uncle Phil flew to the States for a medical procedure. Sorry Phil, but we had such a great time while you were gone.  I wasn’t sure what we’d find in Zambia. Melody and Phil have served in Livingstone for three years now. Phil goes out to the bush to reach out to the villagers — many of whom have never seen a “white man” before.

    Melody graciously allowed us to walk her walk during our time in Zambia. She introduced us to the people, places, culture, and customs. She teaches the children on Sundays at the “Cowboy Church” which was started by a fellow missionary and his wife. We went with her to help with the kids.

    Clean water!

    Clean water!

    As we drove up, we noticed women washing their clothes in front of the church.

    The neighborhood has no running water or plumbing facilities.

    Cowboy Church Outhouse

    Cowboy Church Outhouse

    We learned that the villagers are welcome to use the water at the church to meet their needs. I must admit that I was unprepared to use the church outhouse, though it offers privacy and a nicely painted exterior.

    The people live a simple life — which in no way translates into the easy life.

    Running water for villagers.

    Running water for villagers.

    Women can spend up to 60% of their day fetching water from remote sources. Water is carried in buckets. The same water is used for eating, drinking, cleaning. If you’re well-off, your home includes a water tower.

    If water were a commodity, it would be blue diamonds!

    Water. Plumbing. Electricity. All luxuries we take for granted. Those who have electricity share frustration with reliability from the electrical utility provider. For my aunt and uncle, Thursday is their day to do without…in addition to the other unscheduled outages.

    Flatbed trucks

    Flatbed trucks

    We witnessed a number of funeral processions. Funerals are an accepted part of every day life. The cause? AIDs. Malaria. You name it. Friends and family cram onto flatbed trucks for the ride to the cemetery. Cemeteries are filled with recent grave markers.

    My aunt explained that widows, who’ve  lost their livelihood, are expected to feed and care for all the guests at the funeral. In the US, we take food with us to the grieving widow. What is so foreign to me, is a cultural given to the people who live here.

    Uncertainty is part of life in the land of have-nots.

    On the days we went out to the villages, I refused to drink anything. I feared needing “facilities” that might not be to my liking. How lame is that? I held out until I could get back to my Western amenities. I’m a wimp. I admit it.

    I had trouble adjusting my Western habits to the 3rd-World reality we experienced in Zambia.

    But, hey, I DID hard things — like drive in an unknown country, in unknown vehicles, on teeth-rattling surfaces, stick-shift on the left-hand side of the road…and IN THE BUSH! White-knuckle driving, I called it. SOMEone had to. Note: My aunt doesn’t drive stick…yet! It’s only a matter of time, now that’s Melody’s seen me take on the streets of Livingstone and beyond. (Right Melody?)

    Deep in the Bush...

    Deep in the Bush...

    Singing and Dancing!

    Singing and Dancing!

    We drove out to the bush to help out with the Kooma Community School. Pastor Kebby, who leads the Cowboy Church congregation on the outskirts of Livingstone, shared about God with the students of the school. The government requires “religious” education units as part of the curriculum. How different from the US.

    I watched with awe as Pastor Kebby talked to the kids with enthusiasm and humor. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but the kids laughed and responded eagerly. I loved getting a glimpse of his unquenchable spirit. Though he was ill while we were there, he refused to slow down. By the end of our day-long journey into the bush and back, he could barely walk. His passion for his people was humbling indeed.

    Pastor Kebby in the center.

    Pastor Kebby in the center.

    We tourists only peek through the window to their world. They live it. We go home to our comfortable routine.

    We visited 700-yr-old Mukuni Village, home of Chief Mukuni, the real Lion King. One of the locals walked us through the village and told us about the royal family and their system of justice and administration. They have very little crime among the 8000 villagers. We saw the tiny jail. I wouldn’t want to spend time there either. Ok, I wouldn’t want to spend time in ANY jail!

    Livingstone Tree

    Livingstone Tree

    The Mukuni village is organized around a giant tree where Dr. David Livingstone waited for an audience from the Chief. It’s their “meeting place” to this day…in the land of Livingstone.

    Lion King's Throne

    Lion King's Throne

    Knowing that my aunt is a missionary, our guide described their tribal religious beliefs. She explained that they pray to the God of the Bible, and make certain they bless their food properly in order to keep their ancestors from getting angry. Otherwise, she confided, they could get upset stomachs…or worse. In Perspectives class, I first ran across the concept of syncretism — where several belief systems merge together. Can this be what she described? It’s a subtle distinction.

    I merely pose the question, not suppose the answer.

    Flower lady

    Flower lady

    Mukuni village has electrical wires running through it. We walked past huts with radios blaring, wires strung loosely from the master wire overhead. The villagers showed signs of prosperity from the tourism trade (as well as the sale of tribal land for development, such as the Zambezi Sun). Flower gardens. Thatched fences. New huts in various stages of completion. Dirt floors, but bright smiles.

    Village Vendors

    Village Vendors

    We realized, after the fact, that while we walked through the village, the vendors all gathered at the village market — in anticipation of our visit there. Talk about sales pressure. I found it totally overwhelming. Once we walked out of the market, the villagers all filed out and went home. Seriously. Every one of them.

    On our way back from Mukuni Village, Melody took us to see the lions and other wild cats at the Mukuni Park Reserve. She told me it was down one of the MANY unmarked paths on the main road. (Road, BTW, is a term I use quite generously. Perhaps I should say crater-impaired clearing between heavy brush.)

    Good to know...

    Good to know...

    Fortunately, Melody picked out the correct unmarked turn-off from the road. It was a one-way crevice filled with deep sand. (Did I mention I have an imagination? Others might call it a generously sandy path.) One of the many dramatic moments of our trip: the mini-bus spun out of control in the sand. I’d never used 4-wheel drive as a separate stick shift. Melody instructed me, from her best memory, how she’d seen Phil engage the 4-wheel drive. Somehow we got “unstuck” but it wasn’t a pretty sight. The lion guys must’ve had a good laugh as we jerked our way to their doorstep.

    I never quite got it in gear, so to speak.

    Aslan of "The Lion, Witch & Wardrobe"

    Aslan of "The Lion, Witch & Wardrobe"

    No matter our humiliating arrival, we had an incredible time with the cats. Wow! They’re amazing creatures. The cat handlers will let visitors “walk” with the lions and cheetahs. Fortunately, the cats were all in their cages during our visit. When our guide told us we could play with the cubs, I pictured kittens — the  size that fit in one hand. Uh, no. These were cubs the size of a couch, with paws bigger than my feet.  I would not want to be their dinner. Yikes.

    When offered the opportunity to go inside the cage with five of these man-sized cubs, I was less than thrilled. But, go inside I did. Nervously. For one picture. Or two.

    Shaka's NOT happy!

    Shaka's NOT happy!

    The handler got me out quickly. When we looked at the pics later, we saw the reason for my rush exit — a second cub was coming up from behind me. I’m sure he only wanted to play. Or, eat me for dinner.

    Now the cheetahs. Fastest animal, right? Well, faster than me! We took pictures OUTside the cage with the cheetahs. Good thing. Here’s Shaka. He was NOT happy to see us. See the fur standing up on his back? Melody told us she was INside the cage with the cheetahs on her last visit. Really? Can that at ALL be safe?

    One of the many things I learned in Africa? I’m really, really, really a city girl.

    All in all, I’m really thankful Dr. David Livingstone left the comfort of his home and family to minister to the people of Africa. How incredible to walk where he walked, and to have members of my family following his footsteps as missionaries to the very people he came to serve so many years ago. I have so much more to learn about this place so far away from my life in DC. Soon, very soon, I may have a daughter living in southern Africa.

    Here’s a cool sunset from the land of Livingstone. Enjoy. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more African stories with you soon.

    Sunset in the Land of Livingstone.

    Sunset in the Land of Livingstone.


    Filed under Africa, Earth, poverty, water