How I Got Into Astronomy

[UPDATE: Submit an audio version of your story for a podcast. See this blog post ]

How did I get into astronomy? I was born in 1981 so my formative years were the late 80s and early 90s. I am an astronomer forged from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Hubble Space Telescope and of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. I would say that those were the things that got me into astronomy? What got you into astronomy? I’d be interested to know. In the spirit of sharing, here’s my story.

I always liked space, most kids do. I had a litle Osborne book called ‘Space Facts’ (or something) which was filled with child-sized facts perfect for memorising. It was probably given to me to shut me up, as I was a ‘why?’ child. I can still picture some of the illustrations that helped me learn all about space. Saturn sitting in a giant bucket is one I can vividly recall.

I got a telescope when I was 11. It was a small, wobbly refractor that I used to look at Jupiter’s moons and the Orion Nebula. Around the same time we had our loft converted  at home. Thus the first bedroom that I didn’t have to share with my brother was south-facing and had a large, retractable skylight that was just right for looking out at the Moon and planets. Suddenly I was obsessed.

A couple of years later, with the recent repair of Hubble firmly in my mind, I got my first real telescope. It was a 114mm Newtonian refractor and it was heavy! It was bulky and obtrusive in my sloped-roofed bedroom but it worked like a charm. I had to teach myself about Right-Ascension and Declination, the rotation of the Earth under a ‘celestial sphere’. I taught myself about the life-cycle of stars, with Orion and Patrick Moore’s ‘Atlas of the Universe’ as my guide.

I was hooked on the TV coverage of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it impacted Jupiter and it propelled me into learning about comets, asteroids and the origins of the Solar System.

In the late 90s we got an Internet connection and that changed everything! I began programming and coding little Visual Basic programs that would rotate little solar systems on the screen. I could grab images and information via our CompuServe browser and use Mosaic to see the latest images from NASA. It was very exciting.

University soon loomed over the horizon and I was amazed to see that Astrophysics was an option – the rest is probably self-evident. I’m now trying to wrap up my PhD and create a thesis from the papers I’ve written. I have now been to a professional telescope and taken real, original data.

I have just seen astronauts repair Hubble for the final time, almost 20 years after it was first launched. Yesterday the first British astronaut was selected by ESA. A whole group of European astronauts was revealed after a lengthy selection process. I assume (or perhaps hope) that there are legions of 10 year old children around Europe watching this and thinking ‘I want to do that’. Because for what seems to me like the first time: they really could!

I hope that you have heard of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, which I play a small part in organising. As part of this I am creating an episode about how people get into astronomy. If you would like to share your story then please leave a comment explaining how you got into astronomy.

Make sure you use your correct email so I can contact you (emails not published here). I’ll be blogging about this upcoming podcast episode again, but since I was sharing I thought you might like to as well.

[Image from Flickr user turbojoe used under CC]


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