Radio PA Roundtable – July 19, 2013

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, state House lawmakers were back in session this week. What could possibly interrupt their summer vacation? Also, we hear from Pennsylvania’s First Lady and talk to NASA on this special anniversary weekend.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Second Man to Set Foot on Moon Says U S Should Have Its Eyes on Mars

It has been nearly two years since the last space shuttle lifted off.  Where does the U S space program stand and where should it be aiming?  A new book from a renowned astronaut lays out a vision for a mission to Mars.

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to set foot on the moon, but he hopes his vision for the future makes a greater contribution.   It includes a goal of establishing a permanent base on Mars, using one of its moons as a stepping stone.

Aldrin says the United States needs a united space vision. He does not think we should focus on returning to the moon with NASA astronauts. Instead, he says we should play a leadership role in initiating a consortium for an international lunar base.

NASA has announced a plan to capture an asteroid, but Aldrin says that’s not going to get us where we need to be. He says it’s a wonderful thing to demonstrate, but does not lead us to the object of our attraction, the planet Mars.

Aldrin says the path to Mars includes private sector efforts such as Inspiration Mars, which aims to orbit a married couple around the red planet in 2018.

The book “Mission to Mars, My Vision for Space Exploration” was written with Leonard David, a veteran space journalist.


Summer Camps Focus on Science

Hundreds of Pennsylvania middle schoolers are wrapping up a “Summer of Innovation.”  Project director Dr. David Morgan, with the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), says they were one of only nine organizations, nationwide, selected to receive NASA grant funding for the Summer of Innovation (SOI) camps:  “To encourage students to get engaged in STEM careers: science, technology, engineering and math; because our country, to continue its competitive edge, needs to have its students involved in those kinds of careers.”

CCIU is partnering with Immaculata University, Bucknell University, Lycoming College and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg to bring ‘out-of-this-world’ science to 2,000 students in 20-school districts, and two cyber charter schools, throughout the state.  “Everything’s hands on, and they are activities selected from NASA, which are considered to be best practice,” says Morgan.  This is the first year of the four year program, and Morgan says the 20-participating school districts will be with them for the duration.    

Women Empowered By Science

Students and instructors enjoy a WEBS science lab at Wilkes University.

SOI isn’t the only summer camp getting students excited about science this summer.  At Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, the Women Empowered By Science (WEBS) program is focused on girls entering the seventh and eighth grades.  “We’re choosing this age because they still are excited, they still want to investigate and they still have the joy of learning.  We can play off of that, put them in our labs and – in a very fun way – continue the learning process,” says WEBS coordinator Debbie Chapman.  The two-week WEBS summer camp at Wilkes University is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  

The girls have been doing everything from dissecting frogs, to programming robots to dance.  Soon-to-be seventh grader Meghan Cook enjoyed the pharmacy lab the best.  “I think I want to be a pharmacist because they’re the ones making the new medicines.  I want to make a new allergy medicine for my mom, because she has lots of allergies,” Meghan says.  “I loved what we did the past two weeks,” adds fellow WEBS camper Gabriella McElhattan. 

The WEBS camp started out with 15-students, before doubling to 30 last year and 60 this year.  “We’re happy to have 120 [next year],” Chapman says.  “Just working on word of mouth I think we’re going to be able to achieve that goal.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis Launches Just about on Schedule

The space shuttle Atlantis blasted off just a couple of minutes later than scheduled, finding a window of good weather to head off on its final mission. STS-135 is the last flight of  NASA’s space shuttle program, which began in 1981.

Christopher Ferguson is the commander of the historic mission. The Philadelphia native is a graduate of St. Martha Elementary School, Archbishop Ryan High School and Drexel University.  He joined NASA in 1998 after a career in the Navy.

We spoke to Ferguson in a reporter’s round robin by telephone prior to the mission.  He said every commander feels a little bit of pressure to make sure the mission goes well, and this one is no exception.  He says despite the attention surrounding the mission,  they still have a very tight timeline and a complex mission to pull off.

Ferguson says the fact the shuttle program  is ending in July 2011 is no surprise, we’ve known about this since President Bush laid forth his vision for space exploration after we lost  the shuttle Columbia in 2003.  While Ferguson is sad to see the program go away, he compared it to selling your first car.  He says there’s a little piece of you that doesn’t want to let it go, but  in order to go on to bigger and better things, you have to sell the one you have now.  He says in order to take the next step in the space program, we’re going to have to shut down the shuttle.  

Ferguson hopes the attention being paid to the historic flight will re-energize the public’s enthusiasm for the space program. He says NASA will have a very narrow window where it’s thrust into the limelight. He think’s it’s imperative that the taxpaying public and Congress capitalize on that momentum to make sure our path to low earth orbit is charted very, very clearly.  

He says even as the shuttle program ends, there will still be Americans on the International Space Station.  Ferguson  says the U. S. has contracted with our Russian partners to take Americans to the ISS.

By the way, Ferguson tells us  he’s a huge Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and 76ers fan.   He still has family living in the Philadelphia area.

Ferguson will have three months of post flight activities when the mission is over, and still has not set his future plans now that the shuttle program is ending.

**All photos courtesy of NASA.