Date: August 23rd, 2012
Title: The Planetary Society Presents New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern: Uwingu—A New Way to Support Space Exploration
Podcaster: Mat Kaplan and Alan Stern
Organization: The Planetary Society
Description: Dr. Alan Stern and a group of very distinguished colleagues have created Uwingu, a new company that will directly support promising space exploration and science projects through the creation and sale of exciting apps. The former NASA Associate Administrator talks about how anyone can help Uwingu get underway by contributing on the Indiegogo crowdsourcing site. Uwingu is the Swahili word for “sky.”
Bio: Mat Kaplan is the longtime producer and host of “Planetary Radio,” the Planetary Society’s weekly radio and podcast series about space exploration. He has been a science and technology journalist for more than thirty years.
Alan Stern is the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to the Pluto system and beyond. He works in Boulder, Colorado as the Southwest Research Institute’s Associate VP for their Space Science and Engineering Division. He also served as the Associate Administrator for Science at NASA.
Today’s Sponsor: This episode of 365 days of Astronomy is sponsored by iTelescope.net – Expanding your horizons in astronomy today. The premier on-demand telescope network, at dark sky sites in Spain, New Mexico and Siding Spring, Australia.
Mat Kaplan: Hello again, faithful listeners to 365 Days of Astronomy. This is Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with our monthly contribution to this terrific series. Usually on the last Thursday of each month. I am really pleased to say that my guest today is someone who has also been a guest on our weekly radio show out of the Planetary Society, Planetary Radio. He has been on to talk about many, many subjects because he is into many many things. But we have one particular topic today. Alan Stern, well, you may know him best as the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, but really today we’re going to be talking about something called Uwingu. UWINGU. Alan, welcome to 365 Days.
Alan Stern: Thank you so much, Mat. Great to be here?
M: What is this all about?
A: (Laughs.) Well, Uwingu is a little start-up company that a bunch of us are involved in. The company has a dual track mission. One is to connect people better to the sky and to space, and the other is to use proceeds from sales that we would make to create something we call the Uwingu Fund, which would be an independent way to fund space researchers and space educators who have space projects of all kinds from all around the world. We like to think of as like adding another lane, to add capacity to what NASA and the federal government sources can do.
M: Adding another lane, I mean, we’ve gotten very used this funding coming from, what? Various science foundations and so on including NASA. What really is the challenge here? Why is there a need for this new company?
A: Well, the need, it seems almost every year we have budget problems. This year the planetary budget got cut 20%. Just last week a report came out cutting the National Science Foundation astronomy facilities, recommending those cuts. And every year it’s the economy or it’s an overrun with NASA, or it’s the President’s budget, or it’s something that happens in Congress. And in space research, in space education, unlike, for example, medical research or if you’re a weather researcher or many other fields, there really aren’t very many places to turn when NASA’s budget is cut or the NSF budget’s cut. That’s about it in terms of the funding portfolio. We like to say, you know, if you only own one stock, you probably deserve what you get when it goes down. We’re out to try and diversify that portfolio a little bit.
M: I guess where people should to find out more is actually where you’re trying this initial capital, and that’s one of these crowdsourcing sites?
A: Right, right. Well, our plan is for the company to generate those funds itself from sales, but in order to kick the company off, we’ve all—not all, but almost everyone involved—has contributed themselves in substantial ways, and we’ve put in a lot of time, as well, writing the software. But, we know that we’re going to have bills to pay as soon as we launch, like for our cloud costs, for Internet bandwidth, etc. And so we’re trying to crowdsource that, kind of a 21st Century model. We’ve been out about three weeks on that campaign, raised about $25,000. Our goal is to about triple that, so that we can run the company the first few months when sales may be low.
M: What crowdsourcing site are you making use of? This one is NOT on Kickstarter, I guess.
A: No, we chose Indiegogo, that’s INDIEGOGO, Indiegogo. It’s easy to find us. Once you’re there, just put our name, Uwingu, that’s the word “wing” with a U on either end, into the search box.
M: You’ve got a lot of people involved in this. One of them provides the voice for this really pretty dramatic and I think very effective video that people can see if they go to the Uwingu site on Indiegogo. Let me play a couple of minutes of that, first of all, because I think it really states the message very clearly.
Video with Music: Space exploration is inspiring. It’s amazing. It gives us a sense of wonder and exemplifies humankind’s forward movement. But space exploration is in danger in the United States. So, too, is space research. This diverse and vibrant field of study involves everything from revealing how planets are formed and evolve, to finding planets around other stars, to understanding how our sun works. It even explores whether there may be or may have been life on other worlds in our solar system and beyond our solar system. For decades, the United States has shined as an international leader in these important fields. We’ve spearheaded work that has rewritten textbooks, illuminated minds and inspired generations. But today, the support that feeds space research is drying up. Space education isn’t healthy either. It’s through space education that we make young minds aware of our space accomplishments. It’s also a powerful tool for inspiring careers and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Something that is crucial to our economy and to our future. The common thread that each of these fields face is the volatility of NASA’s budget. Few people outside the space community know it, but these three fields have almost no other funding outside of NASA. As a result, great projects and dedicated researchers, engineers and educators get caught in the political crossfire of NASA’s budget fluctuations. At Uwingu, we want to change this paradigm. Uwingu is a start-up company consisting of astronomers, planetary scientists, former space program executives, educators and other experts. We’ll market innovative, publically-engaging space-related projects, and use a large portion of the proceeds to create a new source of grants funding space exploration, research and education. Our ambition is high. We seek to create the largest private fund ever, generating millions, and who knows? Perhaps even tens of millions of dollars or more each year for worthy space projects.
M: So Alan, I’m guessing a lot of people who listen to 365 Days of Astronomy may recognize that voice, but I think she’s one of your principals in Uwingu.
A: She is! That’s Pamela Gay, astronomer and really a leader in the citizen science movement.
M: You bet. Also a periodic guest on Planetary Radio, the Society’s series. Who else is involved with this?
A: Pamela has joined the Uwingu. So have a variety of other people. David Grinspoon who’s just a spectacular science educator and writer at the Denver Museum of Natural Sciences. Andy Chaikin, space historian. Mark Sykes runs the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson. Geoff Marcy, probably the world’s foremost, ground-based exoplanet hunter. Teresa Segura, formerly with Northrup Grumman, now out on her own—a planetary scientist in her own right. Emily Cobabe-Amman, one of the best EPO or Education, Public Outreach people in NASA’s universe. Those are a few examples.
M: Quite an impressive group, and all very, very busy people. Why do so many of these busy people want to take this on?
A: Well, we’ve been working on this actually for a couple of years, and we wanted to make a difference. We’re going to try very hard to make that difference and provide this fifth lane, if you will, to the funding highway. Doing it a different way, where we think it will reach out much more broadly than some other techniques that have been tried in the past because the products that we plan to sell, the things that people will do with the apps we put out there, don’t just rely on the buyer being a space fanatic, which is a pretty small fraction of all the people on Earth. It’s really something much more broadly addressed to everyone from children to grandparents.
M: What can you tell us about this work, what’s already been accomplished. Now you said that all these folks have already put a lot of time into developing some software. I guess you’re not quite ready to reveal all the details?
A: Right, right. I like to make the analogy that we’re telling there’s a present under the tree for Christmas, that it’s wrapped, and you have to wait until the right day to open it. We have put a lot of effort into this, and so have others that I didn’t name, particularly on the IT side, the business side, software side, names that aren’t as well known, perhaps, by your listeners at 365 Days. But people who’ve equally hard.
M: I also want to mention that you have a guest blog, that is, you and your colleague Emily, have written a guest blog which is up at planetary.org, and we will put links to that and to the Uwingu Indiegogo site right here in 365 Days of Astronomy. I hope people will take a look at that guest blog at planetary.org, as well. Alan, we’re just about out of time, but I saved a few seconds to ask you about another pieces of your life. What’s this about helium on the moon?
A: (Laughs.) Thanks for asking. Well, our spectrometer called LAMP that’s orbiting the moon right now on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has made the first discovery of lunar helium as seen from anywhere but the surface. Back in Apollo they detected it, so we knew it was there. We’ve now learned how to detect it from orbit, which gives us a lot more flexibility to understand how it varies in time, and what the sources and sinks of that native helium are. It’s a fascinating new aspect of the lunar atmosphere.
M: You know I can’t let you go without asking you about the health of New Horizons. Everything on track?
A: Everything is on track. We’re on course, plenty of fuel, everything on the spacecraft is green, as we like to say. And we are deep in planning for the encounter.
M: Looking forward to a big party around that Pluto encounter, something we hope to do out of the Planetary Society. Alan, thanks so much and best of luck with all of these efforts that you always have underway, including Uwingu, that people can find at the Indiegogo crowdsourcing site. That’s Uwingu, UWINGU.
A: Thanks so much, Mat! Really fun being here.
M: Among other things, Alan Stern is the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to the Pluto system and beyond. He works in Boulder, Colorado as the Southwest Research Institute’s Associate VP for their Space Science and Engineering Division. He also served as the Associate Administrator for Science at NASA. Thanks so much for tuning in once again to 365 Days of Astronomy. I hope you’ll catch our next monthly installment from the Planetary Society. That’ll be in late September. Ad Astra, everybody!
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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