Credit: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
The opening of many editorials and conversations about space careers seem to usually begin with either a long-term admiration for space or through wanting to be an astronaut from an early age. Cliché answers to be sure, but apt ones, nonetheless. The childhood curiosity of what lays beyond the Earth and the desire to explore it, I can easily say, is intercultural and rather common ground among many in the space industry. It is a curiosity which has driven and still drives a broad swath of space endeavours today. Like so many others, I too held an interest as a child in what space was and what space could be, and to this day I have continuously been fascinated by the achievements and strides taken in the space industry. However, I never once considered that I would find myself pursuing a space career let alone studying at an internationally known and internationally respected space university. My name is Evan Cook and this is my space journey.
I was first introduced to space whilst growing up in South Florida in the United States. While I do owe a portion of my enthusiasm to a fondness for both the original series of Star Trek and the original Star Wars trilogy, it was my close proximity to the Kennedy Space Center which proved instrumental to furthering my interests in space. I was lucky enough to live only a few hours away, and I must have visited more times than I could count. I can vividly recall the many museum and gallery tours taken with my family, the interactive programs on school field trips, and even a campout beneath the Saturn V rocket after a live talk with Buzz Aldrin as part of a Scouting event. The world that existed there was vastly different to ordinary life. It made one feel simultaneously monumental and small posing more questions than it could offer answers. Yet, it instilled in me a fascination of space made clear by the public popularity and my own excitement of NASA’s Space Shuttle missions at that time. It was a fascination that made me want to become a pilot, to join the Air Force and to eventually become an astronaut.
But what I didn’t know then, is that those aspirations and those dreams would remain nothing more than simple fascination. When I was only four, doctors discovered a congenital cholesteatoma in my ear – an aggressive tumor from birth – which had disrupted elements of my hearing and posed potential risks to the equilibrium of my vestibular system. A series of surgeries over the following years put a limit on my capability of withstanding extreme pressures such as those experienced by pilots and astronauts. Space and even the Air Force – things I had envisioned as a career – were no longer an option. And in 2011, when NASA announced the discontinuation of the Space Shuttle Program, space became nothing more than a memory; something I would experience only fleetingly in my dreams at night.
With the draw of space receding as I grew, I pooled my efforts into other areas of interest developing talents in filmmaking, theatre, writing and other visual and communicative arts. From the limitations placed on me from my surgeries, I found comfort in creative work that allowed me to imagine myself as whomever I wanted to be and in whichever capacity I wished. Adrift in a sea of opportunities, I pursued theatre and writing in my undergraduate earning a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts from the University of South Carolina – Aiken in 2017. From there, I focused more on the creative expansion that writing had to offer and I earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey in 2020. By this point, I had moved from the United States to the UK and had immersed myself entirely into my art: writing stage plays and short stories, directing short films and theatre productions. Space had disappeared from my consciousness as anything more than the occasional evening of stargazing. But in the summer of 2019, whilst I was well into pursuing a career in writing and publishing, space found me again without my effort or knowledge.
A close friend of mine had recently finished his postgraduate studies in psychology at Surrey and had cofounded UK Analogue Mission (UKAM), a startup with the aim of developing the first UK-based space analogue. Sitting in a café one afternoon and talking about our mutual interests in theatre and writing, he asked if I had ever considered writing articles or content about space. I was quick to dismiss his question at first, but I shortly realized something I never had before: that the space interests I had left in my childhood suddenly had relevance again, albeit in a different light, if paired with my skills in writing. By October of that year I had signed on with UKAM as a content writer for their website and blog penning articles about current events in space and specific analogue-based content. My two interests – space and the arts – I realized could serve one another, but in a context I had not considered before. Growing up, I had been told to be proficient in STEM sciences if I wanted to be successful in a space career. But for the first time, I noticed a different side to the space industry; a multidisciplinary side.
This newfound passion for space writing helped reinvigorate my interests in space, but I again felt torn between a creative career and a space career. By the end of 2019, I was lost on where I wanted to go and what precisely I wanted to do. Publishing still seemed the most promising route given my years of study and proficiency in writing and editing. But at the turn of the New Year, the unthinkable happened and the coronavirus pandemic changed almost everything that was deemed “normal life”. A career in writing, on a good day, can be a difficult path to pursue. But as countries entered varying degrees of lockdowns across the world, the arts and publishing industries seemed to dry up around me. My dreams of a space career fumbled when I was young, and now my dreams of a writing or publishing career seemed to evaporate overnight. But again, through a marriage of both industries, the same friend who introduced me to UKAM introduced me to a place that I didn’t know at the time would change my entire outlook on the future.
Per his recommendation, I applied to the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France in the summer of 2020. As an alumnus of the ISU 2018 summer program, he informed me that ISU upheld a unique approach to space fostering intercultural, international and interdisciplinary connections and practices. Again, remembering what I had been told about space and STEM sciences, I admit I was speculative about the university and its year-long master’s program as I could not see how a writer would fit into the space industry beyond what I already was doing, i.e. freelance work. Yet, to my surprise, I was fortunate to be accepted to the program, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Space had found me yet again, and again without premeditated effort or knowledge on my part.
It seems foolhardy to say now, but for the first months in the program at ISU I felt like an imposter in my own skin. Here I was – a writer – sitting in a room full of students all from different cultures and backgrounds from engineering and life sciences to business management and economics feeling like the only strength I brought to the table was the ability to write in complete sentences. But my preconceived notions, as they often are, were wrong and my continuing experience at ISU has redefined not only my person and my interests, but my outlook on the space industry itself. Through fostering an intercultural and international perspective, ISU allowed me to develop working connections with people from different cultures and countries all with varying interests and pursuits in space. Through an interdisciplinary focus, I not only expanded my own knowledge base of space sciences and applications but discovered exactly how my strengths and skills in humanities and communications can fit into an industry I always viewed as exclusively scientific.
ISU Central Campus, Strasbourg. Credit: International Space University
My acceptance into ISU was the turning point I didn’t know I was seeking in my long and twisted relationship with space. Since beginning the program, I feel like I have been living a completely different life, one I feel I had searched for in so many improper places. ISU has laid the groundwork of a balance between my creative pursuits and my interests in space, simultaneously providing me inspiration and fulfillment in both and redefining my career interests into space journalism and communications outreach. But most importantly, ISU has taught me a valuable lesson that I wish I had learned at a younger age: that space is more than rockets and satellites, more than science and engineering. It is more than what you know and more than a proficiency with equations or numbers. It is about community; about bringing together humanity through intercultural and interdisciplinary connections that supersede the conventions of polarization and differentiation that are so prominent in the world today. While space faring nations are indeed in competition and while some international relations can be put to the test over space-related endeavours, space on the whole seeks to bring humanity together as a collective “us” – one species out to explore what makes us human, whether here on the ground or out amongst the stars.
Had I been asked even one year ago if I would be pursuing space, I would probably have laughed and chased the fond memories of my time in Florida that night in bed. But now, I feel as though I have found a calling in the space industry – a place that I can continuously expand my knowledge and make use of my skills for actual and purposeful change. While my interests in space have evolved since my younger years – the Air Force and astronautical pursuits traded for education outreach and climate observation – I for the first time that I can remember feel like I’ve found the place where I belong; a small niche in the multicultural and multi-disciplinary folds of space. I cannot say where precisely my journey will continue from here, and not knowing is honestly part of the appeal. But I do know my path in space is unique, perhaps even a little unorthodox, and I would not change one aspect of it not under any circumstances.
– Evan Cook
About the Author:
Evan has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Surrey and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of South Carolina – Aiken. He is currently studying at the International Space University pursuing a career in space journalism and communications outreach. He is an award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker.