The Origins of CosmoQuest

This post is part of a series on the Making of CosmoQuest.
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CosmoQuest was conceived of by Pamela Gay (assistant research professor, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) and Fraser Cain (Publisher, Universe Today) on a waitress’ order sheet in the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia on September 5, 2011. The two were watching the hotel staff reassemble the lobby after Dragon*Con, and as the plastic cups got swapped out for glass, a three-year old argument played out in a completely new way. The cause for argument? Fraser was pushing Pamela to explain why the public can’t have complete access to all the resources that professionals enjoy. This was an old argument and over the years Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer, Slate) had been sucked into it more than once too. But this time it was different: for the first time they realized that the technology – specifically Google Hangouts-on-Air – was in place to actually create seminars, classes, and all forms of interactive content in an affordable format. Pamela’s arguments that cost was too much of a barrier, and baby steps (e.g. one after another grant over years) was deemed invalid, and Fraser’s jump in and just try was the new plan.

Fraser is one of those remarkable humans who has decided he is just going to do what he can to inflict his passion for astronomy on the world around him. His does this because he can, and asks if anyone minds only later. In describing how Fraser innovated the Virtual Star Party series, Tim Farley (What’s the Harm blog) wrote, “Fraser didn’t ask permission from anyone to do this. He didn’t conduct any focus groups or conduct a study. He just saw an opportunity and took it.”

On that September day, they saw an opportunity and they took it. All they had was a name, the skeleton of a budget, and an idea that maybe they could launch by January 1, 2012. In early August, Pamela had bought (for lack of being able to find anything better) in preparation for building Moon Mappers for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team. That was a start; science was their first priority because a virtual research center without science is misnamed. In the following weeks, Moon Mappers was joined by Asteroid Mappers: Vesta, Planet Mappers: Mercury, Ice Investigators, and Planet Investigators. On October 2, 2011, Pamela announced their plans to launch CosmoQuest at the European Planetary Science Conference in Nantes, France. While there, she also had long conversations with colleagues at Zooniverse about this new, second generation community she was working on. At the time, she was promised complete support, and for several more months she split her efforts between working on Zooniverse research and deliverables and constructing CosmoQuest with her programming team at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Making sure that CosmoQuest was built on a solid community was their next priority. One of the most beneficial aspects of working in a research center is having humans to talk to, to share ideas with, and to share the fight against the data, the grants, and all the other things that too often get in the way of science. Luckily, building community is something they had experience with, and they started getting help from, and in many cases building partnerships with, people who they respected: Phil Plait, Michael Gibbs (Capital College), Emily Lakdawalla (Planetary Society), Rosa Doran (Galileo Teacher Training Program), Mike Simmons (Astronomers without Borders), and countless scientists and educators with various NASA missions. All these people, in many different ways, helped them define a charter of ideals on which to build their community, and helped them define how they would shape it with blogs, forums, social media, and Hangouts-on-Air.

Education was the next cornerstone they needed to put in place for CosmoQuest, and on November 28, 2011 Pamela found out she, Georgia Bracey (SIUE), Doris Daou (NASA Lunar Science Institute), Michael Gibbs, and David Gibson (simSchool at Pragmatic Solutions, Inc.) had been awarded a grant to essentially mug people with science. Run out of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, they called their program “Guerilla Astronomy” and it would allow them to not just do education in the digital confines of, but to also take their program into the real world. Here is how they described their program:

Imagine this scenario: You and your child are at a large event (the ideaFestival, maybe, or perhaps, Dragon*Con). You’re waiting in line, tired and bored, waiting to see a show, to get an autograph, or do something special and worth the cost of waiting. While you wait, a friendly person comes up to you with a tablet computer and asks, “Do you want to help us understand the Moon?” On the screen is a stunning picture of the lunar surface. While you stand in line, no longer bored, you and your child mark craters while exploring Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data. As the line starts to finally move, this tablet-toting EPO specialist hands you a card with information on how to continue exploring NASA data from home and invites you to visit an exhibit booth at the event. You visit the booth and learn about citizen science and all the ways you can get involved. You find out about events you can attend. Later, you visit the website and learn about teacher training workshops. Six months go by; you and your child have classified 1000s of NASA images, contributing to science. Your child’s science teacher has taken part in workshops at an NSTA conference on using citizen science in the classroom, and your child has searched for coronal mass ejections in class. Thanks to that one moment in line, your life is changed – you’ve become a family of citizen scientists. Your child is exploring and classifying original data at home and in school. You are both contributing to research.

Their grant has seen a lot of changes since it was awarded. Doris moved from working on EPO for NLSI at NASA Ames to organizing international collaborations for NLSI at NASA HQ. Brian Day (NLSI) stepped into her role. David Gibson switched jobs and stepped into more of an advisory position. Michael Gibbs brought in Sanlyn Buxner (Planetary Science Institute) as a collaborator. While the players have changed, the ideals have remained.

From science to community to education, just one final cornerstone was needed: media. While media may seem like an unnecessary aspect for a research facility, we have long respected that some of our favourite research facilities have strong media programs, and we wanted to learn from their examples. From StarDate coming from the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, to Hubblecast coming from ESA, to NASA TV, to… we could go on and on. From radio to film to print media, institution after institution has realized that the best way to get science into society and attract support for science is through media. As a starting point, CosmoQuest partner Astrosphere New Media Association set out to produce and archive the Weekly Star Party and the Weekly Space Hangout. Over time, more and more shows and partners were added, and CosmoQuest has continued to define how to communicate science through new media as it has grown its YouTube channel AstrosphereVids.

Ideas are good, but ideas are the easy part. Talking can be hard, and building collaborations is even harder, but that still isn’t the hard part. The hard part is follow through, but it’s also what transforms a few people’s good ideas into a better reality for everyone.  The construction of CosmoQuest fell to lead programmer Cory Lehan (SIUE) and html5 ninja Joe Moore (SIUE), with Pamela working as designer and software integration developer.  As the clocked flipped midnight on January 1, 2012, the three were working at their keyboards, tied together through skype, cursing the celebratory sounds coming from outside that were breaking their concentration. It had taken more than that one all-nighter, but at 9am central, January 1, 2012, was live with the main blog and forums, and a rough private beta of Moon Mappers. On January 9, Moon Mappers went into public beta, and on March 19 it went public. And… well you can read this part of the story on the blogs.

From introducing creative commons planetarium show resources through Science on the Half Sphere (led by Youngstown State University), to merging with the 365 Days of Astronomy daily podcast (led by Astrosphere New Media Association), to joining forces with the Galileo Teacher Training Program (led by NUCLIO), CosmoQuest has continued to grow, while always keeping in mind the goal of creating a place for people to learn and do science. It hasn’t always been easy. Massive cuts to NASA EPO funding and to planetary science have lead to budget cuts at CosmoQuest. We’ve had to get creative with finding funding, and we hate to admit it, but watching NASA budgets get slashed has sometimes led to an almost crippling paralysis that has made innovation difficult. Still… we’ve fought on, and we will keep on fighting.

We fight to find funding for CosmoQuest for one simple reason: as funding continues to be cut from NASA and NSF budgets, the fields of astronomy and space science are going to need volunteers to fill the roles that were once filled by students, postdocs, and other early-career “apprentice” researchers. Our future isn’t going to come from recruiting more people into astronomy and space science – that is irresponsible given the lack of job prospects. Our future is in training volunteers from all walks of life and all corners of the world to help us explore the universe from their laptops.

CosmoQuest was born out of the singular belief that anyone can contribute to science in a meaningful way if they are given the opportunity and the training. In designing CosmoQuest, Pamela and Fraser asked themselves what they would want if they could design their dream research center. From seminars to star parties to planetarium shows to cutting edge science, CosmoQuest has become their dream (in progress, and still being imagined) coming true.