Live From...the Stratosphere

Ben Burress, Tracker Operator

Ben is the one at the top pointing. Jim McClenahan is the seated Mission Director

Name: Ben Burress

Position: Tracker Operator

My name is Ben Burress. In flight I operate the telescope tracking system to achieve precision pointing of the telescope at selected IR objects.

I have been interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember; I have always loved looking at pictures of planets, stars, nebulae, and the like, even artists renditions of these faraway places. I always loved to imagine myself walking about on a distant, alien world, and thinking about what I might find. I read all that I could find, memorizing planet names, sizes, orbital distances; star sizes, spectral classes/colors; galaxy distances and sizes-- the whole works. As I was growing up, I was always very lazy about learning mathematics, and it is very true that strong math skills are essential to someone working in this field. I had to force myself to "get interested" in math when I reached college, but more diligence at mastering math when I was younger would have helped me out greatly. Not surprisingly, I have veered toward the more artistic side of astronomy: painting astro-pictures in high school, writing science fiction stories, etc. To be a modern astronomer, one must master not only mathematics and astronomy, but physics, electronics, computers, and physical instrumentation.

My parents always encouraged me to learn, and I can't imagine that theirs wasn't the strongest influence in directing me toward science. With that said, I recall one person who really got me going on astronomy. At age twelve I spent a few weeks at a summer camp in the Sierras, and one of the counselors, a man from Eastern Europe, directed an astronomy workshop that I attended. He really didn't teach any astronomy, but the activity involved selecting an astronomical picture from a set of old calendars, cutting it out, and framing it with a colored poster board frame. Somehow this simple workshop sparked me, and I immediately began seeking other space art and photographs, in calendars, magazines, etc. I convinced my dad--an oil paint artist by hobby--to paint me a series of pictures of the planets of our solar system, modeling them after pictures that I selected. I also started my subscription to Astronomy magazine immediately after this, and shortly thereafter managed to finagle my parents to buy me a small telescope. I was hooked, and the theme burned on all the way through college--and to this day, it seems. That counselor, Leland, didn't start my interest, but through that simple workshop he did seem to polarize it, as if firing the gun that started the race which I had been preparing for long before.

I haven't considered what I am doing now as a career, actually; more a very interesting job opportunity. My intention has always been to move on one day to the field that I am most interested in, which is writing (technical writing, fiction writing). However, my academic career was somewhat directed toward astronomy. I earned a bachelor's degree in Physics, with an Astronomy minor, with the vague intentions either to move through grad school or find a job in the field directly out of undergraduate school. The latter occurred. In fact, back when I was looking for a job, I was actually looking about more broadly than astronomy, at other scientific fields. This job came at me literally out of the blue: I was sitting on the lawn at the Sonoma State Student Union when suddenly my physics advisor appeared above me, back dropped by the blue sky, bearing news of an opening for a tracker operator on the KAO. Two months later I was flying to New Zealand for training....

I love going to New Zealand--even Hawaii is okay. I have also been fortunate enough to fly with the KAO to Punta Arenas, Chile; Brasilia, Brasil; and Easter Island (as a fuel stop). While travel, by far, is the best part of the job, there is a down side. The hours. Flying from 10:00 pm until dawn forty or fifty times per year is very tiring.

My primary responsibility is similar to a ground-based observatory's "Night Assistant", with some exceptions. On the ground I work with the Investigators to prepare in flight observing plans, obtaining from them the astronomical positions of the infrared sources they want to observe. Since most of the infrared objects the astronomers observe are invisible in the optical portion of the spectrum, I must apply the IR positions to my charts of visible object positions (mostly stars) so that, in flight, I may point the telescope at the IR positions using the offset visible stars.

And although a job working in the field of astronomy is great, the fact is, my primary interest in life is writing. I've been interested in fiction writing (mostly science fiction and fantasy) about as long as I've been actively interested in astronomy, and I can plainly say that it is the greater of my interests. I don't have anything published yet, but have made a recent submission, hoping some publisher will like the book as much as my wife does. Let me put it this way: unlike any of my other interests, I can put in a great deal of work and effort in my writing and enjoy every minute as if it were play. That says something, I think. Other hobbies include hiking, camping, and running.

| LFS Home | Give Us Feedback! | LFS Overview | Search Passport to Knowledge |Passport Home |