Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.

One Small Step

I was just a little too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on the moon and his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” However, watching later Apollo landings on television were among my earliest memories. From a young age, I was proud to be part of a species that had flown beyond the Earth and explored another world. Star Trek was on TV and I saw a direction humans might pursue. The space program was important in my house. My dad worked on the railroad but he understood how technology developed by NASA had far-reaching benefits. One of his friends worked at Goldstone Radar Tracking Station in Barstow, California and put together this display of Apollo patches for my dad. It hung in our living room when I was a kid and it hangs in my living room to this day.

In graduate school, I worked on a project automating a telescope to hunt for supernovae and dwarf novae. The computer we used was a Prime 300. The CPU cabinet was about the size of a refrigerator and it had four hard drives the size of small washing machines. I was smug in those days. I had a whole gigabyte of hard drive space to work with! In the same room as the supernova search computer were a bank of Apollo computers which had been purchased to record seismological data. In the 1980s, my Prime 300 was a primitive machine and the old Apollo machines looked like dinosaurs. I was amazed we had sent people to the moon using those ancient computers. It was a testament to how brilliant the people were who sent the first people to the moon.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Ansari X-Prize Competition. What’s more, my daughter’s school class had a chance to spend the day watching the events. We saw demonstrations of updated lunar landing vehicles. We even got to see one of them lift off, fly a short distance, and land again. We met people working on space elevator technology. The highlight of the day was getting to hear Buzz Aldrin speak. My daughter’s class got to sit right up front. My daughter is the kid in the red baseball cap in the photo. Aldrin recounted his experiences training for the lunar mission and actually landing on the moon.

Today, on this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, I find myself reflecting on these experiences. I want to see humans continue the exploration of space. We’re doing great things with unmanned probes, but there’s so much more we could do if we had humans out in the solar system learning about our corner of the universe. We did great things fifty years ago and our technology is improving. We should continue to do great things. For those who suggest we have too many problems on Earth to spend time exploring space, I say we have an Earth with over seven billion people. Many of them are brilliant, strong, and brave. We can and should work on more than one problem at once. Our real enemies in this endeavor are greed and fear. If we defeat them, we’ve earned the stars.