Join The Midnight Ocean as we talk with space historian and science journalist Robert Zimmerman.
I have not only been fortunate to write about some of the most exciting moments in space history, I have also had the great and grand fortune to actually go where no one has gone before.
When I was college (around 1974) I stayed up late one night to watch the movie Citizen Kane. When the movie was over I was left breathless with wonder at its clarity of vision. Hungry to see more movies like this, I scanned the television dial and stumbled upon the opening shots of the classic and equally great MGM film, Grand Hotel.
For the next twenty years I dedicated myself to making movies, hoping to create films as entertaining and as meaningful.
Instead, I ended up making a large number of very bad low budget horror films in the New York City area. Sometimes I was the key grip. Sometimes I was the production manager. In later years I wrote screenplays and helped produce several films.
Most of these movies were mindless, mediocre, and completely forgettable. By the mid-nineties I had had enough, and decided to change careers.
During these same years I was also cultivating other interests, almost all of which had to do with the human instinct for exploration. I got a master’s degree, studying early America colonial history because I was curious to learn how the most successful pioneer societies organized themselves. I followed the space program from childhood because I saw it as the future of the human race. (I also thought it was exciting and fun!)
And I got involved in cave exploration, because I simply didn’t have the math skills necessary to make it as a NASA astronaut but still had the desire to explore unknown territory. And from what I could learn, caving was the one physical activity in which it was still possible for ordinary people to go where no one has gone before.
Robert Zimmerman in a Cave
photo by Jim Gildea
Since my first wild cave trip in 1984, I have explored hundreds of caves in the United States, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and Ukraine. I have been involved in a number of projects, pushing and surveying virgin cave passages, walking in places previously untouched by human hands. I have even become a cartographer, drawing the maps of the caves I have helped discover and survey.
Once, I was even trapped inside a cave for 10 hours because of a flood.
Even as I was having all these cool adventures, in 1996 I began the slow transition from movie-maker to full time non-fiction science writer. I had decided that — instead of making dismal, violent movies that said nothing positive about human nature — I would focus on telling the exciting stories of scientists, engineers, and astronauts in their never-ending efforts to push the limits of human experience, either as researchers trying to solve the mysteries of nature or as explorers trying to push the unknown.
Today, I have no regrets, having written four inspiring histories about the first forty years of space exploration as well as more than a hundred magazine and newspaper articles about the adventure of science and astronomy. (Even more important, the career change brought me to the Washington, D.C. area, where I was fortunate to meet my wife Diane, who makes everything I do worthwhile. At the same time I also became Bob KB3IWD, gettting my ham radio technician’s license.)
In the next two decades, the human race will begin the actual exploration and settlement of the solar system. I am honored to be able to tell that story, especially because the words I am writing are describing the founding heritage of all future generations — generations who will look back at Earth and see it only as the Old World.
Robert Zimmerman can be reached zimmerman at nasw.org