Andrew Thomas talks to amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson about his lifelong interest in the night sky and his heartfelt desire to see humans walking on Mars
Stuart Atkinson can remember the exact moment when his passionate interest in space and the night sky began.
When I was at junior school the Apollo missions were happening, he told me.
"In those days schools just had one television, which was kept in a big cupboard and was wheeled out for big events.
I was sitting on the floor and watching grainy black and white footage on TV of people bouncing around on the Moon and the pilot light whooshed and that started my interest in space.
Stuart, 55, grew up in Cockermouth and fondly remembers his supportive headmaster at his first school.
I would always be hiding in the library at break times, reading books about space, rather than being outside playing football, and he would never throw me out!
He described how he devoured science books and how his interest in space got serious in 1981 when the first Space Shuttle mission took off. He avidly followed subsequent missions and the building of the International Space Station.
He has always been interested in planets but his favourite is Mars.
I am known as a frustrated Martian and my Twitter handle is @mars_stu. When I was at Cockermouth Grammar School in around 1982 or 83 I found a National Geographic magazine from 1977 that had amazing photographs of Vikings mission to Mars. My obsession with Mars started there.
He recalls how reading Kim Stanley Robinsons epic novel Red Mars had a huge impact on him.
It is full of geology and science and it brought the Mars in my head to life, said Stuart.
He wrote to the author many times as a fan and received replies. Indeed, Stuart is referenced in the credits for the third book in the trilogy, Blue Mars.
Stuart bought a tiny container of Martian dust taken from meteorites.
I sent it to Kim Stanley Robinson and he ate it! Theres a poem in one of his follow-up books, The Martians, where he talks about taking a bit of dust and rolling it on his tongue that is the dust I sent him!
For many years he assiduously followed the progress of two American Rovers as they roamed about exploring the surface of Mars.
They put up raw images every few hours every day, said Stuart. I walked beside the rovers for years, seeing what they saw. It became a big part of my life.
He set up as astronomical society in Cockermouth and when he moved to Kendal 15 years ago, he became the secretary of the towns Eddington Astronomical Society, a position he held for about 12 years.
What does he see as the value of such societies? Astronomy can be a very lonely hobby. You tend to spend a lot of time standing on your own in the dark. Its good to be part of a group. You can swap information and share experiences.
Living in the wettest county in one of the wettest countries in Europe it is easy to miss things and you can be tempted to give up and take up another hobby. Being part of a group helps to keep you going.
He said anyone interested in learning more about astronomy should Google Eddington Astronomical Society.
Stuart is well known as a media expert on the night sky, for his Skywatch column in The Westmorland Gazette and through his outreach and education activities.
I give talks to Womens Institutes, Soroptimists, Lions, Round Tables, U3As and schools. My talks are aimed at beginners level.
"I talk about what you can see on the next clear night and about our place in the Solar System.
He has been the consultant for a number of space books and has written ten of his own, including his first, Journey Into Space, about 30 years ago, the forward for which was written by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.
His latest book is A Cats Guide To The Night Sky, a reference book as told by a cat with lovely illustrations. It has been translated into 21 languages.
The idea for the book came when he was on a Kielder Star Camp with his girlfriend. The couple always take their cat and four years ago he was standing outside at night holding their cat, Peggy.
There was a clear night sky and Peggy was looking around at all the stars, said Stuart.
I had an idea, scribbled it down and a publisher liked it. The book teaches children about the night sky.
His astronomy highlights include seeing Halleys Comet in 1986, the twin-tailed Hale-Bopp comet in 1997 and the Northern Lights at Cockermouth in 2001. The whole sky was red with billowing curtains, said Stuart.
He believes we will one day set foot on Mars. If we decided to go today, we could probably get there in five years. It wont be NASA, though, as that relies on Government funding. It would be a private mission, maybe by Elon Musk.
When I watched Tomorrows World many years ago Maggie Philbin said we would see someone on Mars by the mid-1980s. We are way behind schedule.
I think we are looking at the first people on Mars by 2030 or 2031, if not sooner. I have always wanted to see people on Mars and I dont want to be too old to appreciate it when it happens!
For more information about Stuart Atkinson visit https://stuartatkinson.wordpress.com/
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