Jenn Reese Writer, Artist, Geek

The Wonder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop


Last week, I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming. Here’s the description:

Launch Pad is a workshop for established writers held in beautiful high-altitude Laramie, Wyoming. Launch Pad aims to provide a “crash course” for the attendees in modern astronomy science through guest lectures, and observation through the University of Wyoming’s professional telescopes.

I’ve been avoiding this post because I know I won’t be able to do the experience justice. I’ll tell you about what we studied and the people I met, I’ll show you some pictures, I’ll attempt to explain the way the week sort of cracked open my head so that, for the first time in ages, I’m actually looking up again. But unless you were there on the mountain watching the sky darken and the stars emerge from the shadows, surrounded by a group of people all caught in moment of wonder, it won’t quite be enough.

What the heck. I’ll try anyway.

The Curriculum

According to the schedule, classes ran from 10am until 5pm with a break for lunch and a chance to stretch our legs every hour or so. In actuality, we ran over the times almost every day, trying to cram in one last equation or one last ah-ha moment that made everything come together. Some of the topics we covered:

Scales of the Universe (the first video we watched remained one of my favorites: You Are Not the Center of the Universe), Seasons, Lunar Phases, the Solar System, Kirchoff’s Laws, Spectra, Gravity, Newton, Kepler, Orbits, Einstein, Exoplanets, Hubble Image Processing, All About Stars, Supernovas, White Dwarfs, Neutron Stars, Black Holes, Galaxies, Quasars, Cosmology, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy*.

We also spent time talking about common misconceptions (almost all of which I had previously held), science fiction tropes, and how to get the science right in our stories. The ideas came fast and furious for most of us, I think, and the last page of my notebook is filled with inspiring words and phrases such as “Blackbody,” “The Big Rip,” and of course, “Tycho Brahe’s Moose.”

My favorite classroom activity by far was our introduction to “citizen science” and the website. (Thank you, Andria!) Here, using data collected from the Kepler spacecraft, we can help scientists identify potential planets orbiting other stars. That’s right, exoplanets! This is ridiculously fun despite the fact that I have only found half a dozen strong candidates in over 200 samples. So far. (Damn you, Andria!)

There were also some activities that took us to labs on campus, as well as extracurriculars such as the “Starstruck” art exhibit, a hike in the nearby Vedauwoo rocks, and an evening up at the big WIRO telescope (but more on that last one later).

Workshop attendees examining art.
E.C. Myers and Malinda Lo attempt to find the Statue of Liberty in NGC 3576, the “Statue of Liberty Nebula.”
Hikers making Live Long and Prosper sign.
Me and the “Goldilocks” group (not too fast, not too slow) during our hike at Vedauwoo. L to R: Susan, Bill, Anne, James, Malinda, Lisa, Me, and Eugene.
[* The Dark Energy discussion was particularly interesting to me because in high school I was good friends with Adam Riess, one of the astrophysicists who received a Nobel Prize recently for this work. It was humbling to think back on what we were like in high school, and then to finally understand, just a little, the scope of what Adam helped discover.]

The People

The curriculum is the meat of the workshop, but not its heart. Sitting in a classroom all day could have been incredibly boring regardless of the subject matter, but Launch Pad boasts a trio of instructors whose enthusiasm for astronomy is practically a pathogen. Faced with their teaching chops and the wonder of the universe, we were defenseless.

Mike Brotherton: U. of Wyoming faculty, founder of Launch Pad, and hard sf writer.
Christian Ready: astronomer, public science outreach-er (his words!), and serious Deadhead.
Andria Schwortz: Astrophysics grad student, planet hunter, and badass karaoke singer.

Also in attendance were volunteers (and previous attendees) Todd Vandemark and Doug Farren. The other students were a fantastic mix of writers, editors, screenwriters, game designers, and generally fascinating people:

Amy Sterling Casil
Geetanjali Dighe
Susan Forest
Marc Halsey
Gabrielle Harbowy
Meg Howrey
Ann Leckie
William Ledbetter
Andrew Liptak
Malinda Lo
Sarah McCarry
E.C. Myers
Anne Toole
James L. Sutter
Lisa Yee

We bonded over our plastic-wrapped beds and shared tips for navigating the college cafeteria. (Marc showed me where to find the real granola; I’ll never be able to adequately pay him back.) But we also talked about writing and life and geeked out about astronomy. We amplified each other’s excitement, bouncing concepts and ideas off each other at meals and riddling our instructors with questions when they joined us in the dining hall. There was an energy to our acquaintances, fueled by proximity and intensity, and I like to think I emerged from the week with a whole heap of new friends. [Insert astronomy metaphor here.]

The Setting

I’ve never been to Laramie, Wyoming, or done more than drive through a corner of the state. But in one week, Wyoming won me over. How can anyone resist that big, big sky?

A view of downtown Laramie, WY.
After dinner at Sweet Melissa’s, we head up the pedestrian bridge for a better view.

Plus, there were tons of adorable critters pretty much everywhere. “Adorable?” Perhaps “nefarious” is a better word…

In Eugene’s picture, the mother bunny has hopped out of formation and signaled to the others to abort the summoning:

Overall, though, there was a stark beauty to Laramie. There were mountains in the distance, but the city itself felt almost flattened by the immensity of the sky. That is, until we left the city and went to join it.

The Wonder

On Thursday night, after a long day of flat tires and hiking and classroom lectures and general exhaustion, we loaded into the SUVs and headed out to WIRO, the Wyoming Infared Observatory. After a death-defying climb up dirt roads to the top of Jelm Mountain (at an altitude of 9656 ft!), we arrived just as the sun was setting.

Sunset at WIRO

And that, of course, is when things got started. Inside the observatory, we got a tour of the massive telescope, climbing over and touching everything we were allowed to climb over and touch. They let us raise the telescope so it was pointing straight up, and to open the roof. Every last one of us has this shot:

WIRO telescope points to the stars

Grad student Rachel explained everything and set us to work finding stars at which we could point the telescope.

Rachel explains how WIRO works

Turns out you don’t actually look through an eyepiece at WIRO; you look at computer screens. But that’s okay, because while this was going on, the sky outside was darkening, and soon I left the warm observatory to stand out in the mosquito-laden air, crane my neck, and stare up.

At first there were just a few of us. We watched the stars start to appear and Christian pointed out the big ticket items: Mars. Saturn. Arcturus. He showed us how to find Polaris with the Big Dipper. We spotted satellites winging across the heavens and followed them until they disappeared. More people came outside. We oohed and aahed. We found constellations. It was already the best night of the workshop.

And then the sky darkened fully, and the Milky Way emerged, more like a ghost at first, but becoming a great big smear of star stuff. Christian pointed again and showed us how to find the galactic center. Yes, the center of our galaxy.

It was a giddy night. I think the old hats were feeding off the enthusiasm of those of us who never get to see stars, who hadn’t seen the Milky way since we were small, or maybe even at all. After so many days of mind-altering lectures, looking up and seeing the heavens made everything both more real and more unreal at the same time. If sense of wonder was a fuel, we could have sent a ship to Mars.

Leaving WIRO was bittersweet. We were exhausted and cold and had a long drive back home ahead of us. And yet I couldn’t calm down. In that moment, I was in love with universe and everything in it.

The Expanding Universe

At Launch Pad, I experienced a profound paradigm shift in the way I viewed the universe. I’m going to hold on to that sense of wonder no matter what, and I’m going to do my best to spread that joy to as many people as I can.

Everyone should go to Launch Pad. If you can’t go or don’t want to, you’re still welcome to support it financially — people like me will thank you for it.

I’ll be posting links to the official photos soon (Todd Vandemark is an incredible photographer) and here are some other accounts of last week (which I will continue to update):

The Milky Way
Public domain photo: “This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view.”

About the author

Jenn Reese


By Jenn Reese
Jenn Reese Writer, Artist, Geek

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