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Share Your Story • James Secosky • January 7, 2020

My great adventures exploring the universe

My great adventures exploring the universe

From as early as I can remember, I’ve had an insatiable curiosity about the universe. I drove adults crazy with my questions. Although I’m 73, I never lost that curiosity and sense of wonder. I even named my son Neil Armstrong Secosky. Since I’ve been into astronomy from very early in my life-- and I’m old now, this essay will be long. I have experienced loads of great experiences with space. Many of my most exciting activities have been trying to turn others on to the wonders of the universe.

Mars has fascinating me for a long time. My interest developed in the mid-fifties when Walt Disney produced several programs about space, in cooperation with Werner van Braun and other space scientists. As a child, I climbed out my bedroom window onto the roof with my dad’s 7 X 50 binoculars to admire the sky. We lived in a small town with very dark skies. Once, on a Boy Scout camp out, I stayed up all night looking at the stars. I did not know anything about astronomy then, but I was in awe of the sky’s beauty. As a kid, I saw a professor on a PBS show talk about a picture of a cluster of galaxies. The photo showed dozens of blurs that were galaxies. He said that they each contained billions of stars. Even today, just from thinking about that photo, I feel the excitement about the vastness of the universe.

While a young teen, I saved my money from mowing grass for 50 cents/hr. and bought a $20 telescope from Edmund Scientific. When I found things like the moon, moons of Jupiter, or rings of Saturn I would go to every neighbor that had their lights on and drag them out to see things through my telescope. Later, when I was a summer camp counselor, I revealed to kids the wonders of the heavens with that telescope. A short time ago, a man told me on Facebook how he remembered me getting everyone out of bed in the early morning to see the rings of Saturn.

With my interest in science, I became a science teacher and ended up teaching many different subjects at many levels. I taught just about everything from life science for 7th graders to astronomy for seniors. I did some special things to spice up my lessons. When the sun came into my room at a certain angle, I used my telescope to project a huge image of the sun on the movie screen. Images of the sun in partial eclipse were produced with mirrors (you cover all but a square centimeter). We took Earth Science classes out at 3 a.m. to see the blur of Halley’s’ comet. It made for an unforgettable experience as kids loved to be out in the middle of the night.

Each year, I rented a portable planetarium that was erected with a fan. It was a neat way to teach the stars, constellations, and sky motions. After everyone knew some constellations and how to find the North Star, I would turn the lights off, change the program, and take them to the sky at the North Pole. They then had to figure out where they were. It was quite the mind expanding experience for those 9th graders and astronomy students. I even used that device at open house and in summer camps. Decades later, kids have told me on Facebook how they loved those lessons.

Two of my former students became engineers and worked on the Space Shuttle. One of my former students takes pictures of rocket launches—some have been featured in magazines, including National Geographic. One of his recent pictures took “Space First Place" winner in their 2019 Photo Contest for Aviation Week. I feel good thinking that maybe I had something to do with their interest in space. I always wanted everyone to fall in love with the universe.At the teen center in our town, I showed the heavens to kids. So they would not get bored waiting in line, we would take just 2-3 outside at a time to gaze through my scope.

Of course, I had to apply for the teacher in space program. I thought I did not have much chance at actually flying on the Shuttle, but it sounded like NASA would train a number of teachers for flying aboard the Shuttle. Learning about how to travel in the shuttle, sounded real keen to me. When I did not get very far in the selection process, I decided to teach myself what I would have learned in that shuttle training. What evolved was a mini-course on how to drive the space shuttle which I taught during the summers at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

In class, we built a full sized model of the flight deck--complete with images of all the instruments. I contacted NASA with so many questions that they sent me this big 1000 page manual about the shuttle systems. As you would expect, I read it from cover to cover several times. That Shuttle model also went to summer camps where I was a volunteer nature counselor. Another mini-course covered space probes. My son, who became a geophysical engineer, worked as my assistant.

Much of my life has revolved about space exploration. For my M.A. in biology, I studied algae. I figured that organisms like that might be found on Mars. Likewise, I jumped at the chance to work in a microbiology lab in the summers. That experience might help me understand any microorganisms that might be discovered on Mars. One exciting experience was sleeping at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Actually, I did not sleep, I couldn’t; it was too beautiful. Another all-nighter was in 2002 when I stayed up all night looking at hundreds of meteors for the once-in-a-century Leonid meteor shower. One of my favorite places to visit in Arizona was Meteor Crater; I went several times—once, early on, I was allowed to walk all the way around.

Not unlike many of the members of the Planetary Society, I’ve been to many NASA centers: George C. Marshal Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama; Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland; Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL; Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA; Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC; U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL; Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL; Langley Air and Space Center, VA; Wallops Flight Facility, VA; and the Great Lakes Science Center, Ohio. In fact, I was so desperate to see Cape Kennedy that I hitch-hiked from New Jersey to Cocoa Beach Florida to tour Cape Kennedy. I slept in vacant lots and along the road. My makeshift shelter made with my poncho, withstood 13 inches of rain from a tropical storm in Florida.

Also, several times I have been to where our attraction to Mars began-- Lowell Observatory. The biggest excitement of my life came from using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) as an amateur. The results of my study of Io were published in Icarus. A second study I carried out with HST was a spectroscopic study of water in asteroids. Since I was the first amateur to use the powerful instrument, I was invited to give over 150 talks about the universe to groups like Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, and many school groups.

A friend of mine and I produced a series of eight, 30-minute astronomy programs through the public access channel of our local cable company. It was like a poor man’s COSMOS. Because the station did not have much programing, they showed those programs over and over. It seems that everyone in the county saw me on TV. That period of sharing the Hubble discoveries was exhilarating as I was passing on information that few possessed. When HST made a new observation, I was sent a press release which contained pretty much all that was known at the time about the object along with slides to use for talks. I would read the press release over maybe a dozen times to pretty much memorize it. Sometimes I would contact the Space Telescope Science Institute for more information and/or clarification. As time went on, I shared my excitement to fellow educators with talks at educational conferences at the local, state, national, and international levels.

I used to just be a humble science teacher, but my HST work catapulted me into the public eye. People from all over the United States called for interviews. For many years, the local newspapers telephoned me any time something about astronomy was happening. I was asked to help write an Earth Science textbook, and was able to add the latest discoveries from Hubble in many places. I had many articles published in journals about my experiences. I was excited when I had the cover story in the Science Teacher. I felt a rush when I heard that some of my articles were being translated into 14 languages. A book author called for a picture I took of Io with HST.

I have written extensively about Mars on Wikipedia for the past 10 years. In the process I uploaded thousands of pictures to Wikimedia Commons from various spacecraft, especially Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Most of the pictures were ones obtained through NASA’s HiWish program which allows amateurs to suggest targets for the powerful HiRISE. When someone does a search for something about Mars, they may end up reading something that I wrote and may see pictures I suggested. The main thrust of my writing was aimed at describing what the surface of Mars looks like.

With my teaching experience in so many science disciplines at different levels I sensed that I had a purpose-- explaining complex discoveries about Mars in laymen’s terms. Instead of showing just plain pictures, I added captions, arrows, and labels. I came up with the idea of adding a rectangle that represents the approximate size of a football field-- everyone can relate to the size of a football field. To give context, I try to use several views with increasing magnification. I may start with a CTX image and then work down to a close up using HiView (an image viewing application). Casius quadrangle is one of my favorites https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casius_quadrangle

Since I just have a biology background, I had to learn geology and astronomy on my own. But, I love to learn. It has been a wonderful journey trying to understand everything about Mars. Much of my knowledge about Mars came from following discoveries collected by craft that have explored the planet. If I found a good article in the Planetary Report or Astronomy magazine, I might read it over many times, especially certain sections. Finding original journal articles was a big challenge. When I taught at a community college part time, I obtained hundreds of articles through inter-library loans. After moving to Colorado, I walked over a mile to the library of the Colorado School of Mines to use their public computers. I’m so grateful to James Head of Brown University who put many research papers on line. Every spring, I spend many happy hours studying abstracts from the Lunar and Planetary Conference in Texas.

Recently, I bragged to everyone when I got a community access library card from the Colorado University in Fort Collins, Co. I have a deep need to read the original research, rather than just a press release. I submitted thousands of suggestions for Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) under the public target program. I guess that was a bit more than the rest of the world combined. I received hundreds of interesting images that were used to put together a web site consisting of 80 pictures. During that time, I did not have a computer at home, so I walked to the public library a mile away every day. I seem to have always gone to any length to discover the secrets of the universe. Under the HiWish program, I’ve received thousands of detailed images from HiRISE. I’m proud to say that for years I’ve added at least one/day to my Facebook page. I was grateful to share some of those pictures in talks at Mars Society Conventions in 2008 and 2013.

In my ten years of submitting picture suggestions, I have had many “high points.” Getting that first picture from a suggestion was one. When I discovered a new impact, I was too happy to sleep. Research papers said that there should be pingos on Mars—they are mounds that contain pure ice. One of my pictures was described by a NASA caption as being a possible pingo. For several years, researchers believed that Recurrent Slope Lineae (RSL) were from liquid water. I was overjoyed when RSL finally appeared in one of my pictures.

For years, I found scenes that were not shown in press releases about Mars. I wondered about them. There were these box-like networks of ridges. We are still not sure of their origin, but clay in and around them hints that they were formed with water. Then, I came across beautiful layered deposits in craters. Researchers discovered a strange twisted, banded, broken terrain in the Western part of Hellas, the great impact crater. I was tickled when I found that type of surface on the Eastern part of the crater as well.

For many years, I read and reared many journals like Icarus. It was a proud moment when I saw that some of my images were used in scientific papers. Many of my pictures revealed unbelievable beauty. One showed a boulder and the track it made in moving down a dune.

I’ve always been so turned on by exploring, of seeing what few have seen—“Going where no one has gone before.” I felt like I was helping out with deciphering the mysteries of Mars when I examined 50,000 pictures for ridge systems on Mars through zooiverse.

Another major life event was being the executive officer/biologist/geologist/astronomer for Crew 64 for the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah that is run by the Mars Society. For that 2-week event I worked with 5 other people whom I never met. We wore space suits, pretended we were astronauts exploring Mars, and actually carried out research. I grew bacteria and fungi from samples in the facility. “It was the best two weeks of my life,” said a member of the crew that was there before us. Her statement summarized the sentiment we all felt. I have had the privilege of hearing talks from my heroes and meeting them afterwards.

At science teacher conferences I heard Carl Sagan. At a Mars Society convention I heard Elon Musk. After his talk, I and a few others talked to him at length. He was gracious in answering our many questions. I felt in the presence of greatness with those men. When I heard that Dr. Riccardo Giacconi won the Noble prize in Physics, I started to tell everyone that working with him at the Space Science Institute on the Hubble was like getting to scrimmage with a professional football team. They could then relate to my elation because they love and worship football players.

With just a biology background, I had to study journal articles to learn about the Martian surface. It was gratifying to meet some of the authors of those papers. Alfred McEwen and Steven Squires were two of those authors. I’ve read and reread dozens of their articles. As for the future, I hope to write extensively about Mars on the Mars Society’s online encyclopedia called Marspedia. So far I’ve described many of the common features of Mars there. One of my articles can be found at https://marspedia.org/What_Mars_Actually_Looks_Like!

Within a year or two, I want to take each of the 30 quadrangles and illustrate their surfaces with pictures. My goal is to show people what the surface of Mars looks like--What might be seen from a helicopter ride above Mars. Perhaps, I will do some video conferencing. I have my first video conference scheduled for this spring to members of a civilian air patrol in another state. I also would like to make videos for YouTube using many of the pictures I obtained through the HiWish program. I think I can develop some pretty good videos with the 4000 plus pictures I’ve gathered. Some of these projects depend on the library staff as I do not know much at present about making and posting videos.

A dream would be to see a rocket launch. I was fortunate to witness the space program from the beginning. I recall when there were no satellites. We just had ideas and hopes. At first, it looked like we would never go anyplace with all the explosions. In the summer of 1965, I was taking classes in the basement of a building in Penn State. After each class, I would run up 4 flights of steps where there was a teletype machine telling about the progress of Mariner 4 sending pictures back from Mars. In the sixties, it was so refreshing to watch many hours of commercial-free TV coverage when there were manned launches. I watched or listened to all the Mars landings live. Some of the later ones were difficult as they occurred after midnight at a time when my normal bedtime was before 10. For one of those landings I was chatting back and forth in the early morning hours with one of the students whom I taught over 30 years before in my first year of teaching.

I’m so grateful for all I’ve been able to experience concerning space exploration. I never dreamed that private citizens would be able to participate in the space program with things like using the Hubble Telescope, Mars Global Surveyor, HiRISE, or by helping scientists gather and analyze data on zooiverse.

My life has parallels with Homer Hickam whose story was told in that inspiring movie” October Sky.” We both grew up in small, poor, coal mining towns. My dad, his dad and all his brothers worked in Pennsylvania coal mines. While Homer had to overcome his dad’s pressure to just be a coal miner, I had to battle severe personal problems: ADHD, various learning difficulties, and a severe speech defect. I felt like the dumbest kid in my classes. My elementary teachers probably thought that I could not ever even hold on to a job in the mines. Watching October Sky always brings tears to my eyes.

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