Mike Ryan

Mike Ryan is Seeing Stars

By Alina Larson

Staff Writer, Oakland Tribune

Feb 10, 2003

With American flags flapping grimly at half-mast to honor Columbia's dead, the nation is debating whether sending humans into space is necessary. Mike Ryan, president of the San Mateo County Astronomical Society, says yes.

But he's been starry-eyed since he was 5. It was 1954, and Ryan's mother took him to San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium. Soon he was peering at the stars from home through a little plastic telescope he'd dug out of a Cracker Jacks box.

At 13, Ryan joined the San Mateo County Astronomical Society, feeling at home although he was the youngest member. Forty years later he is president. He's seen many changes in the organization, the nation's space program and the public's interest in space. But his passion for the great beyond has remained as fixed as, well, the stars.

``I've always loved knowing how things work,'' says Ryan. ``I've always been curious about things that have no explanation, like `Where does the universe come from?' I've always wanted to know what's behind the next door.''

Ryan has spent his life in the Bay Area, living in San Francisco's Presidio as a toddler and then in San Mateo, Foster City and now Belmont. After a childhood of moon-gazing, Ryan landed a job at age 20 at the place where he first fell in love with the stars, Morrison Planetarium. It was 1969 and therefore the perfect time to be there - he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

``It was announced over loudspeakers that they'd landed,'' says Ryan. ``So everybody clustered around monitors to watch this fuzzy black and white image. I remember people saying `This is the most significant moment since the first creature climbed out of the slime.' It was an astonishing time.''

After earning masters' degrees in physical science and business, Ryan worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, now known as Lockheed Martin.

There he operated orbiting satellites, developed proposals for the budding space station, Freedom, and analyzed ballistic missile defense for the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as SDI and Star Wars.

Free time he dedicated to the astronomical society and his own personal star study. ``When dealing with personal matters, issues close to home, it was relaxing to think about things greater than myself, I guess like others would think about God and religion,'' says Ryan. ``It's been an ego boost, that I know a lot about something that not many people seem well versed in.''

The San Mateo County Astronomical Society was started in 1960, three years before Ryan joined, by four high school boys, who, as Ryan puts it, were more interested in rules than astronomy.

``They had this set of protocol and jargon,'' says Ryan. ``It was a 5 cent fine if you stood up or spoke out of turn.''

The society first met at the College of San Mateo, then at Bowditch Middle School in Redwood City. Since September 2001 the group is back at the College of San Mateo's planetarium, and with the public interest steadily increasing since their move back, Ryan couldn't be happier. ``I've always enjoyed teaching people, not that I've seen much profit out of it,'' he laughs. ``I've been with it so long it's like part of my family.''

In addition to astronomical society meetings, which feature either a speaker or a planetarium show, they also offer star parties where the public can look at the stars through members' telescopes. Ryan says guest speakers and society members give presentations easy for anyone to understand.

With his space obsession it's not surprising that Ryan has clear opinions about Columbia's explosion and what it will mean to the space program. He feels certain, for example, that the program will continue because the space station, built at considerable expense, must be maintained.

Ryan does predict changes in the future of space travel.

``I think that the government and industry will look to replace the shuttle system. Not because they are bad, or more accidents will happen, but because the shuttles are old and will get older. Given the fact that it takes 15 years to design a new system and to test it and everything, they need to start soon.''

Asked if he feels humans really need to do experiments in space, Ryan asks for a moment to collect his thoughts.

``In terms of clearly definable benefits, bang-for-your-buck, humans do not need to be sent to space. In terms of what we spend on safety, a system using robotics would be simpler,'' he says.

But he'd hate to see it happen. ``Part of what space flight does is to inspire and to educate. If your goal is to just provide economic benefit and keep everyone eating than fine. But if your goal is to lead mankind on a march into the future and inspire the next generation to want to continue exploring then you need a spectacular demonstration to do that. You need to have heroes, you need to have an example of human accomplishment. That's what the space program accomplishes. You are showing the world what we can do with a concerted effort. We dare and we strive, and that's what makes the United States so great.''

- The San Mateo County Astronomical Society meets the first Friday of the month at 7 p.m. SkyNite is offered the second Friday of each month, along with a planetarium show. Meetings are free at the College of San Mateo Planetarium, Building 13, 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo.

The society also offers a monthly Star Party, a session observing the sky with telescopes, at Crestview Park in San Carlos. Visit http://home.att.net/-bob-black/smas.htm or call (650) 574-6256.

- For information about the East Bay Astronomical Society visit www.eastbayastro.org or call the Chabot Space and Science Center at (510) 524-2146.

- For contact information about astronomical societies throughout Northern California visit www.aanc-astronomy.org

You can e-mail Alina Larson at alarson@angnewspapers.com or call (650) 348-4333.

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