Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop

A Medieval Astronomer?

Medieval Manuscript ImageI’m a medievalist. Not one of those dress-up-and-play-swords folks, but an academic who specializes in the Middle Ages. I study medieval castles; I don’t want to live in one.* So it surprises some folks to hear that in the summer of 2007 I became one of the twelve writers chosen to attend the first (of many, I hope) Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a week-long, almost-all-expenses-paid crash-course in all things astronomical, funded by NASA.

The point of the workshop, from NASA’s point of view, is that the attending writers, now educated in real science, will reflect proper science in their writing, in turn educating the public. It’s a brilliant idea, and one hopes it may lead — in that wondrous, far off day — to a time when audiences will truly understand how very silly things like the Bruce Willis film Armageddon can be. In fact, one of our first evenings was spent watching that film in order to spot errors and have a jolly good communal laugh.

The point of the workshop, from my point of view, is to learn a great deal about astronomy from true experts in the field, and to have a terrific time doing it. Like Writers of the Future, I tossed my hat into the ring on a lark — I had a night of semi-insomnia and needed to do something to pass the time — and I had frankly forgotten I’d applied when word arrived that I’d been accepted. I remain convinced that administrator/founder/instructor/great guy Mike Brotherton accidentally switched my label with that on someone else’s application, but I’m not complaining. The week was, in a word, amazing.

2. The Workshop

The workshop was held in mid-July in Laramie, Wyoming, where two of the primary instructors — Brotherton and Jim Verley — hold appointments. Our third instructor for the week was the esteemed Jerry Oltion, well-known SF writer, inventor of the trackball telescope mount, and really terrific guy. We could hardly have asked for a better group of instructors. And the institutional support from the University of Wyoming was extraordinary. We were treated to great food, good accomodations, and excellent responsive instruction.

Days were packed to the gills with Brotherton leading lectures on everything from basic astronomical facts (the causes of lunar phases and seasons, for example) to rather cutting edge concepts (dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and such). Verley gave us more hands-on work, like building and using spectroscopes, in addition to treating us to a private show in the university’s planetarium. And in between Oltion was a constant source of terrific information not only on astronomy but also on how to present it to an audience. We learned how to find and manipulate the very same space images astronomers use (from Hubble, for instance). We learned how and where to find the latest information on exo-planets. We learned so much my brain neared the breaking point.

And that was just the days.

Our first official night was spent watching (and dissecting) the tragically successful Hollywood film Armageddon. The point of this, as you might imagine, was to solidify our reasons for attendance.

Due to inclement weather we spent our second night writing. A number of lovely ladies came to my room (hehehe), and we all, um, inspired each other. I wrote a first draft to a story, which pleased me greatly (and will likely never see the light of day).

The third evening we headed to the roof of the physical sciences building on campus, where Oltion pointed out constellations and then revealed wonders through a “small” (I think it was 8″) telescope. Meanwhile, Brotherton handed around binoculars for moon viewing, and night-vision goggles for goggling at the milky way. I spent my time helping to set up their big rooftop scope, a big ol’ 16″ beauty. The gentleman from the university trying to get it targeted in on Arcturus (so that it knew where it was and could track the sky from that point on) had a devil of a time finding the star through the scope; after about ten minutes of failure, he handed me the controls in exasperation. Thirty seconds later I had Arcturus in the sights (go medievalist!) and we were off to look at cool things like the ring nebula and the moons of Jupiter. Someone wanted to see the double binary in Lyra, so I plugged that in, too. What a rush!

Fourth evening we went out to Red Buttes Observatory. Just outside Laramie, this site houses a 24-inch telescope. We would have had freedom of use of this beast, but — argh and alack — the weather wouldn’t cooperate. It was too humid to even open the dome. So we got an excellent tour and then unfolded into the parking lot to get some good looks at the stars between clouds. A bit of a disappointment, but any loss was made up on…

The fifth night, during which we journeyed to the top of Jelm Mountain southwest of Laramie, to the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO). The evening was overcast as we arrived, but that didn’t stop the talented staff (with Brotherton watching over their shoulders, of course) from giving us an incredibly thorough tour of the facility, including an up-close look at the 2.3 meter mirror of the scope itself. Incredible.

Pelican NebulaAs the night at WIRO went on, however, the seeing improved. Bit by bit, the clouds began to part. The staff opened the dome, kicked the tires (not literally), and started ‘er up. We sat in a control room and watched the screens as the hazy images came in. Very cool. Car by car, though, the attendees faded — unlike astronomers, it seems many of us are not vampiric in our sleeping patterns. My Jeep, I’m proud to say, was the last workshop vehicle to leave, as I forced three other people (Jeff Carver, Jerry Oltion, and Lori Ann White — sorry gang!) to stay until about 2 in the morning. We just sat around thinking of things to look at and plugging them into the guidance computer. Wham-0, we were looking at the Ring Nebula, or binary stars, or, in the finale of the evening, the Pelican Nebula. This last was so impressive that I asked if we could take a picture of it. Indeed, said the two astronomers at the controls: so we took a sequence of pictures using different filters — red, visual (more or less green), blue, and near-infrared — which were burned onto CD for our later viewing pleasure. Combining the shots using a couple pieces of software one comes up with the image below you see at left (larger versions available at K. Tempest Bradford’s Flickr site).

All in all, I must say that Launch Pad was an extraordinary experience, one I would recommend to any writer keen to use astronomy — whether that be in Fantasy, Science, or Historical Fiction. While I discovered scientific flaws in a couple of story ideas I had, I also discovered scientifically valid story ideas that have me scrambling to write!

*Nota: Well, that’s only partly true. I wouldn’t mind living in a modern medievalesque castle. You know: towers up top, high-def in the living room, and working plumbing all around. But crap-stained pit-potties and cold clammy stone walls? Not so much.