Staring up at the nighttime sky inspired Nancy Atkinson as a young girl.
Atkinson, an editor and reporter with the space and astronomy website Universe Today, is the author of “Incredible Stories From Space.” The book takes readers behind the scenes for a closer look at the unmanned, non-astronaut missions that are changing mankind’s view of the solar system and beyond.
“Everyone’s always interested in the human element of space exploration,” said Atkinson, who interviewed more than 35 NASA scientists and engineers for her book. “The people behind the missions have such compelling stories. They build the spacecraft, figure out the trajectories. All this ‘rocket science’ stuff is astounding, amazing and awe-inspiring.”
During the writing of “Incredible Stories,” Atkinson came to the realization that even robotic missions are human endeavors.
“These spacecraft are going places where humans can’t go yet. Planets like Saturn and Jupiter. The dwarf planet Pluto. (The spacecraft) really are our emissaries out in the cosmos. It’s easy to give them personalities, to call a craft ‘she,’” Atkinson said.
Scientists and engineers are passionate, dedicated people, she said. Their enthusiastic extension of is unmanned spacecrafts.
“Everyone was well-spoken and excited to share their stories and the passion they feel,” Atkinson continued. “I hope to convey their passion.”
Beginning her interviews in January 2016, Atkinson traveled to such locations as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
“My book didn’t have a title at the time. But as I’m listening, as I’m going to places like the Hubble Space Telescope’s headquarters, I’m hearing people tell their stories, bouncing their experiences back and forth. And that’s where ‘Incredible Stories’ came from,” she said.
Atkinson’s own story begins in the farm that she grew up in, located 14 miles northwest of Wyndmere. During the 1960s and ‘70s, NASA conducted its Apollo space missions. The program would reach its greatest popularity in 1969, when Apollo 11 culminated with a successful moon landing.
“My sister and I sat through the entire missions,” Atkinson said. “Those explorations were inspiring.”
Times change, and with them, interests. Atkinson went on to attend Wyndmere High School, where she participated in band, choir, track and speech. NASA continued its advancements, switching to unmanned exploration with the Voyager program, followed by the space shuttle in 1981.
“After the Apollo program, space exploration wasn’t as much in the news. … It wasn’t a big part of my high school and college life. I was an English major in college and always wanted to be a writer, but you know how life happens. I was able to write a few articles here and there,” Atkinson continued.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when Atkinson worked for the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. Her job included traveling to schools, where she’d spend a week assigning in-class and take home activities. This included encouraging students to look for the International Space Station with their parents. Launched in 1998, the space station continues to orbit Earth.
“The museum had an inflatable space shuttle that was a third of the actual shuttle’s size,” Atkinson remembered. “At the end of the week, we’d set it up in the school’s gym. So many parents would come to see the shuttle and they’d say how cool it was that they got to see the space station with their children.”
In 2004, Atkinson joined Universe Today, for which she still writes. In fact, the day she spoke — Thursday, Nov. 17 — was the anniversary of her first article’s publication.
“I didn’t have ‘writing a book’ on my radar. Every writer wants to write a book, of course. Last year, Page Street Publishing contacted me. They had the idea for a book about NASA’s robotics missions. When you get an e-mail from somebody asking you about writing a book, that’s not an e-mail you get every day,” Atkinson said.
Page Street, a subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers, has been “a great company to work with,” Atkinson added.
“‘Incredible Stories’ isn’t a kids book, per se,” she said. “I want it to be accessible to young adults and teens, easily readable while still having its scientific side. I want to introduce more people to the wonders of space explorations.”