Exploring Europa

Courtesy of NASA 

When I was 9 years old, I was always dreaming. Often I would stay inside at school recess with a buddy, and we would read the astronomy books from the little shelf at the side of the classroom. On one occasion, we wrote to Ronald Reagan (who we thought of for some reason, even though he wasn’t our president) and asked him to grant us permission to be the first boys in space. Unfortunately, we never heard back. But I was undeterred.

I joined the local astronomy club after my parents bought me a little telescope for Christmas one year. I lived in a town where there were a lot of older people. I couldn’t quite understand what they were talking about in astronomy club (which was for adults, not children) so I often felt a bit lost, but never enough to give up. I had a real love for the stars—and I still do.

One evening my dad took me to see an astronomer named Sir Patrick Moore, who had come to speak in our small town on the south coast of England. Moore looked sort of like Winston Churchill, and was very famous from his TV show, “The Sky at Night.” He had this very traditional English accent and he wore a little monocle that was almost cartoonish given his size (quite large).

I was very a confident little boy, so I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I remember sitting there in the second or third row, with my dad to my right. I was extremely excited. When Sir Patrick Moore got to the end and asked if there were any questions, and I put my hand up straightaway. My dad always tells me, now, that he was nervous. (He’s not a public speaker and gets very shy.) Sir Patrick Moore called on me with great seriousness, and I said, “Sir, I have a question! First, I want to be an astronomer when I grow up. Can you give me some advice? And second,”—of course I asked two questions, not just one; I was always an opportunist—“I want to learn about your research on Planet X.”

Planet X was the tenth planet said to go around the sun, and I knew that Sir Patrick Moore was doing research on it. It was said to be unusual because it rotates from top to bottom rather than side to side. At the time it seemed very mysterious. He looked at me and said, “See me afterwards,” and of course I did. I remember that he was very stern. He didn’t smile so much, but he took down my address.

After some weeks went by, I received a postcard in the mail. It was from Sir Patrick Moore, who had written to me from Australia. From my vantage in Britain, that seemed impossibly far away, and the idea that he had taken time to write me—a 9-year-old—a postcard was very encouraging. “Dear Kirandeep,” it began. (Kirandeep is my full name.) “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. I’m currently observing one of Jupiter’s moons from the southern hemisphere. But I will get back to you when I return to Britain.” Something like that. A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail containing his thesis, a dossier, on Planet X. Sir Patrick Moore had kept his word. Here was everything I needed to know about Planet X.

I can’t say I read the paper, which was very technical (and obviously for adults), in its entirety. But it was still amazing. I always felt bad that I never wrote back to thank him, and I should have. I felt like Sir Patrick Moore believed in me, and the feeling stayed with me for many years.

I enjoy watching the sky at night to this day, and I still like learning about astronomy. Some of my interests have faded—believe it or not, I gave up on being an astronomer—but when I look up at the sky, my imagination wanders. I can still recite the names of the planets, almost like a poem: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. (Yes, Pluto.) To this day, I wonder about the size of the universe and I imagine what the planets may look like or feel like, or if there’s any life in outer space.

Sir Patrick Moore died a few years ago. And it wasn’t until then that I started to learn about his personal life. He lived in a village for most of his life and always typed on an old cast iron type writer. He wrote all his books (and he wrote many, many books) on it. He never married, but he did fall in love during the war. Something happened with his partner, or maybe she died, and he never married again. He died a bachelor. But he was this incredible person who dedicated his life to science and made astronomy and space exploration accessible and fascinating and interesting. At some point he became a presenter for a children’s TV program. And apparently, he was a magical xylophonist, of all things. He had a lot of charisma. Earlier this year, ISC won an award for our new digital game project. When we were first thinking about naming the project, the idea of Europa came to mind. Coincidentally, I had recently talked to a colleague at NASA. (ISC and NASA have a longstanding relationship that was established under my predecessor, Jimmy Neil Smith.) She told me about Europa, which is one of Jupiter’s moons. If we were to explore the outer universe, which consists of uncharted territories, we would potentially build a human base on Europa because it’s said to hold an ocean that could sustain human life.

Europa (the game) is futuristic, but it’s also about tradition and collecting stories—showing young people how to harness the narratives that shape us so they can tell the story of humanity in the future. The idea is that once we overcome the world’s greatest challenges—global warming, war, etc.—and find a way to save humanity, that will become the greatest story the world has ever known. It could be the starting point for the story of our planet if we were to ever colonize space.

It’s interesting to me that, though I never became an astronomer, I still get to work in my own way with outer space. I’ll never go to the moon, of course, but in a sense, I’m exploring it in my own way. I still get to work with scientists. And now I’m working on one of Jupiter’s moons, an idea that was first planted by that postcard from Sir Patrick Moore, who was observing it from the far reaches of Australia. That’s something I always try to keep in mind in our work with kids at ISC: you never know who you’re inspiring, even in an indirect way. I can’t wait to see what we do with the Europa project, the pilot of which is set to launch later this year. Here’s to the future.

Check out our project trailer here

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