|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|
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.