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Once a physicist: Marianne Dyson

Marianne Dyson is a freelance writer and former NASA flight controller.

Why did you choose to study physics?
I became fascinated with space through reading science fiction and watching the Apollo missions. Because there were no women serving as astronauts or flight controllers at the time, I assumed those jobs were not open to me, and therefore planned to become an astronomer instead. I graduated with an honours degree in physics from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in 1977.

How did you become a flight controller?
I had finished one year of graduate work in space physics and astronomy at Houston's Rice University when NASA hired its first female astronauts. When I heard they were accepting applications for flight-control positions, too, I applied, and was hired in January 1979 as a programmer/analyst to do flight planning. I worked on the first three Space Shuttle flights in a flight-control support position, and then became a Flight Activities Officer in Mission Control for STS-4 and STS-5, as well as planning for subsequent flights.

What led you to write books for children?
My husband and I met at Rice, and when he also went to work for NASA, we became the first married couple in Mission Control. Flight controllers' schedules are at the mercy of orbital mechanics and unpredictable system failures, so without any affordable overnight day-care options, I decided to leave NASA to work part-time as a consultant and look after my children. While home with the kids, I took a correspondence course from the Children's Institute of Literature. That led to my first professional sale: a non-fiction article on getting a job with NASA. Soon after that, I sold my first poem and my first two fiction stories. I also became editor of several space newsletters and a frequent contributor to Odyssey magazine. My first book, Space Station Science, was published by Scholastic in 1999.

You have written for adults as well. Which audience do you think is more demanding?
Children, definitely! Articles and stories for children may appear simple, but they are extremely challenging to do well. Whereas adults will patiently skim over "boring" details they do not care about, children require new terms defined, new concepts explained through examples, and art or photos that grab their attention and add to the piece. Activities for children – such as an electroscope activity I did for Odyssey – must be tested with careful attention to safety and clarity in the directions. Also, articles or books for children may have strict vocabulary, word limits and conceptual constraints depending on the target readers. It is not easy to answer the question "How do stars shine?" in less than 500 two-syllable words for a child who thinks energy comes from an electrical socket and mass is another word for weight.

What is most difficult about your job?
I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I am in control of my schedule, and my commute consists of going upstairs to my desk. But the hardest thing for me is to justify spending my time doing research and writing. I am constantly wondering if I should take a consulting job or go back to aerospace and earn at least three times more than I will get from writing another book – assuming I sell it. But my husband and my friends in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators continue to support and encourage me, and the awards I have received have built my confidence that I actually have some talent for this job. If my work makes a positive difference in some young lives, even just to bring a spark to an otherwise boring day, then I will know it has been totally worth it.

What are you working on now?
I am researching a non-fiction book based on my experience as a flight controller and also writing fiction novels for children and young adults with science themes. My first novelette, about an astronaut with Alzheimer's whose memories are key to saving a historian on the Moon, is in the July/August issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine. I also continue to support the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Foundation, review children's books for their science accuracy, volunteer for the National Space Society, and discuss life, writing and martial arts with my friends on Facebook.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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