Karen James has spent several years on an unplanned voyage into the space program. It has taken her inside a simulator in the Johnson Space Center in Houston; close enough to Space Shuttle launches to feel the concussive impact rattle her body; to telephone hookups with a doctor orbiting the Earth; and to the page on the USAJOBS website where anyone can go to fill out an application to become an astronaut. At least when there's a vacancy.
Life rarely takes people on a straight, space-shot trajectory to a known destination. In the case of a Karen, a biologist at Maine's Mount Desert Island Biological Lab, pursuing a passionate interest—not in rockets and stars but in a famous naturalist and a 200-year-old wooden ship buried under three meters of mud in an estuary in Essex, England—led to a surprising and wonderful detour into a realm she hadn't focused on since she was a child. Karen has a photo of herself as a 10-year-old in Colorado Springs, walking onto the tarmac at Peterson Air Force Base with her brother and Air Force colonel father to view the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which was perched atop a modified jumbo jet that was transporting it across the West. At the time, she did not dream of becoming an astronaut. That would have to wait until she was in her 30s.
A few years ago, having finished her Ph.D. in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington, Karen was living in London doing doing post-doctoral research at the Museum of Natural History. Besides working on the Barcode of Life project (an effort to identify all living species based on DNA: http://www.barcodeoflife.org), she was coordinating the museum's Charles Darwin 2009 bicentenary science campaign. She even appeared alongside Sir David Attenborough in the museum's acclaimed film on evolution, part of which she wrote.
More significant to her astronautical future, Karen, who's something of a Darwin buff, became a co-founder of the HMS Beagle Project (http://www.hmsbeagleproject.org). It's a nonprofit campaign to build a replica of the 90-foot wooden ship on which Darwin spent five years doing his world-changing research. The replica will someday be a floating research lab for scientists from around the world. And yes, as you might have guessed, the original HMS Beagle is the ship that now sits buried in the estuary off Essex.
Karen's Darwinian efforts made news. In 2007, an astronaut-in-training and doctor named Michael Barratt picked up a copy of the journal Science from a coffee table at the Johnson Space Center. He read a blurb about the HMS Beagle Project and was intrigued. He loved sailing, was looking for ways to link the space program to biologists and other life scientists, and calculated that he would be up in the Space Station at the same time the Beagle replica was projected to make its maiden voyage back on Earth. He did some Internet research, found that Karen was a fellow Washington grad, and wrote her an email that changed her life.
Michael proposed a collaboration between him in the Space Station and Karen aboard the Beagle replica—science done at both ends simultaneously. Karen, reading the email at home one night, felt her heart rate increasing. She flew to Houston. She met with NASA officials. Michael gave her a private tour of the Johnson Space Center. They flew the shuttle simulator together. Karen got to reach her arms into huge gloves and pick up precious Moon rock specimens through a glass wall. Even people who worked at NASA told her how rare it was for anyone to get the access she was receiving.
Good things kept happening. The HMS Beagle replica didn't get built in time for Michael's 2009 Space Station visit (it's still in the planning/funding stage), but he and Karen—who was on a visit to Brazil—connected in an educational project. "Michael did a live interview from space with 60 Brazilian school children," Karen recalls. "The children had memorized their questions in English. At the end of each question they said, 'Over.' And at the end of each answer, Michael said, 'Over.' The children were talking to someone in space. The parents in the audience had tears in their eyes."
Experiences like that are powerful. So is the lure of space. Says Karen, "I was getting hooked on it."
She attended Space Shuttle launches ("When you know someone who's on board, it changes everything," she says. "My stomach was up in my throat.") She even covered a launch of Atlantis for the British newspaper the Guardian. After she posted on Twitter the photo of herself as a 10-year-old going to see the Space Shuttle, a NASA official wrote back in a note that included the phrase "when you go to space." Whoa, Karen thought. When you go to space?
Why not? In November 2011, after NASA announced an astronaut job opening, Karen went to the USAJOBS website and began the process of persuading the space agency that she had The Right Stuff. "You apply for it like any other government job," she says. Except, of course, that the application takes a lot more work to fill out, you have very little chance if you aren't a scientist, an engineer or a member of the military (or some combination of those), and, in this case, 6,300 other talented people are applying for the same job. You're lucky to make even the first cut.
But Karen did. She was one of 400 applicants who received letters from NASA telling them that they were "highly qualified" for the astronaut position. Karen jokes that she will someday use that as her epitaph: HIGHLY QUALIFIED.
From last October through January 2013, the winnowing process continued. Candidates went through FAA-designed physical exams. NASA contacted references. Judgments were made based on ....well, Karen isn't sure on what. She was one of the candidates who did not receive an invitation to the next round of rigorous testing: four days of medical evaluations, one day of psychological evaluation, a half-day interview and, Karen speculated, gut-wrenching sessions in a centrifuge. "That's my silver lining," she says. "I didn't have to throw up."
Karen will try again to become an astronaut whenever the next opening is announced. The whole experience for her has been a silver lining without a cloud. It has been a reminder of the value of following passions, taking chances, seizing opportunities. We live only once on this little blue speck of a planet in the vastness of space. Why not live fully?
"Just applying for it changes everything," she says. "You think, I could be an astronaut."
Answer to the Last Puzzler Sir Isaac Newton IS the source of these notable quotations:
• “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” • “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” • “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things are false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.” • “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
He did not, however, say, "Knowledge is power." That classic line comes from Sir Francis Bacon.
Today's Puzzers 1) Let's stick with the brilliant Francis Bacon (1561-1626) for the first question. He helped develop what we call the scientific method of inquiry (he pioneered the process of observing directly, gathering data and building conclusions) and his work influenced Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Conspiracy theorists have long claimed that Bacon actually wrote the plays credited to Shakespeare. Supposedly Bacon had to hide his literary identity to protect his political ambitions; back then writing plays to entertain the masses was beneath the stature of a statesman.
The Puzzler question: How did Bacon famously die?
a) He fell off a horse while testing the effect on a person's directional sense of riding blindfolded. b) He developed pneumonia while studying how the freezing of meat can help preserve it. c) He developed trichinosis from eating undercooked bacon.
2) What kind of trees did these cones fall from (from left to right)? I photographed them on a walk here in Maine the other day.
a) white pine, white spruce b) blue spruce, balsam fir c) black spruce, hemlock