Where to start?
Last year, I was accepted to the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, after seeing a number of friends and mentors attend over the years. At the same time, Bram was born, and it became clear that my taking off for a week while he was several months old would have never worked. So, I deferred to 2014. I’m glad that I did: it would have been crushing to miss Bram grow in those early months, and I can’t imagine meeting a better group of people than the ones who attended this year.
I flew out to Launch Pad from ReaderCon. A 5:00am flight took me to Philadelphia and then on to Denver. I’ve been out to the American west a couple of times (New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), but never Colorado. A fantastic landscape opened up as we descended, and soon, I was grouped with several Launchies waiting for a ride to the University of Wyoming. Eugene Myers was on my flight (he was the only other classmate that I’d met before), and we chatted with a couple of newcomers, including Ann Leckie, Bill Ledbetter and Gabrielle Harbowy. Launchpad attendees trickled in over the course of the afternoon, and soon, the first and second vans were away.
The Wyoming’s landscape is fantastic. The drive north showed off some fantastic rock formations and terrain, and we stopped for pictures at least once on the ride to Laramie. Along the way, we chatted, newcomers tentatively feeling out each other’s personalities and interests on the two hour drive. It was then dinner, check in and sleep after a long day of travel.
Monday started us off bright an early with introductions. We met our instructors: Christian Ready, who used to work on the Hubble Space Telescope, Andria Schwortz, who’s currently going for her PhD, and Mike Brotherton, science fiction author, faculty at UoW and founder of the program, all of whom were fantastic throughout the week. We then launched into a discussion of the sheer size of the universe, getting it firmly ground into us just how small we are in the cosmos.
We spent the rest of the day going over the solar system, phases, lunar cycles, and a bit more throughout the day. Tuesday was looking at the electromagnetic spectrum, with some practical laboratory experiments as we tried to identify various gases based on their spectrum. The afternoon was spent looking over theories of gravity and the various theorists who helped create our current understanding of how everything moves around in space. That night, we tried to use our telescopes, but it was overcast. Wednesday was spent looking at exoplanets, and we were introduced to practical, everyday tools that help crowd source the hunt for planets, based on the data collected by Kepler.
Thursday was busy – the entire day was spent outdoors, first on a hike at at Vedauwoo, which was fun – 3 miles around a pile of granite. We returned to talk about supernovae, black holes, neutron stars, and some science fiction applications to everything we’d been discussing before setting off to see the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO). A narrow road leads up to the top of Jelm Mountain, where the observatory is perched. I’d never visited one before, and it was impressive: a 2.3 meter mirror observatory, with a small workshop and apartment set up along with some radio towers. The mere sight of it turns a group of adults into excited children, especially when it moves into place. They let us sight in a couple of stars, taking their temperature and distance. After we were finished inside, we went out, and was treated with a fantastic view of the heavens: the milky way splashed overhead, along with Mars and Saturn. It wasn’t an unfamiliar view for me: Vermont is lucky in that we don’t have a whole lot of light pollution, but several of my classmates hadn’t seen the sky like that before. Even to someone who’s seen it before, it’s still an incredible view against the wide open Wyoming Sky.
Friday and Saturday consisted of more classroom activities and lectures, before we began to pack up. I was the first to leave: my flight left at midnight on Sunday morning. 18 or so hours later (with a car ride, two planes, two subway routes, a train and another car ride), I was home.
What’s astonishing to me is the close bond one forms with a group working in intensive situations. I’m usually nervous meeting new people, and while I knew or was acquainted with just a couple of people there, I found an entirely new group of friends that were all interested in the same things as I was. We were a broad cross-section of the genre world: TV writers, game designers, novelists, short story writers, non-fiction writers, all interested in astronomy. They were: Amy Casil, Geetanjali Dighe, Doug Farren, Susan Forest, Marc Halsey, Gabrielle Harbowy, Meg Howrey, Ann Leckie, William Ledbetter, Malinda Lo, Sarah McCarry, Eugene Myers, Jenn Reese, Anne Toole, James Sutter, Todd Vandemark and Lisa Yee. We spent a lot of time in the same classroom, and many hours after talking about all things astronomy, science fiction and everything in between. We bonded as a group, and in various smaller groups. They are each fantastic individuals and talented individuals, and I can’t wait to see each and every one of them again at some point in the near future.
I have to say, I’m proud to be an alumnus of the program, and of what I’ve learned in the course of eight days. It was like drinking out of a fire hose, but I feel that I understand the universe a little more. If you’re involved in the science fiction field to any professional degree, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you like reading about science fiction with a fairly realistic depiction of SF, I recommend donating to the program – it’s educational, hands on experiences like this that really make for major improvements in anything we do, whether it’s astronomy, history, business or any field in which we work.
Returning home was welcome: I was hard to be away from Megan, Bram and the menagerie of animals for over a week, and after a long day of travel, coming home was perfect. But, I miss Wyoming and my classmates quite a bit, and if the chatter online is any indication, we’ll be in touch for a long time, sharing bits of science news, the books and stories we’ve written, and things of that nature. I know that when I go out and look at the night sky, one of them will likely be doing the same thing.