You know those annoying newsletter emails you signed up for years ago and keep ignoring now that they won’t stop flooding your inbox? I have a bad habit of thinking I might actually read them at some point. So when I got an email titled “Our 35th Anniversary Cosmos Award Announced!” from The Planetary Society — it was just sheer coincidence that I glanced over and unwittingly clicked open.
It turned out that every single one of the people I have looked up to since my childhood were going to be at this one singular event celebrating 35 years of a society founded by Carl Sagan. That’s important, because without Sagan, I wouldn’t even be in this whole astrophysics mess.
You’re also about to read his name about a thousand times because he is intertwined in my life in a way that water is to a human being.
It was 2 A.M. So I called up the one and only person to pester in this situation that would tell me what to do: Our Editor-in-Chief and one of my closest friends for more than a decade, Amani.
Me: So listen. There’s this event. It’s astronomy-related.
Amani: Oh god, Shanzay. Here we go.
Me: NO, LISTEN. Everyone I have ever idolized will be there. Bill Nye is hosting it. Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek will be presenting the Cosmos award to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Andy Weir of ‘The Martian,’ Robert Picardo of Trek, Dava Newman and Amy Mainzer of NASA…like the list goes on.
Amani: Okay, don’t know half those people — but you have to go.
Me: Yeah, I know dude. The only problem is that it’s… in California.
Amani: So crowdfund. You got this.
Me: Hmm, true. How? Where would I even begi–The deadline to RSVP is in 5 days.
Amani: Shanzay, you’ve literally never had a better reason to channel your passion and academic career. You can do it. Make a fundraiser right now – this instant, while you’re on the phone with me.
If you don’t know Amani in person, she’s always the type to make you do exactly the right thing at the right time. Especially if that time is past midnight on the east coast.
Fast forward five days, 1,600 notes on Tumblr, hundreds of shares on Facebook, Twitter, every social media outlet imaginable and one crowdfunding campaign later – I reached my goal. I received hundreds of messages from women in STEM – South Asian women – to pursue my dreams, to be that voice, to begin my path to not only become a great science educator but even possibly go beyond the ones I already know and admire.
I dream big. I always have.
People say that when you fall in love — your heart flutters, your palms sweat, and you feel an invigorating sense of energy that propels you to do and think about every possible way to keep yourself at the level of a high unlike any other.
It sounds weird, but I literally think I’m in love with astronomy. I think I always have been for as long as I can remember. Because despite all the schoolgirl crushes I’ve had, despite all the celebrity crushes I’ve pined over — nothing has quite exhilarated me and made me feel this way like space.
When I emailed The Planetary Society about whether I’d be able to physically meet the aforementioned people in person, I actually got responses. One email started with, “Yes, we are aware of your campaign, Shanzay.”
I didn’t imagine that it’d actually ever get that big though — I just needed money as a college student with a dream to fly out and finally see my vision coming true.
I flew out to California, as one does after working their ass off for less than a week to raise funding, and visited CalTech, cruised around the outside of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and accidentally ran into the headquarters of the Planetary Society the day before the celebration.
I didn’t sleep much the night I arrived, because I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. What if nothing comes out of this? What if my efforts and people’s support is in vain? I mean it’s just an event — and I’ve been discouraged from astrophysics for a large majority of my life. What makes this different? People have such great causes and mine is fueled entirely by passion. Is it enough?
I think I was also still in denial that I was sitting in a hotel room in California at all. The support I received, the amount of work I had put in and the positive result of that was something unfamiliar to me before this. People I haven’t talked to in years donated. People I don’t know from all across the world donated. They shared their stories. They shared their struggle.
And that night I went back and read through the comments they wrote. I read through the messages I was sent. And I remembered that I’m here because I am representing South Asian women in science. Pakistani women in science. Women in Astrophysics. Muslim women in astrophysics.
These are not things I take lightly. I am determined as hell to achieve my goal under any means.
But I’m also a nerd at heart. What can you do. I get excited very, very easily.
The next morning I put on a “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” shirt and headed off to the first event — the new headquarters launch. Immediately I spotted Bill Nye, among other notable members and directors of the society.
I was one of, if not the first person in line for a tour of the new building they set up. It’s also why I had a little bit of free reign to wander around and see the nerdiest, most spaced out offices I’ve ever witnessed, probably. They have solar system pillows, for goodness sake.
Because some of the board of directors were aware that I ran this fundraiser, I got introduced to people almost immediately, which in itself was a bit surreal. They told me how incredible it was that I was able to attend — and told me they were proud of me.
I got my copy of “The Martian” signed by Andy Weir, I met Louis Friedman — one of the original co-founders of The Planetary Society along with Bruce Murray and Carl Sagan — and he signed my copy of “Cosmos,” as well as his own book “Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars.”
This event was just full of scientists and enthusiasts who, like me, became excitable children when talking about the future of space exploration.
The gala dinner was the real deal though. It was this super exclusive event before the main celebration — with all the big names present and available for a much more intimate conversation. I wore a dress for this event that I think embodied me more than any other outfit I’ve worn, caught an Uber, and headed off.
As soon as I got to the door, I saw the woman who had talked to me on the phone about tickets two weeks before.
“Oh! That’s Shanzay! She’s the Jersey girl who ran that fundraiser to get here.”
I literally didn’t even have to say my name — they had my tickets ready for me.
Okay, imagine: In high heels, you’re walking through giant doors and down the steps where all the dressed up, important and influential people are mingling, and you — like Kate Winslet — are looking down in your cosmic fluttering high-low dress as the wind seems to blow indoors spontaneously in your direction.
I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it felt like.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in his space-themed vest, was casually chatting about Star Trek vs. Star Wars when I arrived. I thought, ah yes: a pertinent topic. He prefers Star Trek, by the way. I mean, I admire him for a reason.
When I approached him, I told him the spiel.
Me: I’m a Rutgers student studying Astrophysics — you’re such an inspiration to me, I’m hoping one day to get a Ph.D. and–
Dr. Tyson: No, no, no. You can’t ‘hope’ for a Ph.D. You can’t pray or hope for these things. You just…make it happen. You do it. And talking to you, you will make it happen. You will do it.
I was struck. I mean sometimes I like to pray. Dua for midterm week is kind of a default at this point.
He added, “Of course — I’m paraphrasing Yoda there in my longer, much more wordy version of the ‘Do or do not do; there is no try’ speech.”
Dr. Tyson is someone I watched on the old science channel documentaries way before there was a StarTalk radio, before he was on the Jon Stewart show arguing the earth spinning the wrong way in the opening, before the “we got a badass over here” meme.
He was just an astrophysicist, who in a montage of scientists in documentaries, talked in an entertaining and insightful way about space.
He’s also where he is because of Carl Sagan.
Sagan was a prominent astronomer and one of the pioneering space educators who, with his distinct speaking style and ability to bridge the gap between science jargon and the public knowledge, created a book and television series called “Cosmos,” among many others.
This show aired in the 80s, but continues to be one of the most influential means of bringing astronomy to the public and gauging interest and enthusiasm about space exploration.
It’s also a book I discovered in my library in elementary school that is the reason I am doing what I am today.
I, too, am where I am because of Carl Sagan…and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Do you see where I’m going with this?
On the opposite side of the room was Bill Nye. I had seen him that morning speaking on the podium, I had seen him wandering around the headquarters with cameras in his face, but now, there he was — right there. In person.
Bill Nye the Science Guy.
I literally was unable to hide my excitement. Bill’s really good at selfies, by the way. He had to guide me through the perfect angle, the lighting, and where to look with what expression. The man knows his front camera angles, do not ever doubt him on that.
The second selfie I got was on his request at the after party I ended up somehow getting invited to.
I saw Nichelle Nichols — who played Uhura on the original Star Trek — sitting gracefully two tables down from mine. I met astronomers who had worked with Carl Sagan.
The board members also first presented the Cosmos award to Dr. Tyson at that gala before the main event.
We headed over right afterwards to the actual celebration for 35 years of the Planetary Society’s existence. It was hosted by Bill Nye, of course. It was equal parts celebratory and humorous.
There were dances and comedians and banter between Nye and Tyson, as well as interaction from the main people in charge of the Planetary Society.
The main thing about the society is its vision though — Carl Sagan’s vision. His dream was to send a LightSail — a small spacecraft run on solar energy — into the Earth’s atmosphere. And this year, the Planetary Society launched a test flight of this LightSail through the Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1.2 million.
Do you understand why what this society is doing is an incredibly huge deal? They are looking towards the future. I want to be a part of that future.
By the after party, I had met a lot of the staff as well as the board of directors, and they each had interestingly unique advice for me. One of them introduced me to Bill by saying, “You’ve gotta meet this girl. She’s going to take your job in five years.”
He responded with, “Oh, I’m sure. Take it now — I can give it to you tomorrow.”
We talked, we took more selfies and he seems like the actual greatest boss around the office. I should mention, he’s the CEO of the society.
So my goal is simple: Slowly take over this world and then divert the attention to prepare to colonize other ones.
But I do want to carry on that mission of looking to the stars. I want to be involved in space education not only for a future that’s sustainable but one that takes our race to great depths within our insignificant place in the universe.
And because, as Amani wrote in her caption as she shared my fundraiser; if I can satisfy my dreams, I will finally stop annoying her with my endless rants on space and she can get a break.
Or so she thinks.