A NASA Scientist Looks Back on Looking up

Dear AR, I love you to the moon and beyond

“WHAT’S THAT ONE?” a friend’s kid asks in excitement, pointing up to one of the very few bright points in the light-polluted nighttime sky of suburban Maryland, less than 10 miles as the crow flies from the nation’s capital. “That would be Jupiter,” I reply, wondering to myself if she has ever seen a night sky like the one I grew up under.

As an astrophysicist, one fun part of my job is traveling and speaking about my work. And very often the question comes up: “Where are you from?” That is due in no small part, I’m sure, to the fact that I’ve retained a bit of my Southern accent, even after living outside the South for almost two decades. People seem surprised (despite the accent) when they find out I’m from rural Arkansas. “How did you end up getting interested in astronomy?” they ask with wonder.

But it’s no wonder at all, to me, that I ended up in astronomy. In fact, I’m convinced a big part of the reason I became an astronomer is precisely because of where I grew up—in the tiny rural town of Bee Branch, where the night sky was stunningly beautiful.

Here in the Washington, D.C., area, you can only see a few dozen stars on any given night. But back home—and I will always consider Bee Branch home—you can see thousands. Those stars called my name as a kid, and I spent countless nights lying on blankets out behind our old farmhouse, surrounded by lightning bugs and the songs of crickets and frogs, asking big questions about our big universe—the same questions, really, that humans have been asking for millennia:

Where did we come from?

How did we get here?

Are we alone?

One of the things I love most about astronomy is that these questions are more than just arcane scientific questions. They get to the heart of what it means to be human. They get to the drive that’s in all of us to explore.

Thinking back, that exploration did start out quite early for me. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mom on the toy box in my childhood bedroom, saying goodnight to all my stuffed animals, then to the stars. Dragging a blanket outside—and my family, when they were willing—to look at the stars would come later. The questions also came, and I’m pretty sure my parents were flustered with the incessant science questions. But thankfully, they encouraged my curiosity, even when they couldn’t answer my questions—these were the days before the internet and easy answers, after all. I distinctly remember that one time when I asked Mom some outlandish question, she looked at me and said: “I don’t know the answer to that. But someday you can figure it out for yourself.” She instilled confidence in me early on and gave me motivation and encouragement to pursue my dreams. My dad was a mechanic and a farmer; he always had multiple jobs and certainly taught me the value of hard work. Together, they helped form me into someone who could work toward my goals with passion and purpose.

Because of that, much of my childhood became a quest to figure things out, both in the context of the formal classroom and in everyday life. Most Sunday afternoons after church, my family would go to my grandparents’ house in Culpepper. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my brother (about two years younger than me) one day in the car: We noticed that a fly flying around in the car was flying around normally. … But how could that be when the car was speeding down the road at 50 mph? Why wasn’t the fly smashed up against the rear window? Aha! An early insight into Special Relativity, which I would later take college courses on. Thinking about this memory, I’ve realized a couple of things. One: The universe reveals its secrets to you when you are observant and inquisitive. Two: Listen to kids. They ask great questions and have open minds and hearts when it comes to these things.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field. NASA, ESA, R. Windhorst (Arizona State University) and H. Yan (Spitzer Science Center, Caltech)

When I was in the fifth grade, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope. I remember hearing about the awesome new space telescope on the news, the initial trouble it had when it was discovered that the mirror was imperfect and the drama that unfolded when the astronauts were sent to fix it. That fix was successful, and then: wow. The images that came back from Hubble were breathtaking. Exquisite detail in star-forming regions. Amazing photos of planets in our solar system. A previously blank piece of black sky now teeming with thousands of distant galaxies. Hubble settled it: I was hooked. I would be an astronomer.

Those dreams opened the doors to a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (where I had my first real experience with NASA, which included experiencing weightlessness), a doctorate in physics from Arizona State University, then on to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where I have been for 11 years this fall.

My research deals with understanding how galaxies grow and change over time. The subset of astronomy questions I address in my research exists within a much larger framework of questions that we have yet to answer about our vast universe. Of course, we’ve learned an incredible amount over the years, much of it thanks to advanced telescopes like Hubble. But as amazing as Hubble is, there are many ways in which we’ve pushed it to its limits, and questions remain unanswered. So what do we do? We build bigger and better telescopes. The major project I work on at NASA is the scientific successor to Hubble: the James Webb Space Telescope. This amazing telescope will be approximately 100 times more powerful than Hubble, and will be, by far, the biggest and most complex telescope we’ve ever sent to space. It is set to launch in 2021.

Of course, we have very detailed astronomy questions we’ve already laid out that we want to answer, and I have no doubt that we’ll answer them. But for me as a scientist, I think the most exciting thing about big bold missions like Webb is the prospect of surprises. It’s this idea that we’ll answer questions that we haven’t even thought to ask yet.

And in fact, the very reason we build these amazing machines is ultimately because of this promise of discovery. It’s the promise of hundreds of billions of galaxies—filled with trillions of stars, countless planets and untold surprises—waiting to be discovered.

This year, the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions and that first step on the moon. What a remarkable thing. I think it’s representative of what we humans can do when we’re at our best. But as incredible as our past achievements have been, I believe our best days of discovery and exploration lie ahead. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover.

Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. I work at NASA!

Last year on a visit home, I gave a lecture to the high school students at South Side Bee Branch about my work and told them that if I can achieve my dreams, they can, too. I often do outreach to rural kids to tell them my story and try to encourage them to follow their dreams, find mentors and ask questions. It doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. Many fulfilling things in life are very difficult, but they are almost always worth it, and that’s definitely true in my case. When I visit home, I always make a point to go outside at night and look up. I am still just as captivated by the dark sky as I was as a kid decades ago, and I still have some of the same questions I did back then. But I’ve answered some, too. And I know that the beautiful Bee Branch sky is responsible for where I am today. I’m so grateful to have work that I consider both challenging and meaningful, to contribute to something bigger than myself. I’m grateful for my Arkansas roots and those dark skies that led me here. 

Dr. Amber Straughn is an Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Follow her on Twitter:  @astraughnomer.