A Brief History of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers

I’m the founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers, which I run annually each summer in Laramie, Wyoming. This year the workshop will run from July 30 to August 5th, the week immediately prior to Denver Worldcon. Denver is only a two-hour drive from Laramie, and this will allow interested participants to attend both events in the course of one trip (and the workshop will be picking up airfare).

A few years back, I was thinking about ways to make my astronomy career and my science fiction writing more synergistic. It’s hard enough to do either thing well on its own, and trying to do both is taxing. Why not make them help each other out as much as possible? I already lean a lot on my science expertise in my fiction writing, but how could I use my novel writing to help me in my faculty position? Moreover, I’m always traveling to be with my kind of people given the relative remoteness of Wyoming, so I’m similarly always looking for ways to bring cool people to me. And besides, Wyoming is awesome in the summer and the skies are dark and brilliant and a pretty cool place to visit.

I’d just received a large five-year long-term grant from NASA to study quasars. In association with NASA grants, there is usually an opportunity to apply for supplemental funding to engage in “E/PO” activities (Education and Public Outreach). I applied for this funding, and got turned down flat, but with strong encouragement to reapply, perhaps with some assistance from an educational expert. (The comments in the rejection used a lot of educational jargon that I couldn’t even follow). I did two things then before reapplying: I did a survey showing significant community interest (thanks if you filled it out!), and enlisted the help of a friend of mine, Jim Verley, who was finishing up his Doctorate in Education and had run astronomy labs and Planetarium shows for me in the past.

We got funded.

The basic pitch was that we could effectively reach the public, teaching more and better astronomy, by educating writers in astronomy. They, in turn, would use more accurate astronomy in their work and reach their audiences. I originally envisioned science fiction writers as the primary membership of the workshop, but we’re very open to any sort of writer who has an audience and has a need to get a crash course in how modern astronomy works. I’d love to see more interest from screenwriters and non-fiction writers, for instance, but with my roots in the science fiction community that’s where I’ve been most successful drawing applications.

NASA funds the whole deal, since we keep it small (about a dozen). I’m able to pay for textbooks, airfare, local transportation, and airfare for nearly everyone who attends (there are a few well-off folks who pass on the assistance, which helps me fund things a little more easily). I also bring in a guest instructor. These first two years it’s been Jerry Oltion, who is an award winning science fiction novelist and avid amateur astronomer. I’m likely to have some different names the next couple of years.

Summer of 2007 was our first workshop. It ran amazingly smooth and well for our first time, and we had a great group. Here are some responses and links to workshop reports:

A semester of astronomy in a week — with bells and whistles
and telescopes. The workshop expanded and consolidated my
knowledge, and helped me wrap my mind around the enormous
distances and times of space and the universe. –Vonda N. McIntyre, Seattle

Launch Pad gave me the tools I needed to write better science fiction.
We talked about everything from near-future space exploration to distant
star systems. The workshop was an amazing experience and I highly
recommend it. — Vylar Kaftan

“Simply put, Launch Pad is an extraordinary experience for writers of
all genres, unparalleled in efficiently revealing the means and
methods of modern science.

“To say that Launch Pad is the superior workshop for writers
interested in modern science would be both accurate and precise.”

Michael Livingston (link to more detailed comments)

“I attended Launch Pad in 2007, and I highly recommend it.” — Eugie Foster

Jeffrey Carver blogged about his experience last summer (including photos) and wrote a SFWA press release.

So what goes on? It’s a busy week of lectures, hands-on activities, discussion, observing (through a variety of telescopes), and more, all designed at conveying the state of the field of astronomy and how to communicate it effectively to different audiences. I’ve got funding for several more years, but might not work too hard to find alternative funding after 2010 when the current grant ends — I love it, but running the workshop is pretty intense and not necessarily something I’m going to commit to doing forever. In the meantime though, it’s great, combining two of my passions in one fantastic event. Star Trek inspired me to go into science, and being able to ignite that inspiration is what inspires me today.

We’re open for applications until the end of the month, and already have a number of quality applicants for this year that includes several Hugo winners. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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