21 June 2017

Thirty Years of Spaceflight Outreach

Staffing the tables at Flagstaff's annual Science in the Park event, September 2012. (Alternate caption: a space goof and his progeny.) Image credit: Lisa Gaddis
The first satellite, Sputnik 1, reached Earth orbit in 1957, and in 1987 NASA was recovering from the January 1986 Challenger accident while the Soviet Union added to the newly launched Mir space station Kvant, its first add-on module. Three decades separate those events.

I think about that eventful 30-year span when I want to feel ancient. In 1987, I began my first paid space outreach project. Now it's 2017, 30 years on, the same period of time that separated Sputnik from Mir's early days. Throughout that 30-year period, I've always had some paid space outreach activity under way, be it a freelance job writing Astronaut Hall of Fame museum text, a Fellowship at NASA Goddard producing Earth & Sky radio programs, an article assignment for Air & Space Smithsonian covering NASA space suit tests, organizing world's largest Mars '88 public observing event at the John Young Planetarium in Orlando, mentoring NASA Space Grant Interns, star parties at Navajo Reservation schools as part of Lowell Observatory's outreach programs, or teaching kids about extraterrestrial life as part of a university summer enrichment program (to name only a few of my gigs). Typically, I've had several projects aimed at "selling" spaceflight in progress at any one time.

My first paid spaceflight outreach work was an Astronomy magazine article in 1987. In it, I called on people interested in space to organize and interact with people with no interest in space. Break out of space "fandom" and share the thrill of space exploration, in other words.

The article grew out of my experiences as I struggled to deal with the 28 January 1986 Challenger accident, which I felt as a harsh blow and a strong motivator to do what I could. Immediately after Challenger, I started writing regular letters to the editor, organizing displays and events, and doing talks for civic groups. I even did a couple of local TV appearances.

I think I received $50 as payment for the article. At the time I wrote it, I was finishing my graduate degree in History in the aptly named town of Normal, Illinois.

Thirty years on, I work at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am a U.S. Federal government employee working alongside and providing operational support to planetary scientists and cartographers. I am mainly an archivist and map librarian, but I also maintain our exhibits, give tours, and organize scientist talks. Yesterday I received a 10-year service pin; tomorrow I'll show 42 teachers from 19 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Canada around our facility. I can hardly wait.

The first big turning point in my peripatetic career was a telephone call I received from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in May 1992. At the time, I was freelance writing - the Star Date radio show was a regular client - and presenting planetarium shows to school groups. I barely kept my head above water; hence, the day before the call came, I had taken a part-time job as a library page. The call from NASA came as a shock since I had not answered any sort of job solicitation.

It turned out that the deputy director of a part of JSC responsible for their History Office had asked her husband's best friend's brother, who was one of my editors, to recommend someone for a job that was part technical writing, part history. JSC management in its wisdom had decided to close the History Office, but there were dissenters. I was flown down to Houston for an interview in July, and on 10 August 1992, I became part of their devious plot to keep the invaluable JSC History collections intact and available.

Eventually, the pendulum swung back; a new JSC Director wanted to do a big oral history project. When those employed to carry it out went looking for documents so that they could research the careers of the people they meant to interview, the folks who had hired me magically produced the JSC History collection out of thin air.

By then, I'd moved on. After a brief (six-month) stint as editor of Star Date magazine, I launched a freelance writing career that was to last a dozen years. I'd be at it yet today, had it not been for another big turning point in my career (and, indeed, in my life). On 7 July 2007, a sleeping driver rammed my wife's car head-on on the highway a mile or so from our rural Flagstaff home, killing himself, his passengers, and my wife, and gravely injuring our daughter, who was four years old at the time.

Despite massive brain damage and seven fractures scattered across her body, she's now a normal teenager, if such a thing exists. If you're going to be nearly killed in a car crash, do it at age four, when your brain can rewire itself and your bones can knit quickly. Though she needs special education help to overcome perceptual barriers, through hard work she routinely earns a place on the Honor Roll. She likes science and writing; next year, in fact, she's taking Honors Science and Honors English.

I sense a pattern emerging. Can a desire to write about science-y stuff be inherited?

I've described the kinds of paid spaceflight outreach I did in the past and what I do today. What of the future?

Raising the Kiddo, contending with the sudden loss of my best friend and partner in life, and working a steady job so our child could have health insurance despite her obvious pre-existing conditions killed off the three book projects I had under way 10 years ago. I want to get back to those. As she grows older, the Kiddo becomes increasingly self-sufficient, potentially freeing up some of my time for new freelance projects. I have no desire to neglect her even as she becomes more self-sufficient, however.

The car crash hurt me more deeply than I understood at the time. I tackled all the challenges that confronted me in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Many people praised my "bravery." Six months after that horrible day, however, I was overcome with severe depression and anxiety attacks. Though these health conditions have abated somewhat, even now I suffer from them. My health issues have led me to try to assist others with similar difficulties, but I must be careful because sometimes their stories trigger renewed pain for me. It's a balancing act: I seek to give my pain meaning by turning it to good account, but try to avoid being overcome by it.

There's also my status as a Federal government employee to consider. I am bound by ethics rules designed to prevent corruption. These require that any "moonlighting" I do be vetted first by ethics officials to avoid a conflict of interest. I have already had a project vetted and approved, so I am hopeful that I will in the next few years be able to publish a new book. It would be my first since my 2001 NASA-published opus Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000.

To end this self-serving little anniversary essay, I want to acknowledge the many, many people who have made my adventures in the past 30 years possible. Some of you read this blog; your encouragement and stimulating comments keep it alive. I'll not name names in order to protect the innocent and to avoid forgetting anyone. You know who you are. Thank you, every one of you.


  1. Good luck & best wishes for the next 30 years.

  2. Thank you so much for all the wonderful articles you've written. You've encouraged me to think about spaceflight both in a more speculative way, considering all the possible alternate missions that might have happened--and in a more realistic way, considering the political and technical factors that have influenced the history of spaceflight.

    You've also made many specific observations that have broadened my understanding. For example, I used to think SDI was merely a tragic misdirection of the space program away from science and exploration, but you've pointed out how unmanned probes beginning with Clementine have benefited from the technology developed for SDI. Another observation you've made, which I think needs to be more widely broadcast in these days when people speak casually of Mars colonies, is that we still know next to nothing about the long-term health effects of low gravity (as opposed to microgravity, which we do know quite a bit about now).

    I'm not against attempts to colonize space, but it seems to me more of a philosophical endeavor--doing it because you believe in it, for its own sake--than a practical one. It's certainly going be nothing like colonization was on Earth, where the "new" lands already had everything needed to live and form communities (indeed, because there were already people living there).

    Even the extreme case of colonizing space so some humans might survive a catastrophe on Earth doesn't seem like the most practical use of emergency resources to me. Suppose some dinosaur-killer comet is detected heading straight for us; if it came down to that, I think we'd save more people with communities in deep caves or the ocean floor than trying to keep them alive on a distant space colony.

    As much as I love space exploration, I'm also very grateful for this wonderful planet, where life has never become extinct despite many catastrophes over the billennia. We already know how earth observation satellites have allowed us to appreciate and make better use of this world.

    Looking farther out, I think space, rather than being a replacement for Earth, has a positive role to inspire us and even raise our morale a little. We personally may never get there (and perhaps we wouldn't wish to), but it's amazing to think how things that humans have built here have now been sent out to every planet in the solar system--even to the fringes of interstellar space--and have sent us back images and information. Maybe it's too much of a cliche, but space exploration reminds me of Browning's line, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"


    1. Carl:

      You are very welcome. I think our views on the future of spaceflight are pretty similar. I find the hyperbolic jabber about space industry and space settlement to be disheartening, and you've basically explained why - it usually assumes that these things have to produce profits in the conventional sense.

      Almost all the space resources we develop will be used to develop space. We'll develop and settle space because we want to, not because it's inherently profitable in the terrestrial economy to do so.

      After all, it's not a costly enterprise, though folks have become sold on the idea that it is. That has led some to want to cut already meager NASA spending. The weird belief that profits must be found in space in order to justify getting out into it is a product of that kind of limited, parochial, absurdist thinking.

      How can you put a pricetag on the universe?


  3. Thanks for all the good work you are doing. I started reading your blog some 3 years ago, even though I have been commenting less, and love the high quality of your work. You are one of the better space history blogs, especially when you talk about the little known behind the scenes projects. Your 2001 book is also great, though of course someone needs to update it for Constellation and the current plans. Perhaps there will come along a Thucydides to your Herodotus. Thank you for all the Apollo era Venus plans posts. I hope that you can also post more about the less visible parts of NASA, such as earth observation missions.

    1. pir34:

      I want to update the Mars book and write a lunar counterpart. I actually have a HUMANS TO MARS manuscript updated through 2007. If I were writing full-time, it would be perhaps a month away from submission for editorial review. The NASA History Office showed an interest in a HUMANS TO THE MOON book in 2005-2007, but not so much lately.


  4. Thanks for all you've done to bring little-known spaceflight history to the fore. As a lifelong space hobbyist (I never had a career in astronomy nor space exploration), you've presented some things I'd only heard a little about, and many things I never heard of at all. I've been reading your blog for only a few months now, but I'm glad I stumbled upon it late rather than never!

    My condolences about your loss, but I'm so happy that you and your daughter have a good life together and that she's becoming an active part of our future.

    I've been trying to teach my own children to keep a curious mind and follow a scientific approach to learning things, tempered with a creative/artistic streak as well. I hope that doesn't mess them up too badly, but we'll have to see... Anyway, some of them are actively interested in the Universe around us and in space exploration, and I've encouraged them to read your blog to learn the history and hopefully to get inspired for the future. Passing the torch to a new generation!


  5. CR:

    Welcome to my blog - glad you discovered it. Funny you should mention the space hobbyist thing - I used to call space "the hobby that ate my life." Much of the time it has felt like a hobby, not a job.

    So anyway - I've got a new hobby which is highly unlikely to turn into work - building with LEGO! It started as something I could do with my daughter, but now, even though she has "outgrown" it, I am still hooked. There's an innocence to this kind of hobby that I find refreshing. Plus, there's a space angle - can hardly wait to start on my LEGO Saturn V! :-)

    Awesome that you are successfully fostering an interest in the universe and creativity in your children. I hope they enjoy what I write about. My daughter is a lot like my wife was - not that excited about space, but when something big happened, she was all over it. So, the eclipse this summer - the kiddo is going to love that. I bet your kids will, too.



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