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: http://www.nancyatkinson.com/blog/2014/11/17/10-years-of-keeping-track-of-the-universe-today/#more-467
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 Seeker.com, 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!

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