This summer I had the pleasure and honor of attending the 2017 Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. Organized by University of Wyoming professor (and SFF author) Michael S. Brotherton, PhD. (who founded the program) and astronomer Christian Ready, Launch Pad is hosted at University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.
The Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop’s tagline is “Improving science literacy through words and media.” As Mike and Christian explained on the first day of the workshop, many people obtain their science through fiction and media. If the science is wrong in the fiction they’re reading (or watching), they won’t know and will walk away at best misinformed, at worst with a radically incorrect view of how the universe operates.
Creators have a responsibility to the story, absolutely, but they also have a responsibility to their audience. If creators do their best to keep the science accurate and plausible in their works, the audience gets a little bit of knowledge along with their rollicking space battle scene and may be inspired to learn more, or even apply what they’ve learned to their own creations, thus spreading knowledge instead of misinformation. The Launch Pad site sums this up nicely:
“Our primary goal is to teach writers, editors, and creative professionals about modern science, specifically astronomy, and in turn reach their large and diverse audiences. We hope to both educate the public and inspire the next generation of scientists.”
On Day One, Mike and Christian warned us they’d be compressing a lot of information into just one week (I believe the term “fire-hosing” was bandied about). Now, I implore you to imagine how impossible a feat it is to further compress that week into a
singularity single blog post. So this will be a highlights-only post–and in a week packed with literally nothing but highlights, it will inevitably fall short of even that modest goal.
Classroom sessions were super full days–from 10 a.m. to about 5 p.m.–packed with a science-tsunami (not a real term) of engaging lectures and presentations from Mike and Christian, as well as special guest lectures and lab activities. The “Kirchhoff’s Laws and Spectra” lab with the affable Jim Verlay, PhD. seemed to especially delight the class. All the instructors, especially Mike and Christian, excelled at making the covered material accessible to a wide range of comprehension levels.
After dinner, we kept going with observation sessions, a planetarium show, and several guided discussions about “Science Fiction Science,” wherein Mike walked us through examples of science and astronomy as portrayed in fiction (TV, film, and books), covering who got it right and who got it wrong (in some cases, hilariously wrong, see: Armageddon). These discussions yielded some of my favorite (and funniest) moments of the week.
On our penultimate evening, Launch Pad organized a trip to the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO), where we got to tour the facility, be jealous of the students studying there, and take in the stunning views from the top of Mt. Jelm at 9656 ft. (Much props to our T.A., Doug Farren, who navigated a rental van through some ridiculous switchbacks to get our group up the mountain. Also, for his patience while we all jammed our phones out the windows in an attempt to capture the incredible sunset that night.)
Let me pause a moment to rave about my wonderful co-attendees–what a talented, inspiring, and kind group of humans with whom to share this experience (see the full list of names under 2017 Attendees on the Launch Pad site). Between them, I think they’ve covered every genre and subgenre of science fiction and fantasy; so definitely go check out their books and stories.
In addition to a cubic shit ton (not a real measurement) of information, Launch Pad also provides room and board–we stayed at the gorgeous Honors House, where we enjoyed private dorm rooms bigger than most NYC apartments. Also, the lucky (and hardworking) students that stay there during the school year have a huge rec room (and a laundry room!!! and a dishwasher!!!–can you tell New York has warped me?). The staff and volunteers at the University of Wyoming were equally impressive. I can’t speak for all attendees’ experiences, but everyone I interacted with seemed exceptionally warm and friendly. The campus and buildings were gorgeous, and as for Wyoming itself—wow…
Just. Gorgeous. Actual rolling prairies! Actual snow capped mountains! Actual pronghorns and buffalo and camels (idk, but they were there)! Blue skies for miles. Sunsets that you wouldn’t believe. Absolutely breathtaking. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a lot of incredibly beautiful places in the world, and Wyoming ranks up there (altitude* pun!) with the best of them.
*Speaking of altitude: As a life-long New Yorker I’ve always lived at (or, occasionally below) sea level. I didn’t really think about this until the first “Hydrate or Die” emails started zipping through my inbox in advance of our arrival. Hogwash! I thought. Surely I’d been at a similar altitude before! But no, Fake News! The startling truth was that I’d never even visited a place higher than about 2,000 ft. above sea level. So I arrived in Laramie more than a little nervous about altitude sickness, but it turned out to be just fine. Better than fine actually. There may be less oxygen in Laramie (elevation: approx 8,000 ft.) but the quality of that oxygen is apparently much, much better (no surprise) than here in NYC. Also, as advised, I hydrated like a m-er f-er. And as such, I saw just about every bathroom on the UW campus—all lovely. Five stars. Would visit again.
I am so grateful for this incredible once-in-a-lifetime** experience. Not only did I gain valuable material for a series I’m currently writing; I also walked away with a notebook filled with story ideas that will probably take me several lifetimes to complete. (But I’ll still try to get though them all in this one.) So huge thanks to Mike and Christian, my co-attendees, the sponsors (see below), and everyone at Launch Pad for providing a week of education and inspiration that I’ll never forget.
**Unless…Alumni workshop? Just saying…
Launch Pad is a funded workshop, generously sponsored by Space Telescope Science Institute and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). If you are an author/editor/creative professional who is interested in attending, the application period for the 2018 workshop should open sometime in Spring 2018.
If you are interested in helping support this excellent program, please donate via the Launch Pad fundraising page.