Kris Sigsbee

University of Iowa
 

I have been interested in space exploration since I was 2 years old, when my family went on vacation in Florida. We visited the Kennedy Space Center and saw the Saturn V rocket that would launch Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, into space. My mother says that when we returned home from our trip, I was glued to the television for all of the news coverage of the launch and moon landing. Shortly after the astronauts returned from space, my father had to go on a business trip to California. Since I liked rockets so much, my mother thought I would like to watch the airplanes take off and land at the airport. Much to the embarrassment of my parents, I did not understand the difference between a rocket and an airplane. After all, I was only 2 years old. When I saw the airplane my father would be taking to California, I immediately grabbed onto his leg and started screaming, "Daddy, Daddy, don't go to the moon!" I stood in front of the window and cried after my father boarded the plane, until the pilot saw me and had my father wave to me from the cockpit. Now that I am much older and wiser, I would be thrilled if anyone in my family had the opportunity to be an astronaut.

I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, a small town located on the tip of Lake Superior. When I was in high school, I took every mathematics and science course that I could. My friends called me "Sputnik" after the first satellite launched into space (and a terrible 80s punk rock band named Sigue Sigue Sputnik). At the end of my junior year in high school, I won a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama by correctly answering trivia questions about space exploration. My parents gave me a telescope for Christmas, and I used it to observe the planets every chance I could get.

One cold, clear night when I was in high school, I brought my telescope outside to do a little stargazing. I set it up in our driveway and started searching the skies. Suddenly, an odd, glowing green blur filled my telescope's field of view, but I could still see the stars. Thinking that the telescope lens had become fogged up, I wiped it off and looked again. That fuzzy green light was still there. I turned away from the telescope and looked up towards the sky. I saw fluttering green ribbons of light stretching across the entire sky. Although I had never seen anything like it before, I immediately realized that the eerie green glow was the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The northern lights are normally only visible far north in Alaska and Canada, and seldom extend as far south as Minnesota. I later learned that I could see the northern lights in Minnesota because the sun was close to solar maximum, when powerful geomagnetic storms are likely to occur.

Since then, I have been fascinated by the northern lights. While I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, the physics department hired a new faculty member who was a space physicist involved with the Fast Auroral Snapshot (FAST) satellite. Remembering the first time I saw the northern lights, I jumped at the chance to work with her on this project and spend time in Fairbanks, Alaska observing the northern lights and analyzing FAST data in real-time. After finishing my Ph.D. in space physics in the spring of 2000, I worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for two years. I am now continuing my research at the University of Iowa, home of famous space physicist James Van Allen.

Being a space physicist is a lot of hard work, but I still have time to do other things. I enjoy traveling, and have been to Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Japan and Costa Rica. I have been trying to grow an herb garden on my balcony and have a small collection of orchids. I recently started taking classes on making stained glass windows and Tiffany-style lamps. Whenever I start a new project, my fingers are covered in band-aids from working with the glass, but it's still a lot of fun to do something creative for a change.

 

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