Burtrum woman is plugged into NASA, space travel

Nancy Atkinson stands on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida with space shuttle Discovery prior to its launch in 2010. Photo courtesy Nancy Atkinson.

Nancy Atkinson’s love with space exploration began many moons ago, so with stars in her eyes, she pursued her lifelong passion even from her Minnesota home, far removed from NASA.

The 56-year-old resident of Burtrum, about an hour northwest of St. Cloud, is married to a Freeport native, who has family nearby. She has been writing online since 2004, and is a writer and editor for Universe Today, one of the longest running space and astronomy news websites.

“When my kids were little, I stayed at home with them, but I always wanted to be a writer, and space exploration had always captured my imagination,” said Atkinson, who worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota and taught the space program at the St. Paul-based museum.

“Parents would say to me, ‘I didn’t even know we had a space station,’ so I knew I wanted to try to do more to try to get the word out about all the great things that were going on at NASA and other space agencies – the exciting and inspirational things that space exploration entails.”

Atkinson wrote a book Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos, which was released in December. She said she interviewed 37 NASA scientists and engineers and toured many of the “mission controls.”

“It is not your basic, dry science book,” she said. “Instead, it tells the compelling stories of the humans behind the robots, sharing the passion, dedication and enthusiasm these people bring to their unique, off-world jobs and showing how science is really a human endeavor.”

Atkinson traces her love of space exploration back to her youth when she watched the Apollo missions to the moon, which captured her imagination of “discovery” and “people doing things that had never been done before.”

“I was equally fascinated by the robotic missions that NASA had in the early days, like the Voyager mission that went to the outer solar system or the Viking mission that landed on Mars,” she said. “I was just fascinated by the pictures that were sent back.”

Things related to NASA that intrigued her included what it was like to put a spacecraft “so delicately built on top of an exploding rocket” to the challenges of operating a spacecraft millions of miles away from Earth and more.

The advent of the Internet age fueled her appetite to be more involved in space exploration, astronomy and NASA, with the growing ease of finding information, connecting to NASA officials, and learning about the universe through information and images posted online.

“Thanks to the Internet, I am able to interview people from NASA and other space organizations, all from my home in central Minnesota, and my articles are read by people around the world,” Atkinson said. “And the majority of entities that I write for are on the Internet.”

She also has had articles published on Wired.com, Space.com, NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, Space Times Magazine and many newspapers in the Midwest, according to her website.

“I think the Internet completely changed the accessibility and how NASA could share the kind of excitement of space exploration because they could share the pictures kind of in real time as they were getting sent back to Earth,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with an emphasis in mass communications from the University of Minnesota-Morris and was awarded the New Horizons Traveling Fellowship by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in 2010.

Nancy Atkinson visits with a mock-up of the Curiosity Mars rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Photo courtesy of Nancy Atkinson

“I’m not a scientist. I’m a writer, and so for me to be able to write about these things, I need to kind of make it simple, reduce it to the least common denominator. Making difficult science concepts easily understandable for the general public is how I approach it,” she said.

She was the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast from 2009-2014, was part of the production team for Astronomy Cast from 2008-2015, and worked with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast in which she was project manager from 2009-2011, according to her site.

“NASA has been really good at helping me out, working with journalists, especially in the age of the Internet. They are trying to make things more accessible than ever,” Atkinson said.

She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, which allows her to share her passion of space and astronomy with children and adults through presentations and programs in addition to her book, which was published by the Boston-based Page Street Publishing Co.

“The book has full color images throughout, filled with the amazing views of space sent back to us by our robotic emissaries out exploring the solar system and beyond,” she said. “It is written for general audiences, with the hope of introducing more people to the wonderful missions that are exploring our cosmic neighborhood.”