Space, The Final Frontier

A guest essay by space & science journalist, Swapna Krishna

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Welcome back.

We couldn’t be more excited about today’s guest essay.

This week, science journalist and friend of the pod, Swapna Krishna is here to talk about space and why covering it is important — maybe now more than ever.

Whatever your opinions are about space, if you’ve ever looked up at the night sky in awe and wonder, this essay is for you.

Enjoy.

I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

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Space Is For Everybody

By Swapna Krishna

Swapna is a space and science journalist. You may have seen her work at outlets such as Fast Company, Wired, Engadget, The Verge, and more. She’s the force behind Ad Astra, your source for spaceflight and space science news.

Sometimes, when I see a photograph of the cosmos, I sit back, stare, and say quietly to myself, “What the fuck?” 

Space has always inspired this absolute wonder in me; I grew up a die-hard Star Trek fan because I so badly wanted to know what was out there in the stars.

For some, the idea of an ever-expanding universe and our minuscule presence can lead to a serious feeling of overwhelm. 

I absolutely understand that.

In every photo of the grandeur of space, there’s an existential crisis waiting to happen. The nothingness, the emptiness; it sometimes feels all-consuming.

Pillars of Creation (MIRI Image)

Except the thing about space is that there’s always something there to keep you company. 

Even in the corners of the sky where it’s just blankness and darkness, there’s so much there just beyond what we can see. Point a telescope at an empty part of the sky where it looks like there’s nothing, and what do you get?

It turns out, you get a whole lot. 

That’s exactly what deep-field images are. Scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at what they thought was an empty patch of sky, only to find that space is positively littered with galaxies. We’re surrounded, and we’re anything but alone in this universe.

Deep Field (NASA James Web Space Telescope)

Space makes me feel humbled.

Lucky, even, to be a part of this gorgeous, vibrant place we call our universe. I can’t believe we’re here. As someone who isn’t religious, looking at a picture of the cosmos is the closest thing to a religious experience I will likely ever have.

But it’s not enough for me to just look at a photo, say, “That’s cool,” and move on with my life.

I want to know what I’m looking at, why I’m looking at it, what science we can find in this image, how it was taken, what filters were used (and what information that tells us), what tools were used to process it — I want to understand everything I can about it. 

And then I want to share that with anyone who will listen.

Journalism often prides itself on dispassionate neutrality, but I’ve never been comfortable with the title “journalist.” Partly because I don’t have a formal journalism background (so of course, there’s some imposter syndrome there), but partly because — I’m anything but dispassionate. That will never be me. 

Passion is why I do what I do.

A few months ago, I was laid off from yet another journalism job — Space Editor, this time. It’s the refrain I’ve heard countless times: You’re amazing, we just were told to cut our budgets, but if we get the money back you’ll be the first call! (Spoiler alert: They never get their budgets back. Journalism is in a scary place right now.)

It wasn’t a dire situation: I’m in a financially stable position and I have plenty of other great freelance clients. It’s never fun to be let go, but I’m still lucky that it isn’t a crisis when these things happen, and they happen all the time in this market.

But I was faced with the hard decision of what to do next. While I enjoy the flexibility of freelancing, it’s always been hard and has gotten harder in the past few years. I was tired of being hired for and pouring myself into projects that other people owned. 

So I decided to strike out on my own.

Over the course of 2023 and 2024, I’ve been quietly building Ad Astra, a cross-platform source for space news, balancing spaceflight with space science. 

Hopefully, people who live and breathe space find Ad Astra interesting, but my primary audience is people who don’t know much about space.

The people who notice the gorgeous space photos, take a second to appreciate them, and then move on. The people who are absolutely jaded about the billionaires with their pet space companies, but who want to find something to believe in, to be inspired by the universe around us.

Ad Astra officially launched on January 1, 2024, as a newsletter, YouTube channel, and vertical video across my personal social accounts. 

Parts of it have been great — I’ve been enjoying steady growth since I started in earnest. Much of it has been hard — even steady growth is still modest, and I’m still figuring out the whole money thing.

There’s also the issue of who owns the space companies that I cover every day. I love a rocket launch as much as anyone (let’s be honest, probably more than most people) but it can be hard to reconcile that visceral dislike of some of the major players in the industry with my excitement for space. 

It was enough to almost make me not do this, to choose a different path for myself, but then I reasoned — if not me, then who? 

I could do something else, for sure – in the last few years, I’ve covered technology, Star Trek, video games, pop culture – but it’s space that makes my heart beat fast.

And as a woman of color with extensive experience covering space (and frankly, there aren’t many of us among the pool of space reporters), I think my voice might be important. As someone who has loved space my whole life – both space science and spaceflight (if you get me started talking about Apollo, I’ll probably never stop) – I have a unique perspective.

Many people love space, few of us are lucky enough to be paid to cover it. 

But the experience of reading my astronaut hero’s memoir, and seeing his argument for why the early space program didn’t need to make room for people of color, right there in black and white in front of me, was a transformative experience.

It’s something I carry with me in everything I do. It could have been enough to turn me off of space forever, but I choose every day to confront it instead. I accept that’s the way it was, but it’s not how it should be. And I want to work as hard as I can to change it from the inside, whether the issue is racism or blind billionaire worship.

That visceral experience is not something that most people covering space have any experience with, and while inclusivity is important to many space reporters, it’s not one of their fundamental driving forces. They don’t know what it’s like to be automatically dismissed because of their skin color. 

My hope is that I can bring the excitement that space is for everyone, but also, the fact that there are some hard truths we need to face.

I also hope that I can reach people who are tired of the space billionaires, for whom space has become yet another thing to be contemptuous of. 

People ask me all the time if my content is for kids, and it’s not.

Kids certainly can enjoy it, but why should the wondrous stuff be limited to them? We adults need some wonder in our lives too.

I want everyone, at any and every level of scientific literacy, to understand why that photo of young stars might transform our understanding of astrophysics, why a mission to a metal asteroid might change our conception of where we came from, what’s going to happen when we put humans on the moon again — and why I think it’s important that we go. 

Space has become a thing that’s easy to be cynical about. 

I want to change that, if I can. If you want to join me on this journey, you’re more than welcome.

There’s room for everyone.

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  • Donate to the National Center For Science Education to ensure students get an accurate science education so they can become the next generation of astronauts, rocket scientists, and space reporters!

  • Volunteer to partner with Women in STEM to support women and encourage girls to pursue STEM careers.

  • Get educated about NASA’s missions, people, and programs by checking out NASA Social.

  • Be heard about increasing diversity in STEM by urging your representatives to support the STEM RESTART Act.

  • 🌎️ Invest using Carbon Equity to support climate tech companies working on decarbonization (like methane-detecting satellites maybe?).

🌎️ = Global Action Step


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