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Journey of a Space Environmentalist

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After graduating high school, I enlisted in the United States Air Force, where my job as a Security Policeman was to guard intercontinental ballistic missiles—nukes—in the state of Montana. I was raised in Caracas, Venezuela, a thriving metropolis of millions of people where, looking up from downtown, you’d struggle to see the sky. Caracas is a tall city, meaning that area-wise it’s not that big, but most buildings can easily exceed tens of stories. At night, it’s a city of eternal lights, more so than Rome. Having grown up in Caracas, I had never experienced a place with night skies as dark as those in Montana. They say that Montana is Big Sky country, I jokingly say it’s “Nothing But Sky country.”

Milky Way on a clear summer night, by Jacob W. Frank

During one of these night shifts, I remember having to investigate an activated alarm at a missile launch facility out in the middle of the Montana desert plains, and looking at the dark night skies in absolute amazement and wonder—I had never before seen the northern lights, nor the brightness of our Milky Way. I suddenly connected with the Universe in a way I had never before, and now understood the passion of astronomers who came before me, centuries and eons ago. I wondered if the sky had looked similar to them.

So, on many a Montana night, I noticed dots of light gently, but swiftly moving across the night sky, shortly after dusk. Some dots would just disappear in the middle of this trajectory across the sky. You can distinguish unusual object movements in the night sky because they move differently in relation to familiar stars, planets, and asteroids. What were these dots? Was I seeing evidence of extraterrestrial life? I had to investigate this further.

What I discovered was that these dots of light, some of them disappearing mid-flight, were not airplanes nor meteors, but human-made objects orbiting the Earth. I couldn’t believe that I could see them with my naked eye! This connection between humanity and space became an instant love affair for me. The satellites that I had seen disappear didn’t really disappear, but rather stopped reflecting sunlight as they became eclipsed by Earth itself, going into Earth’s shadow. This process is common scientific knowledge that I was ignorant of. I was like a child bubbling inside with this secret that most people didn’t seem to know or perceive. I shared this experience with others, but few actually believed me. In any case, I was thrilled and thus became committed to knowing more about orbiting objects and understanding their motion in space.

A dear friend of mine, Donald Wallace, who was also my “Instructor for Basic Training” in the Air Force, was a lead missile maintenance crew chief. One day he said to me, “you know, since you’re intrigued by this stuff, you should consider studying Aerospace Engineering.” I agreed. So, after four years of enlisted service, I left the Air Force, and decided to pursue a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I applied, got admitted, and attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona at the ripe age of twenty-three. At the time, my academic advisor advised me against the degree program. He gave me the Yoda talk of, “sorry, you’re too old to begin the training” stating that I had never even taken calculus and would not survive the rigors of the program. I remembered, however, one of my supervisors in the military saying, “don’t let anyone’s opinion become your reality.” These words echoed within me, so I decided to go against the advice of my academic advisor and step up to the challenge. It was grueling and one of the most difficult things I’ve set out to do.

The identical Van Allen Probes will follow similar orbits that will take them through both the inner and outer radiation belts. JHU/APL, NASA

Whilst at Embry-Riddle, I met a freshly minted professor by the name of Ronald Madler. He had pursued his own Aerospace Engineering studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and had been a graduate student at NASA studying astrodynamics focused on orbital debris. Astrodynamics is the science that studies the motion of objects in space, from planets to satellites to debris. When it comes to the population of human-made objects in space, there is more space debris orbiting Earth than working satellites—apparently humanity has been applying the “space is big” concept, condoning the pollution of near-Earth orbital space. Defunct rocket bodies, man-made objects that have collided with each other, lost astronaut gloves, bolts, paint flecks, and more. I was put off by the thought of being a space garbage expert. Who’d ever want to work on space debris, I thought. I was much more interested in focusing on interplanetary missions.

I graduated as an Aerospace Engineer but wanted to further my studies and found myself admitted to the graduate program at the University of Colorado at Boulder (following in the steps of my mentor and friend Ron Madler). My graduate advisor at Colorado was the late George Born, who’d cut his teeth on determining interplanetary satellite orbits while at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. George took me beyond the field of Astrodynamics and introduced me to Statistical Orbit Determination. In essence he showed me how to estimate orbits of space objects from sensor data. Once a satellite is in orbit, radio signals are transmitted to and received from them. These radio signals are the equivalent “eyes and ears” that an Orbit Determination Analyst, or Spacecraft Navigator, has at their disposal to interpret and assess where satellites were and use statistical analysis to try and predict where they would be, making periodic propulsive changes to the flight path keeping them on the intended trajectory and not in a path of potential collision with other space objects. This was like being a submarine sonar expert except that instead of interpreting acoustic signatures I was interpreting radio waves. I was absolutely enamored with this detective work, and my studies led me to a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a Spacecraft Navigator on Mars missions. This was my dream job! 

• • • 

Sometime in here, I got married and we had a son. We traveled as a family to one of my annual conferences, this one on Maui. My family fell in love with the island, and I was told in no uncertain terms that we needed to live on Maui. Well, this would be the ultimate adventure and a bit scary in that I was abandoning a burgeoning career as a Spacecraft Navigator. I found employment on Maui, back in service of the US Air Force, at their research facilities. The Department of Defense was interested in the scientific and technological edge related to identifying indications and warnings of threats in space, threats to its own satellites serving military and intelligence uses. The space debris problem, which I had previously been turned off to, was now in my wheelhouse. My job was to improve the Air Force’s ability to detect, track, identify, and characterize space objects and develop the smarts to help the government avoid threats if possible. 

Living on Maui was a dream come true in so many ways. But I noticed things that caused me great sadness. For one, I took note of the disparity between native Hawaiians and everyone else. I also noticed the absence of ecological harmony on the island. We humans were doing what we do well, which is to decimate life at the expense of self-centered pursuits. Maui has landfills, poor recycling, lots of single-use plastics, and the list goes on. This painful experience registered with me deeply. And at the time I wasn’t sure how I could help. After a few years, we left Maui and moved to New Mexico where I saw similar economic and ecological disparities among the Indigenous peoples of this region. It seemed as if their ecological knowledge and practices were being erased over time. I didn’t think someone like me could make a difference even if I wanted to.

Then, a few years ago, I visited Alaska with my son Denali to show him where his name came from. We believe in giving our children names with powerful meaning, something they can aim to achieve perhaps. You see, in Alaska, there are the Den’a, meaning the people in Athabascan. And Denali means Great One in Athabascan. The highest mountain in North America is known locally as Denali and by most Americans as Mount McKinley. While I was in Alaska, I witnessed a similar cultural and spiritual displacement between the natives and the rest of society. I felt a familiarity with the lack of ecological sustainability and the correlation with the disappearance of Indigenous practices, as I had on Maui.

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Classic Denali, NPS

One morning in my hotel room in Anchorage, as I was showering, I felt enveloped by a presence, an energy. This energy felt very ancient to me, and I was overcome by great sadness. In my mind’s eye, I saw scenes of humanity’s ancient history flashing before me, and the effects of humanity abandoning its original intergenerational contract of stewardship and custodianship for an Earth ownership instead. I envisioned how Indigenous peoples had knowledge about how to live in balance with life. After this realization, I felt an indescribable presence come forth asking me if I was willing to do whatever I could to help humanity remember this original intergenerational contract of stewardship of our home and the universe as a whole, where all things are interconnected. I was shown that this interconnectedness was to be purposefully honored and respected in light of the apparent differences amongst all things in creation, and I was reminded that action is best when born from a place of compassion. At that moment, in the shower, I fell to my knees and in heavy sobs said “yes” to this as the purpose I would serve, and it was there that I became a Space Environmentalist.

This was not the first time I sensed this interconnectedness. I had first recognized it at the age of sixteen, in a military boarding school, at a moment in my life when I no longer wanted to live. Back then, I had been accused of something I had not done but was not given the right to state my own case. I was thus incarcerated for a few months, and I became significantly depressed. I was hazed, mocked, and in many ways tortured. I realized at the time that my weakness, manifesting in my depression, was caring for anything, including myself. If I could become detached from all things, I could be free. I went beyond that thought as I felt that death would be the best freedom of all. However, in this personal place of spiritual, emotional, and mental rock bottom, I suddenly discovered something that surprised me. I came to know an infinite ocean of peace and love that I cannot describe. There was now a oneness with the fabric of existence. It is this same wonderous fabric that I reconnected with in Anchorage, Alaska.  

• • • 

Artwork from NASA depicting NASA Earth Science Division Operating Missions

A search of the internet will reveal my trajectory throughout the years. I began as a security guard captivated by human-made objects orbiting the Earth, transitioned to identifying threats to US government satellites in space, and shifted to becoming an evangelist for environmental protection of Earth to include near-Earth space.[1] Since the age of sixteen, I’ve known and accepted that we all come from a common source—you can call it the stars if you’d like—the point is that we came from a common cosmic birth, which has evolved ever since, and humanity is an outcome of this. One day, we will all go back to the stars. Our path now to thriving in this Universe is through acknowledging our interconnectedness and acting from compassion, taking up our role as stewards and custodians once again.

[1] Visit www.eyesonthesky.org for a meaningful summary.


Image credits: 

Old Faithful and Milky Way crisscross on a clear summer night, by Jacob W. Frank NPs https://www.flickr.com/photos/yellowstonenps/35378007120/in/photostream/

The identical Van Allen Probes will follow similar orbits that will take them through both the inner and outer radiation belts. JHU/APL, NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/rbsp/mission/index.html

Denali National Park and Preserve, Classic Denali, NPS

Artwork from NASA depicting NASA Earth Science Division Operating Missions. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NASA_Earth_Science_Division_Operating_Missions.jpg

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  • Moriba Jah

    Moriba Jah is an Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin where he is the holder of the Mrs. Pearlie Dashiell Henderson Centennial Fellowship in Engineering.

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