You may notice that I qualify my appointments to Projects PoSSUM, PHEnOM and Poseidon with the term ‘citizen-scientist’ ahead of the terms ‘astronaut’ and ‘aquanaut.’

What exactly does that mean, anyways?

It means that I am a private citizen who wants to discover and explore.

It means that I am training as an aquanuat/astronaut outside the realms of formal academic or governmental programs (although in many cases the lines are blurred through grants, partnerships and training opportunities). To be clear, the term ‘citizen-scientist’ may refer to a non-professional scientist, but it certainly does not mean ‘untrained’ or ‘uneducated.’ There is definitely more than a little training, simulation and planning that takes place with each of Poseidon, PHenom and PoSSUM (stay tuned for a post on the “Spacecraft Egress and Sea Survival” course I recently completed). My work means that I learn the science, the missions, the contingencies and the risks involved with each project – and it is a role that I take very seriously.

So why do it? The term ‘citizen-scientist’ reminds me of explorers of days gone by. Some, like Magellan, were commissioned by their governments, but others, like Shackleton, merely possessed the skill, inclination and curiosity to seek out the unknown. The tales of these expeditions simultaneously excited and disappointed me. ‘Excited’ because I was thrilled at the prospect of navigating unchartered territory and venturing into the unknown. ‘Disappointed’ because I would often (naively) think, “too bad we live in a time where it has all been explored.”  

Except that it hasn’t. 95% of the ocean remains unexplored today. Our understanding of the mesosphere – often referred to as the ‘ignorosphere’ – is rudimentary. We are only just now beginning to understand how much we don’t know. There is so much that remains to be seen and discovered and explored – and it will take all of us, professionals and amateurs, working together, to extend our knowledge of the universe in which we live.

Citizen-scientist projects are burgeoning today. The age of exploration is now – and everyone is welcome to partake. The Citizen-Science Association and sites like Zooniverse list projects in domains from astronomy to zoology. Not having a professional designation or education in a given field is no longer an excuse to not partake. For those willing to learn and who have a healthy sense of wonder, there is an entire world out there, waiting to be discovered. I know I want to be a part of the process…what about you?

Till the next time…ad astra/seastra!


As always, you can follow through my training and adventures (and submit questions!) on this blog and on Twitter @shawnapandya.