Interview with Nancy Atkinson

Nancy is a science journalist who writes mainly about space exploration and astronomy and is a Senior Editor for Universe Today. She was a host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast from 2009 to 2014, was a part of production team for Astronomy Cast from 2008 to 2015 and worked with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast where she was project manager from 2009 to 2011. 

Mateusz Macias: Hello Nancy, how are you? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Nancy Atkinson: Thank you very much for your interest in my work and in my book!

Mateusz Macias: How did your adventure with astronomy started? What or who was your inspiration?
Nancy Atkinson: I grew up on a farm, in a rural area and so I kind of took for granted that I could always go out and see the stars at night, or see an aurora in the winter skies! So, when I was young, I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but didn't really have anyone to guide me or teach me, and I didn't have a telescope. Only when I got older and lived in a city did I realize how much I missed looking at the night sky, and so then got involved with a local space-related group that promoted space exploration, and as a side benefit, some of them had telescopes. I'll never forget the first time I saw Saturn's rings through a telescope, it just took my breath away! I was always interested in space exploration, and that helped extend my interest into astronomy too.

Mateusz Macias: How did you met with Fraser Cain? What was the story behind you joining Universe Today team?
Nancy Atkinson: I had always wanted to be a writer, but trying to write fiction/novels never really interested me; I loved writing and reading about true events, and with my interest in space, writing about it helped with my wish to share my love of space and tell more people about the wonders of space exploration! I still had a different job, but on the side I started by writing for a few newspapers whenever there was a current space shuttle mission or news from a robotic planetary mission. But then with the rise of the internet, it seemed the best options for writing about space were online. I had been reading Universe Today, and in 2004, Fraser published a note that he was looking for more writers. I sent him an email and he hired me almost immediately!

My first article for UT was a plum assignment. Fraser asked if I’d be interested in interviewing former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman about his research into using superconducting magnetic technology to protect astronauts from radiation during long-duration spaceflights. Um… let’s see, talk to an astronaut about possibly overcoming one of the biggest hurdles in human spaceflight. Yep, I was all in! While the article generated a lot of interest (and Hoffman ended up using my article in one of his reports for his NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts research) ultimately, after a couple of years, Hoffman and his team realized the technology didn’t pan out.

Link to that post is:
But that first article started the long relationship I've had with Universe Today and Fraser. He's just been so great to work with, and he' and UT has had a tremendous impact on my life and my career. I eventually was able to quit my other job and focus full time on writing, thanks to Fraser.

Mateusz Macias: What word best describes Fraser as a boss?
Nancy Atkinson: Supportive is the first word that comes to mind. He's always been supportive of any ideas I've had for articles or for doing things with the website, etc. He's also very creative and resourceful, and very business savvy.

Mateusz Macias: What's in store for Universe Today in the near and far future? It's already one of the most popular space and astronomy websites in the world.
Nancy Atkinson: Fraser has been doing his award winning video series (he's won several Parsec Awards) and I think his videos explaining various topics in space and astronomy have been very popular, so he'll probably continue those. I think things are going very well, so there's the old adage of "if it's not broken, don't fix it!" But also, Fraser does like to change things up every once in a while, and I never know what new idea he has up his sleeve! Maybe he'll have some surprises! With writing my book, I had to cut back with how much writing and editing I did for Universe Today, so I'm not as involved as much as I was previously. I'm still quite busy with the book, and also have started writing for, too.

Mateusz Macias: December 20th was the day when your book "Incredible Stories From Space" got published. Was it a dream come true, a coronation of so many years as a journalist?
Nancy Atkinson: Yes, it certainly was a dream come true! While I’ve always had writing a book in the back of my mind, until about a year and a half ago, I really wasn't planning to writing a book, at least not in the near future! Life was just too busy. But then I received a call from Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan. They had an idea for a book about NASA’s robotic missions and wondered if I would consider writing it. To say I was honored is an understatement. I'm very thankful for the opportunity.

Mateusz Macias: How hard was the research for the book? What advice would you give to young aspiring authors, especially ones that would like to cover similiar subject?
Nancy Atkinson: The fun part was being able to interview 37 NASA scientists and engineers, and have them tell me about their careers, their missions and all the fun, behind-the-scenes things that have gone on with their spacecraft - from building the spacecraft to operating it, sometimes millions of miles from Earth. What I found was that these people bring a lot of dedication, enthusiasm, emotion to what they do, and they are very passionate about their jobs. That part was fun!

The research was done by materials I received from JPL, Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University, as well as using NASA's various websites and the mission websites to get the exact details. That was not quite as fun as interviewing people, and it was a challenge to try and squeeze as much details into the chapters on each mission without making it overly technical, and trying to put as much of the personalities of the people behind the missions into the book. The most challenging was an extremely tight timeline of doing the interviews and research and then writing up my first draft.

But I was able to weave together the stories of these amazing people into the stories of the missions - from what it was like to take the spacecraft they so delicately built and put it on top of an exploding rocket (!), to the challenges of operating a spacecraft millions of miles away from Earth, to how even scientists tend to anthropomorphize our robots, finding their "human" qualities, just like I (and many other space fans) tend to do.
As far as advice, when you are interviewing people, let them tell their stories and try to let their personalities shine through your writing. That's not always easy though! However, all the people I talked with with absolutely wonderful, and I truly hope I was able to capture and convey their passion and dedication.

Mateusz Macias: Which scientist was the most fun to interview and provided the most valuable data?
Nancy Atkinson: Marc Rayman from the Dawn mission is an amazing person, and perhaps one of the most passionate persons that I’ve ever met. He’s passionate about both space exploration and life in general. He could go on and on about the virtues of space exploration and how this grand adventure of exploration brings us together. During our interview, he nearly had me teary-eyed, because he spoke so eloquently about his mission. He said, that anyone who has looked at the night sky in wonder, or who has wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond is part of the Dawn mission.
“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” he said “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.” It was also fun to talk with him about the bright regions that have been found on Ceres. When we did the interview, the science team was just beginning to make some conclusions that these were bright salts on the interiors of several craters.

Mateusz Macias: What's the most interesting fact you learned about space exploration in the process of writing the book that you did not know before?
Nancy Atkinson: I knew there was some type of issue with the Huygens spacecraft that went to Titan along with the Cassini mission to Saturn. But I didn't know how serious the problem was, of how close they came to not having it work at all. And I didn't know about the international effort it took to make the spacecraft work. Of course, the spacecraft was millions of miles away from Earth when they figured out what the problems was, so how do you fix a spacecraft that far away? And so I learned about how the engineers for the mission were able to compensate for a problem with the radio communication between Huygens and Cassini by just flying the mission differently. It was true ingenuity and that the Huygens spacecraft worked so well is a true testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of the people who operate these spacecraft.

Mateusz Macias: Book is getting great reviews. Did you expected such a great reception?
Nancy Atkinson: A writer can only hope! When you pour your heart and soul into a project, you hope that people enjoy the finished product, and that your writing resonates with people. I've been especially gratified by the comments from the people I wrote about, with some of them saying I really captured the essence of their mission, or that the book really represents well both the spacecraft and the people behind it. That really means a lot to me!

Mateusz Macias: Now, looking back, would you change something in the book, something you think you might have done better?
Nancy Atkinson: Oh yes. A writer is never done editing and making changes! There was a rather tight timeline in writing the book, so I wished there had been more time in making the final edits. I actually haven't read much of the book since it was published. It was just part of me for the year it took to write and edit it, and want to be able to look at it with fresh eyes at some point!

Mateusz Macias: Did you enjoy attending book signings events? How important is meeting with the readers face to face?
Nancy Atkinson: I really do. Of course its very gratifying to have people show such an interest your book that they actually take time out of their busy lives to come to an event! And of course, I'll talk anyone's ear off about space and astronomy! But its also fun to hear the stories from people about how they got interested in space or astronomy. And I love to hear what parts of the book they liked or even that they didn't like. Feedback is always good! The fun events I do where I get to share pictures from the missions are the best, because the images from space are so intriguing and engaging.

Mateusz Macias: Are there any events planned that our readers would like to know about? Where could we see you?
Nancy Atkinson: I'll be at a Barnes & Noble in St. Cloud, Minnesota on April 8 (this Saturday) and giving talks at a few schools in the Minneapolis area in April, and also at various libraries in Minnesota and Illinois. My big event this year was attending the Tucson (Arizona) Festival of Books, which was really wonderful! I hope to do more events, too, in case anyone is looking for a speaker!

Mateusz Macias: I know it's too early but have you wondered what your next book could be about?
Nancy Atkinson: Well, I'll break the news here with you that my publisher has offered the opportunity for me to write another book! However, this time, they don't have an idea for me, so I have to find a topic on my own. So, I have been giving it some thought, bouncing ideas around, and have contacted a few people about potential ideas. Some of the ideas have not panned out, other ideas I found out are already in the works by other writers, and so I'm still working on figuring out what the topic might be. I'll take any suggestions!

Mateusz Macias: Nancy, thank you again for your time. I wish you all the best with your book and with your work at Universe Today!
Nancy Atkinson: Thanks Mateusz! It was really fun to chat with you!

“Life, but not as we know it” by Andrew Rader

Earth is quite a lovely little rock in space. While there is no doubt that at least most of our planet supports ideal conditions for human life, and Earth is the most “habitable” world we know of, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Earth is a member of an exclusive a club. It’s not that we magically dropped down out of the sky onto a planet that happened to be perfect. The reality is that our line of organisms has been shaped by billions of years of evolution on this planet. Earth seems so amazingly habitable to us not by happenstance, but precisely because we evolved to thrive in its environment.

Lots of types of worlds may support many types of life, but not necessarily life as we know it. There are of course certain bounds and limits. So far as we know, there must be a temperature range capable of supporting chemical reactions of stable organic molecules, and (we think) some sort of liquid. Water is ideal, but may not be the only liquid capable of serving this purpose. For example, the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan is covered in liquid hydrocarbons at a chilly -180°C (colder than liquid nitrogen). We can’t rule out the possibility of microorganisms or even sizable animals living in this environment, albeit with very un-Earthlike chemistry, relying on a methane cycle not so different from our planet’s water cycle. Perhaps small crystalline “sea snakes” glide through the freezing waters of Titan. 

Life on Earth thrives across an extremely wide array of conditions, and this would be no different from other worlds. Bacteria on Earth live essentially everywhere from the upper atmosphere to the depths of Earth’s crust. They survive extremes of radiation exposure, high and low pressures and temperatures, abundance or lack of light, and utter deprivation of water and nutrients. The live in the thermal pools of Yellowstone National Park at temperatures up to 80°C, dining on a rich array of chemicals leaking from volcanic vents. Microorganisms have been found deep underground in oil wells, and suspended in lakes of liquid water trapped miles under the Antarctic ice sheet. In fact, there’s more life underneath our planet than on top of it. Bacteria live miles underground, never seeing light and consuming nothing but chemicals stored in rocks. There might be as many as a hundred trillion tons of bacteria living beneath our feet. Pile up all the underground bacteria, and it would cover our planet’s surface to a depth of over five feet.

Titan’s hazy atmosphere – the most Earthlike in our solar system
Based on recent estimates from the Kepler Space Telescope, there are billions of Earthlike planets in our galaxy alone – around one per star, on average. With billions of galaxies in the Universe, we now think that there are more Earthlike planets than grains of sand on all the beaches of Earth. That’s a lot of potential life as we know it, but if we include life in more exotic environments like icy moons, the conditions for life are ten time more common than that. Even in our own solar system, there are a dozen worlds that support liquid water and could, by that definition, be considered habitable. 

Of these, Jupiter’s moon Europa is perhaps the best prospect for life, with a liquid water ocean heated by regular tidal flexing in mighty Jupiter’s gravitational field. Almost entirely isolated from the outside world (there is evidence that liquid water occasionally rises and bursts through the icy surface), Europa’s ocean floor is in direct contact with the bedrock beneath, where there should be thermal vents spewing out energy and nutrients. On Earth, these ocean floor thermal vents are cradles of life, and similar to the primitive ecosystems that nurtured the origin of life itself.

Europa has a lot more water than even our blue planet
Thus arises a question: since the conditions for life are ubiquitous, is life common in our Universe, or are there challenges to the origin that make life a relative rarity? Although intelligent beings may exist elsewhere in our galaxy, they obviously aren’t exceedingly common or else we would have extraterrestrials roaming around our solar system or perhaps a nearby star. Yet, this tells us nothing about simpler life which may indeed be common, possibly even to be found on another world orbiting our Sun. Beyond, there could be billions of worlds covered in microorganisms or even simple plants and animals, just waiting to be found. Either we’re alone or we aren’t: both prospects are equally terrifying. Our curiosity drives us to search for answers, as living beings connected to the Universe.

Houston, “Eagle” has landed

Imagine yourself walking out of a lunar module "Eagle" on July, 21st 1969 and stepping on the surface of the Moon. What would be your first words? What would you like to do while performing EVA?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Neil had 3 full days to think about what to say on his trip to the Moon, probably months before that, and a potentially a NASA PR team working on the problem. I'd be hard pressed to come up with something better. Something like: "Hello Moon, greetings from planet Earth. Thanks for all you've done for us, from inspiring our dreams when we look up a night, to stabilizing our planet's spin, to driving our ocean tides. We're glad you're here, and now we are too."

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong walked out onto the moon, and I remember being deeply envious of him. I had no idea of the depth and duration of training required of astronauts, or the complexity of their equipment, and I even had a silly fantasy about stowing away on a the rocket.

If it had been me, I think I would have resisted delivering a scripted line, and instead would have blurted out something like “look at me! I’m on the moon!”. I’m sure it would have been nothing quotable. If I were free to do whatever I wanted on the EVA, my priorities would be running, jumping, and throwing things (I was 11!). I would have wanted to scale the nearest hill, thinking it would be easy to exploit the low gravity of the moon. Of course, I would have also put all kinds of rocks in my pockets.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

After the Apollo era, men haven’t returned to the Moon in now almost 45 years. Humans are long overdue for a return to the lunar surface, which could provide tremendous opportunities to act as a “launchpad” to the rest of space. If I had the unique and historical opportunity to be that first man stepping out on the surface of the Moon, I would probably be speechless and have no words at all.

During my EVA I’d like to satisfy spirit, body, and mind. The human spirit will be in awe at the incredible sight of an “alien” landscape and scenery and the realization that I am on a rock located about 384,000 km from our home, the Earth. The body would be experiencing the lower gravity and have fun hopping around. The mind would be involved in any science possible and work on the mission at hand, hoping that whatever advancement is made will benefit the rest of humanity.

Robert Novella (co-founder and vice-president of New England Skeptical Society, co-host of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe)

If I were the first to set foot on the moon It would be hard to beat the iconic words of Neal Armstrong, except by having them heard as was actually intended of course..."One small step for "A" man, One giant leap for mankind."

I've often thought that it would have been cool if both Neal Armstrong and that other dude (what was his name? ;)) both jumped and took that first step together.

My first words would probably be "holy crap". If I were able to rein in my emotions, perhaps I'd say something like "This first ever human footprint on the moon....brought to you by SCIENCE"

During the EVA I would thoroughly enjoy the sensation of moon gravity. I'd lift the biggest boulders I could manage and leap as far as possible. I'd throw small rocks and hands-full of regolith and watch their trajectory and descent. I'd look at the camera and say "See that? You can't fake physics like that on a stupid set on earth"