A little girl’s interest in outer space gave Samammish, Wash. amateur astronomer Ted Cook a golden opportunity to combine three of his favorite things: his passion for education, his love for astronomy, and his profession as a photographer and video producer.
When his niece developed an interest in space at a young age, Cook’s sister looked around for educational materials suitable for a youngster. She didn’t find much. Her plan B: “Ask Uncle Ted.”
“I thought if nothing is out there, maybe I can start to put together some stuff and put it out there for kids,” Cook recalled.
He had a bit of a head start. A history buff, Cook already had created a series of videos about Washington state history, animated episodes in which characters Herc, Velocity, and their dog Laika visited people and places from the state’s past.
“I had these characters created, and I had this whole setup, and I thought how about if we move to what I really love, which is astronomy,” Cook said.
Between 2006 and 2008 Ted Cook Productions created three astronomy DVDs, which were sold at museums and planetariums around the country. These three, along with his four state-history disks, are still available for sale on his website. Because of the challenges of producing and distributing physical disks, and the growth of YouTube and other services, he decided to put new astronomy videos online. In addition, this year Cook embarked on an ambitious plan of producing four educational pieces every month, under the banner of “Let’s Explore Astronomy.” Three of them will be videos: one about astronomy history, one about the how-to’s of the hobby, and one about what can be seen in the night sky in that particular month. A fourth piece will be a written recap of astronomy news for the previous month. He’s done about five of each so far.
This month, for example, Cook’s “Andromeda Time-Slip Theater” is taking a look at Mars: Herc and Velocity listen to part of the famed Orson Welles radio drama about a Martian invasion.
“They’re talking about Percival Lowell and the canals, and ‘The War of the Worlds,’ and then what the rovers found,” Cook said. “We look at how we moved from Percival Lowell thinking he’d found canals on Mars to finding there was once water there.” Take a look:
Cook said he aims to make the videos accessible for kids in about 5th or 6th grade, but wants adults to be able to get something out of them, too.
“I wanted to make it so that someone who is just getting into astronomy or wants to know more about it can learn without it being total mathematics,” Cook explained.
Cook hopes to keep the videos free, and is offering them to astronomy clubs around the country to use in their outreach efforts. He’s considering creating accompanying curriculum and hands-on activities that could be used in classrooms or for any youngster who wants to learn more about space. He’s already developed a game that he uses for outreach events with younger kids, in which they can learn about order of the planets and some facts about each one.
Making it a paying enterprise may take some doing. Cook has a couple of sponsors for the videos and may pursue grant funding or other ways to help offset the costs of creating the programs.
It was almost inevitable that Cook would be interested in space.
“My dad worked at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo days, so that was my playground when I was a kid,” he said. “I was inspired because I was there. I saw it every day.”
“I was hooked, I knew all of the astronauts’ names,” Cook added.
Cook actually is a rocket scientist; he earned a degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech, but later studied photography at UCLA. He’s been in that business as a shooter and a teacher for some 30 years. But he still maintains a sense of wonder and awe when talking about astronomy and space.
“It is the new frontier, it has the wow factor,” Cook said as he explained his passion for outreach and getting others interested in the hobby, or perhaps in astronomy as a career. “You’re looking at these things going WOW! That’s cool! I think that has a lot to do with it. The people respond because of the wow factor.”
There’s a lovely completed circle in this story. Cook’s niece Delenn Larsen, the little girl who launched him on this trajectory, is now 13 years old and remains interested in space and astronomy. In fact, she is the voice of the character Velocity in the videos!
In addition to educational videos, Ted Cook Productions also offers astronomy tours of New Mexico, a venture on which Cook is teamed with Dr. Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp.
You can check out Cook’s videos on YouTube or on the Ted Cook Productions website. Spread the word to the young space nuts in your universe.