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Satellite Tracker, Peers Make the Case for Space

Lecture Series Aims to Boost the Public's Interest in What Lies Above in Big Beyond

February 15, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The scientific community is teeming with brilliant minds and ideas, but it isn't always as adept at conveying the magical appeal of science to the public.

Just ask Larry Evans, the president of the Orange County Space Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public education that contributes to the exploration and development of space.

"NASA must have the worst public relations in the world," Evans said. "They bore people with space. Space should not bore anybody."

Evans is hoping a series of monthly lectures about space issues and exploration at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana will help capture the public's imagination.

Sponsored by the Orange County Space Society, the series kicks off Sunday afternoon with a presentation by Chuck Donaldson, a former member of the crew that worked around the world tracking the Apollo rocket missions to the moon in the 1970s. The series ends in May.

Evans said the society tried to book enthusiastic speakers who can convey complex scientific ideas in ways understandable and exciting to the lay public.

"Even if it's a subject someone has never been interested in before, hopefully they will come away from our lectures excited about that topic," said Evans, a writer and photographer who specializes in aerospace issues.

Donaldson's multimedia presentation will offer a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a tracking crew. A question-and-answer session will follow.

Donaldson worked at numerous tracking stations around the world, including the South Pacific, the remote Seychelles Islands off east Africa, New Hampshire and Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc. He tracked Gemini rockets in the 1960s, the last of the Apollo missions in the '70s, various space-shuttle flights in the '80s and satellites and missiles.

"In the Seychelles, we were responsible for turning the satellite on, asking it a bunch of questions, getting the information, sending up some commands and turning it off before it was out of our range," Donaldson said. "Sometimes you had less than 10 minutes to get your act together" and to get all of these tasks accomplished.

On March 18, Chris Butler, a well-known space artist and illustrator, will talk about astronomy and show how Earth might look to voyagers from other galaxies. His presentation will include a slide show.

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Evans will take center stage April 7 and 8. He will take a look at the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" and how accurate the acclaimed director was in predicting the future.

The film depicts commercial flights into space, which Evans said are likely to happen in the not-too-distant future.

"There are a lot of different companies and organizations that are really working to put the average person in space through different tourist packages," Evans said. "The idea is to build a spacecraft that can fly to at least 50 miles altitude, which is the international recognition of where space begins. You will have the experience of weightlessness. You'll be able to see the curvature of the earth."

Evans calls "2001: A Space Odyssey" the best dramatic film ever made about space. He bemoans the spate of movies that have inaccurately portrayed space science, though he is excited about filmmaker James Cameron's plans to create a dramatic film that will "show a technically accurate portrayal of space" and human exploration of Mars. He said Cameron (who made "Titanic" and the "Terminator" movies) is a friend of the Orange County Space Society.

The final lecture in the series will take place May 20 and feature Neil Campbell, a retired Boeing engineer. Evans said Campbell has devoted much of his life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He will discuss the various ways humans are trying to find extraterrestrial life and what it would take for life to exist on another planet.

"NASA is currently building a next-generation space telescope that may be able to see an Earth-like planet around nearby stars," Evans said. "We will be able to directly view a planet that's like ours. If we had a picture of another planet around another star that had these beautiful blue oceans and brown and green continents, that would go a long way in showing people that we're not alone in the universe."

A part of the National Space Society, the Orange County Space Society will also hold business meetings after each lecture at the Discovery Science Center. Anyone who attends the lectures is welcome to take part in the meetings.

"At our meetings, we talk about the programs that we're doing. We ask for volunteers to help out with different things," Evans said. "We also discuss different events that are going on in space."

Evans hopes his organization can increase membership and public interest in space issues by presenting its lectures and meetings at the Discovery Science Center. In turn, the Discovery Science Center hopes to expose new people to its facility. A recent survey indicated that center visitors yearn for more space-oriented presentations.

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