It might have been when I was 9, and read my first Bradbury (All Summer in a Day, set in a sogging wet Venus).
It might have been Cosmos with Carl Sagan—with our fritzy PBS reception that couldn't quite make it over the mountains of Pasadena. I couldn't see Sagan very clearly, but his mellifluous voice is still in my head. That was 1980.
Halley's Comet came by in 1985.
Somewhere in there, I started reading OMNI magazine.
I grew up in the shadow of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.
I had a little Celestron telescope, and I went to Griffith Park Observatory and its Planetarium.
A copy of the Cosmic Calendar hung on my bedroom wall.
Space and the vastness of it and the jewels embedded in it have been with me since childhood.
Was I destined to study Astronomy? I got close.
As a college student, one of my research lab jobs was at JPL. They had need of a biologist on a project making some of the first lens implants. I got to use one of the first Atomic Force Microscopes there. The space people took me under their wing and asked me a lot of funny questions about DNA. I still feel a little fillip of loyalty for the JPL home team.
But I never took up Astronomy for real, at least, not in any serious way.
There were no classes on Astronomy in my high school. By the time I got to Caltech, between the "core curriculum" of Math, Physics, Chemistry, and my major, Biology, there was simply no time to dabble. Caltech is no place to dabble, anyways.
Still, I never forgot.
I amassed a collection of science fiction paperbacks. Read a couple reliable Astronomy textbooks (Universe is my favourite). Made a few Astronomy videos for Socratica. Briefly scratched my itch to be an astronaut by going to SPACECAMP with ThinkerCon. I figured Astronomy would remain a pleasant, occasional pastime.
But this month, an unexpected gift fell into my lap.
What do you give to a girl who has everything (a happy home, books, cats...) ?
Give her a week to go back to school with a class full of people excited to learn together.
Give her the company of people who care about good science and good teaching.
Give her a little taste of The Cosmos.
I had the very good fortune to get to spend an August week with two astronomers: Mike Brotherton and Christian Ready.
Along with a select lot of battle-worn science fiction writers and my SciComm buddy Liliana, we made a funny group of space enthusiasts, happy in each others' company.
This is the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, held annually in Laramie Wyoming. I'm not sure what I did to deserve this, but I must have done something good. I'll tell you, I had a spectacular time. I'm very thankful.
Launch Pad Astronomy is the dreamchild of Mike Brotherton (hard sci-fi writer and astrophysicist) and his colleague Jim Verley (another astronomy professor from UWyo whom I did not meet). It's sponsored by a rotation of donors, including NASA, the NSF, and SFWA. Every year, a handpicked group of notable writers are invited to take a crash course in Astronomy with Mike and other astronomy professionals. In recent years, Christian Ready (your friendly neighborhood astronomer from Launch Pad Astronomy on YouTube) has also been one of the instructors. These two kind fellows put together a weeklong highlight reel of astronomy essentials for us, and encouraged creative thought about applications to our work.
It's a way to make sure Real Science makes its way into Science Fiction.
You know I was in heaven because I was back in a college classroom (I have a minor obsession about being a GREAT STUDENT). We also puttered around in a spectroscopy lab, and messed around with telescopes, and best of all went up into the mountains where there were true dark skies (and the 2.3 meter WIRO telescope) where we saw the Milky Way and some sneaky little fireballs and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and Andromeda and... and...
I could fill a small book telling you about everything we learned—but I'm saving it for new Astronomy videos (watch this space). And I have a plan for a series of science fiction books featuring a young space explorer (using the power of story to teach Astronomy to a younger audience). I'm calling them into being here.
Science Fiction kept my love for space alive.
From the days when I tilted back and forth in my highchair, pretending I was on the Starship Enterprise, I have dreamed of space. I temporarily shelved my SciComm work in Astronomy, because honestly, at the time it was just too much work. SO much work goes into animating videos.
But I'm back.
Launchpad Astronomy lit a fire under me.
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