Joseph Shoer is a 28-year-old guidance, navigation and control engineer for a major commercial spacecraft company. He has a B.A. in physics with honors from Williams College and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Cornell. He’s also been involved in research on included solar physics, optical-fiber pulse lasers, interactions between superconductors and magnetic fields, multibody spacecraft dynamics, and the lunar rover in NASA’s Constellation program.
A Massachusetts native, Shoer’s a gamer, creates fantastical maps, writes decent science fiction, kayaks, bikes, hikes, cooks and brews beer. His fiance, Nicole Sharp, is a fellow geek with an equally impressive skill set and interests. More about her next month.
Though Shoer’s geek credibility is assured, it’s worth mentioning that he also loves Monty Python.
When did you become interested in space?
When I was about six, my parents taped a PBS documentary about astronomers that had me convinced that I wanted to go into radio astronomy. I wrote letters to the few astronomers I could name. Some of them even wrote back!
My interest slowly evolved from astronomy through physics and eventually to spacecraft engineering. I’m still as fascinated by basic space science as I am by the problem-solving of engineering for space. I took planetary geology courses alongside my engineering courses throughout grad school. Some of the places we know about on other worlds can give any science fiction author a run for their money. I think it’s amazing to consider what exists out there.
Speaking of which … do you think we’re the only ones out there?
I think there are too many planets out there for that to be true. But interstellar distances are a tough barrier, to say the least, so it may be a long time before we know for sure.
That said, there are some inviting places in our own solar system where we might get a more immediate answer to that question. If we’re ambitious with our space program, I think we could know within the next 20 years if there’s life in the ocean on Europa, for instance. Personally, I think there really could be something living there. And it will be, well, alien.
As a vomit comet survivor, can I assume you have aspirations to travel in space?
Oh, I’d love to, but unfortunately I have Type 1 diabetes. Being diabetic hasn’t stopped me from doing anything that I really want to, but one of the very few things that I’m pretty sure I can’t do is be an astronaut. Perhaps as a result of this, some of my personal heroes are the mission controllers and science teams and engineers working on space missions. The astronauts are the tip of the spear: Everything everybody else is doing has to work as well. I was very happy to meet Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft a few years ago.
You’ve created these incredible imaginary maps. What’s inspired them?
Maps have attracted me ever since I was a kid and encountered the inside covers of books like the Lord of the Rings or Redwall. I was fascinated by the way each new book would add to the map and the depth of the world and gradually these places would become familiar. It wasn’t too long before I took a notebook and started filling it with imaginary maps of my own.
I was really taken with the notion of world-building: that somebody can concoct an entire alternate geography, language and history, and maybe some alternate biology or physics. It’s a tremendous creative puzzle. It’s a question of how you get all these aspects of an imagined world to include everything you want, but have it still be self-consistent enough to stand up without too much suspension of disbelief. The map is a terrific focal point for that effort. It has to tie everything together. It shows where people and creatures live, gives clues to their cultures and dictates where conflicts take place. Even just on their own, the very nature of a map hints that whole realms exist behind the scenes from what actually makes it onto paper.
You built your own gaming computer. Tell me about it.
I think one of the interesting things about computer games is how much more cinematic they’re getting, and I wanted a computer that could handle them. It had been a while since I looked at computer specs, and the best way to understand something is to actually do it, so I started researching components. In the case of a gaming computer, it turned out that this was a more economical and efficient way to go, too. I didn’t go for the most tricked-out case or the raciest specs, but every time I turn it on, I can feel a tiny amount of pride that I put the thing together.
I like games that have a good story to follow, games that imagine things totally unlike the everyday world, and games where I have to think about my strategy. I liked Skyrim, and Dishonored was very cool. I’ve been sucked into XCOM in a big way. I love the way the turn-based game makes you hold your breath to see if your plan is going to work out.
OK, you’ve got geek cred, but your article “The Physics of Space Battles” may put you on a higher plane of geek altogether. Is it a subject people who work in space exploration are actually concerned with?
A great thing about going to grad school is that I’d often end up in a room full of really intelligent people who are interested in learning and discussing and telling each other about all sorts of topics. One evening, a bunch of us were talking about which depictions of space battles in science fiction had the best aesthetics, the coolest physics, or the most intriguing ideas. I started to wonder about going beyond the classic discussion of what’s wrong with the physics in popular sci-fi space battles to exploring what physics might really be useful in space combat. After thinking about it on my own for a night, I basically sat down and wrote that whole piece from start to finish. A few days later I got an email from one of the Gizmodo staff, asking to reprint it. I didn’t really expect the reaction it received.
People in the field of space exploration aren’t really thinking about how to defend against space aliens. But there are a lot of related problems that we have to solve, because the space environment is out to get satellites. For example, a big issue on spacecraft is the ability of components to endure the space environment: How well does a device stand up to radiation outside the protection of the atmosphere? Will electric charge build up on a surface and cause a damaging spark? What happens if a piece of space debris strikes the satellite?
It’s not too much of a jump to put the space battle discussion in terms of real spacecraft engineering. We could talk about maneuvering to bring the number two phaser banks on target, or we could talk about maneuvering a satellite to take a picture of the Earth’s surface. We could talk about the right orbit to sneak up on the aliens’ planetary defense grid, or the right orbit for a mission to Mars. The same principles of physics govern all these space systems.
You do some interesting advocacy for NASA on your blog. Your most recent post on the argument for greater investment was fascinating.
NASA funding benefits just about every sector yet gets only about half a percent of the federal budget. It’s really amazing that NASA is able to accomplish so much with the shoestring amount of money it gets from Congress. If you think about the kinds of problems it has to solve in the course of space exploration, you come up with a lot of things that clearly apply to life on Earth. In order to explore space, you have to develop extremely reliable machines. You have to figure out how to get nutritious food and easy-to-use medical supplies to people living in a restrictive environment. You have to generate power very efficiently, with as little waste as possible. You have to manufacture devices to extraordinary tolerances. The list just goes on and on.
There are very good reasons to limit our government deficit, but we have to be intelligent about it. Research and development agencies like NASA return to our nation more in value than they cost us as taxpayers. They’re smart investments.
So where do you see yourself in the next decade?
My heart is really set on space exploration. I want to work on the technologies, science and missions that bring us knowledge about the other worlds in the solar system. There are some really wild and alien places that I would love to get a probe to.
- Joseph Shoer’s website
- Money Matters (on NASA funding) [Joseph Shoer]
- The Physics of Space Battles [Gizmodo]
Maps and Images: Joseph Shoer