All posts for the month July, 2008

Using Space-age Technology

We just spent a few weeks traveling across the country, driving in a computer-equipped car, using a GPS for directions. The GPS gave the whole thing a Jetsons sort of feel in the sense that whenever we needed to make a crucial turn somewhere, a friendly voice would chime in and tell us “In 0.2 miles, turn right…” or something like that. That’s one of those handy things, like a map, that you don’t leave home without anymore, especially if you have one of the newer cell phones or gadget-laden cars that seem to proliferate.

More than once as we drove the interstates and back roads to such interesting places as Roslyn, Washington, I thought to myself, “All this help, thanks to the space program!” I should also thank military planners and designers for the GPS system in the first place, too.

I got to thinking about a future vacation, maybe a hunded or two years from now, when we have regular interplanetary travel. We’ll take off in our nuclear-powered spacecraft, fully equipped with a galactic position system unit, aiming for a multi-year round trip to the outer solar system. As we get closer to important turning points, a friendly voice will come on and say things like, “In 1 million kilometers, prepare to execute a legal gravitational assist at Jupiter…”

Or Just Plain Walking…Period.

Okay, so when I was a kid, we landed astronauts on the Moon. I figured it was only a matter of time before the rest of us would get to go, whether as passengers, tourists, or workers. Well… it hasn’t happened yet. For whatever reasons, going back to the Moon has been backburnered since the early ’70s and it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. Ditto with Mars. Not that we’ve sent anybody there, but our eyes are certainly turned that way, what with all the rovers and orbiters and landers we’ve been sending to tell us the geological history of the Red Planet. I used to think that the first generation of Mars-nauts was in elementary school, but I wonder if that’s been too optimistic on my part. Is it possible that that first wave of Martian explorers to set foot on the planet aren’t even born yet? Tell me it ain’t so. Same with our chances to go to the Moon! But, there are deeper issues than MY wish to go to another planet. I read today that no matter who is elected president of the U.S., NASA will face shortfalls in funding. This basically tells me that our country (the U.S.) isn’t interested in funding basic research (which always pays itself back in many ways). I suspect that it looks very easy to cut NASA and research funding, which is a very small part of a huge federal budget. But, those cuts may be the ones that our moms always warned us about — the ones where you cut off your nose to spite your face. Traveling to other planets aside, money for basic research and sciences always comes back manyfold in terms of paychecks, tax revenues to towns where researchers live and work, and in the well-known “spinoffs” from basic research. Anyone who has gone to a doctor, bought groceries, driven a car, played a video game, or bought fresh food has benefitted from basic science research and, in many cases, from space science and astronomy research. Don’t believe me? Do a little Googling on the term “space spinoffs”. Or… if you’re just too tired to do that, try this one on for size: science develops a robotic leg that allows a rover to move across the ground on another planet. That leg design gets picked up by a medical researcher who sees a way to restore broken joints. That research ends up providing a new knee or ankle to an accident victim or a wounded soldier. Take out the basic research funding and what do you have? Think about it.

Writing the Cosmos Takes You Places You Don’t Expect

I got my start as a science writer when I decided I could do a better job of telling a story about astronomy than somebody else was doing. As I recall, the first thing I wrote was a planetarium show about light-travel time. Not much later, I found myself at a newspaper, doing all kinds of odd editorial and writing jobs. Not all of it was science-related, but occasionally I’d get to tell an astronomy story. And, sometimes I’d get stuck with something like “Balance an Egg on the Equinox: Fact or Fiction?” Eventually I moved fulltime into science writing just about the time I went back to graduate school.

Life’s like that. You start out in one direction and end up going places you never expect to be. I made that observation to a student reporter from the University of Colorado who called me a while back to update my “facts” for the alumni association. That led to a story that showed up in the spring issue of Bylines, the CU Journalism alumni magazine. I’m not sure she knew what to make of what I said. As I recall, when one graduates, it seems like life’s paths are set — you major in journalism or physics or whatever and that’s what you’ll do your whole life, right?

Well, not so much. I went back to school to try for a PhD in Astrophysics. I didn’t get there for various reasons, but I did study a lot of physics, astronomy, and planetary science along the way. Ultimately I ended up with hours and hours of science course work, but a masters’ in journalism and mass communication aimed at presenting astronomy and space science to the public. And, today I routinely research and write about astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary science — depending on the project I’m doing.

I’d like to go back and complete that PhD path, but for now I’m on the trail of science writing, taking all that immense background and experience in science and science writing and using it to tell stories about the universe. Along the way I’ve worked on an HST team, edited a science magazine, written research papers, worked with scientists to tell their stories, written exhibits (one set about astronomy and another about climate change) for two major institutions, and created many a planetarium and online video piece to help astronomers and the public understand the cosmos.

The message here is that one’s paths can be as varied as there are places to explore in the cosmos. Not sure if my Bylines profile got that across, but it was interesting to see a snapshot of my career taken by someone else.