Of the Stars and Birds

Leif J. Robinson, 1939-2011

It was about this time of year some 15 years ago that I was working hard on my masters’ thesis at the University of Colorado when I happened to send an email to a friend of mine who was a science writer for Sky & Telescope Magazine, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the email, I was decrying the slog of work I had to do to analyze my data and get it all written up in time for my defense, which was scheduled for late April.  My friend offered his sympathies and said to let him know when I defended.  I assumed he wanted to hear how it went.

The day I defended (and passed), I sent my friend an email. A day or so later, I got a reply that said something  like this:  “Congratulations!  I passed your news along to Rick and Leif.”

I thought, “How nice.”  And, it was. I had written a few articles for S&T over the years, and while I wasn’t quite “one of the family”, I felt like I knew the guys at the magazine a little and if they wanted to rejoice over my degree, that was great with me.

A few days later, I got an email from Rick Fienberg and another from Leif Robinson, both asking me if I’d be interested in joining the staff of editors at Sky Publishing Corporation.  I was astounded. For astronomy writers, at the time, that was like being asked if you’d like to join a shuttle crew on a launch.  Of course I did!

Well, one thing led to another, and a little less than a year later, I found myself sitting at a desk at Sky Publishing Corporation, ensconced as Books and Products editor. I spent four years at Sky, in time also taking on the role of principal editor of SkyWatch magazine, and associate editor at S&T (one of the very few women to have made the masthead as an editor of some kind).  We all wore a number of hats there.

Leif J. Robinson, former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope Magazine. Credit: Dennis diCicco.

A galaxy collision in the shape of a bird's head and beak. Courtesy STScI.

One of the more more interesting and lengthy experiences I had at Sky was in getting to know Leif Robinson, who had been at the magazine for 38 years and served as its editor-in-chief for 20 years.

He was crusty-seeming, could be incredibly critical of a writer’s (and editor’s) work, and was fiercely dedicated to doing things right in journalistic terms.

The magazine prospered under his editorship. He started SkyWatch and, unbeknownst to me, decided right after I’d joined the crew, that I’d be a good editor for that fledgling magazine that he hoped would attract new readers to the S&T fold and to the field of amateur astronomy.  At one point, he even worked for ME as an editor and writer on SkyWatch.

He offered good advice, incisively sharp criticism (when it was due) and just as incisively, he offered encouragement. During my second year at Sky, I was among many who joined Leif and his wife Caroline on a cruise to see a total solar eclipse. We got to know each other a bit better socially then.  A year later, we attended a couple of astronomy meetings together as representatives of the company.

I wasn’t one of “his” flock of editors at the beginning of my tenure at the company, since my original job was to shepherd astronomy-related books and products through to publication and sale. But, when I did finally did put on the associate editor hat for S&T, he set about (perhaps belatedly, along with my “real” boss Rick Fienberg) to help me learn the ropes that all the other editors at S&T had learned early in their careers. I had joined a brotherhood of astronomy writers and editors, and it was Leif (along with Rick) who welcomed me in.

Along the way, I got to know Leif, especially his penchant for birds and birdwatching.  It turns out he could tell a bird simply by a few notes of its song or the way it flew or landed on a branch. And for stargazing?  He knew the sky the way we all know the backs of our hands.  He had other passions, too. For example, we found out we both liked Chinese food, and so would make occasional forays together to a little restaurant not far from the offices. He enjoyed music, and kept asking me if I was ever going to get to a Boston Symphony concert (I never did, even though I did make it to several jazz and ethnic concerts during my 12 years in the Boston area).

One area where Leif and I had interesting discussions was in the growing field of professional-amateur astronomy collaborations. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I shepherded a world-wide flock of amateur astronomers who made comet observations at the behest of our research team. It was my job to tell these dedicated observers what to look for, and when, and then gather their images and data. Then, I’d do science analysis of their images, and for the most part, these people were turning out first-rate imagery. So, I knew for years that there were excellent amateurs out there who could be very helpful to professional astronomers. In fact, when I mentioned to Leif that — based on my experience in research astronomy — I thought there were some amateurs out there who could give some professionals a run for their money, he agreed with me completely.

In late 2000, I decided to leave Sky Publishing to join an Internet startup company. The day I made my announcement to leave (at an editorial meeting), Leif was out of town. But, no sooner than he got back into the office, he was calling me for a lunch date. We decided to go to our favorite Chinese place. The instant we were seated and given menus, he leaned across the tiny table and said, “I don’t understand why we have such a hard time keeping gals at the magazine.”

It was such an unexpected statement that I laughed right out loud. It was also the start of a fruitful conversation that lasted a couple of hours. Somewhere during that time, he told me he was retiring at the end of the year, which surprised me greatly. I just figured Leif and the magazine would go on together forever. We laughed about how we could go out in a blaze of glory together. He kidded me that if I stayed only another 16 years, I’d get an asteroid named after me. I told him I thought I should get one for all the millions of people who have seen my planetarium shows and read my books, AND for my tenure (albeit short) as an editor at Sky. That comment led to another equally lengthy discussion about planetariums and book writing–subjects with which Leif was also familiar.  He wasn’t just passionate — he was knowledgeable.

Well, it wasn’t the last lunch we had together, but it was probably one of the most memorable.

A few weeks later, Leif Robinson and I left Sky at the same time — he to a retirement filled with birdwatching, stargazing, and taking care of his wife Caroline, who had cancer, and I on a new pathway for my career. He left behind a solid magazine, with many achievements to his name.  I left knowing that I’d learned some valuable lessons, some of which (particularly in editing and writing) mostly stand me in good stead today.

The Internet startup job didn’t last long, and I moved on as a freelance science writer and editor, and into my current job as vice-president for Loch Ness Productions. Leif and I kept in touch over the next couple of years. He would call or write to me, or I’d drop him an email to see how Caroline was doing.  When she died, he called me to let me know.  And, a few months later, when we all gathered in a very public memorial for her, we watched as he gave a wonderful tribute to her.

It’s been a long time since I heard from Leif. We both moved to other places. The last time I saw him was shortly after he got married to his new wife, Ollie.  He was exuberantly bragging about the birding and skywatching opportunities available to him in his new home in Costa Rica.  We passed a few emails after that, and I often wondered how he was doing in Costa Rica.

This morning, I woke up to an email from one of my “editorial brothers” at S&T, letting all of us “in the family” know (before the press release came out) about how Leif died yesterday after a long illness. He died doing what he loved to do, in a place he came to like as much or more as anywhere else he lived.  He left behind a wonderful legacy in the pages of Sky & Telescope Magazine — one that I was proud to be a part of for a few years, along with all the other projects I worked on there.

Rest in peace, Leif. And, the rest of us will keep looking up at the birds and the stars you loved to watch.

As the Shuttle Missions Wind Down

An Era is Slowly Ending…

The space shuttle Discovery as seen from the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA/USTREAM.

Those of you who were born in the early 1980s and after have always had sights like these to define what “near-Earth” space exploration looks like.  For the past 30 years, shuttle launches and delicate orbital ballets have been standard fare for us all to watch.

But, as we all know, that time and those missions are coming to an end. The last space shuttle flights are taking place in the next few months, and after that, the orbiters will fly no more. At least, that’s the current plan.

I’m not going to weigh in here on the relative merits of the next stage of U.S. space exploration hardware and missions, other than to say that we don’t have much tin being officially bent to take PEOPLE to space again anytime REAL soon.  Yes, there is the private sector activity, which I watch with great interest.  It will be interesting to see just how it all plays out. And, if it’s possible, I’ll try to make my way to space on a future “tourist flight” since I’m not likely to be picked as a “citizen journalist-astronaut” or “blogger-naut” or “Tweeter-naut” or whatever it is they’ll call them (if they come into being). Access to space, even 60 years after the first human flights, is still deemed a pretty risky and expensive proposition for all but the most fit (or, in the future probably, the most politically connected or wealthy).

Space shuttle as seen from above the ISS arm. Courtesy NASA/USTREAM

But, for all of us who “grew up” watching space shuttles loft to space, dance in orbit, take astronauts to the space station, deliver repair parts for Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many other important missions, these flights ARE the end of an era.  So, what can be more profound than to note that change in space flight status with a few views of today’s docking of Discovery with the International Space Station?  Enjoy!

As the shuttle slowly put itself into position for the docking, which took place at 1:14 CST today, I was reminded of a plane coming into the gate at an airport.  For all the hundreds of times I’ve landed at airports, and watched as the retractable jetway was steered out to nestle next to the plane by a gate agent, it never occurred to me how familiar it would  look as our own “space plane” would cuddle up next to the ISS.

Discovery passes under one of the station modules. Courtesy NASA/USTREAM.

But, there it was, earlier today, gliding into position just as if, for all the world, it was another flight landing and delivering a planeload of passengers and cargo. In fact, as I watched, the lyrics to the Alan Parsons Project song “I Can’t Look Down” from On Air, ran through my mind:  Another passenger, “Your baggage thank you sir”… even though I’m not afraid to fly and would just about give anything to go to space. I wish it were as commonplace as flying to LA or London or Paris is for many people. And that it cost about the same. I’d so be there.

A few minutes away from docking. Courtesy NASA/USTREAM

As I write this, the shuttle and ISS are docked together, and the astronauts will soon begin their work of ferrying new modules and equipment to the space station.  Right now they’re waiting while some relative motions and shaking die to down — a teachable moment in physics, actually, for anyone who wants to live and work in space some day (or has ever pondered what it would be like). Objects have mass, they gain momentum, and when you work with them in space, you have to take those factors into account.

In a sense it’s an everyday “fly to work, deliver the goods” kind of mission. But it’s also momentous. It’s the last time Discovery flies to the space station.  It’s the last mission for this venerable orbiter, which will return to Earth in a few days’ time and probably take up residence as an exhibit somewhere. And, for those of us who grew up in its era, it’s a surreal and unreal time — we know that this is all coming to an end. And, at least some of us are eagerly awaiting the next level of exploration.  Space travel is inevitable; the idea has mass and it’s gaining momentum. Now, how do we take them into account as we plan our next steps to space?