To most people, the thought of traveling to outer space for a vacation seems absurd. But to Andrew Fraknoi, the chair of Foothill College's astronomy department, recreational space travel is a real possibility, albeit far off. For now, he says it's a fun thing to consider. "I don't think it's going to happen next year," Fraknoi conceded, "but I think in the future we'll have tourism to Mars just like we have tourism right now to Katmandu."
You might say Fraknoi is an astronomer of astronomical proportions: Aside from being named 2007 California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, he served for fourteen years as executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; founded Project ASTRO, a nationwide training program for aspiring astronomers; and was the primary author of what is now one of the leading college textbooks on the subject. Trying to list his every achievement would be something like attempting to inventory all the stars in the galaxy.
But for all of his successes, the astronomer couldn't be more down to earth. Maybe it's the teacher in him that allows Fraknoi to explain the complex wonders of outer space to the unschooled in a way that's both comprehensible and free of pretension. It's the earnest drive to inspire learning that led him to present a recent college science class with the question: "Where would Bill Gates' great-granddaughter go on her honeymoon?" He then asked his students to design a hypothetical tourist brochure featuring places within the solar system that someone in the distant future might travel to, if money were no object.
"It was an idea I had to help my students review for a final," Fraknoi explained; a way to spur interest in the various landmarks that dot distant moons and planets. He poses the question again to a public audience at the Lawrence Hall of Science (1 Centennial Drive, Berkeley) on Wednesday, June 29, in his lecture "The Top Tourist Sites in the Solar System," during which he highlights a handful of otherworldly destinations in a straightforward science talk bolstered by close-up images taken by robot probes on various space missions. "The images are beautiful," Fraknoi said. "Twenty years ago we didn't have some of these pictures — and now we have these fantastic, close-up, wonderful pictures."
Some of the photos Fraknoi shares include Venus' 4,000-mile-long lava river, which he said at 900 degrees Fahrenheit is hotter than the self-cleaning cycle of a home oven. Put frankly, "your first deep breath on Venus would be your last," he said. In other words, it's not the ideal tourist destination. Fraknoi said that one of his favorite space landmarks — another that he touches upon in his lecture — is Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter on which warm water flows underneath the satellite's frosty surface, a potential home to currently undiscovered life forms. "Just like New England in the winter," he said, just a touch more difficult to visit. 1 p.m., $6-$12. 510-642-5134 or LawrenceHallofScience.org