Rocket Man

David Grinspoon is popularizing science, one alien joke at a time.

David Grinspoon is looking for something. Usually he's searching for aliens, but today it's for a biography of his thirteen-year-old self printed in the now-defunct Kids Magazine. "It reads something like, 'In addition to writing and drawing, David, who is thirteen, enjoys playing the guitar, reading science fiction and building model rockets,'" Grinspoon says, laughing. "I'm struck by how apt the description is still."

As he rummages through the filing cabinets and swollen bookshelves lining his office at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the curator of astrobiology passes by a picture of Keith Richards tacked to the bulletin board behind his desk. It's right next to a photo of his wife of eleven years, Tory Read, and a hand-drawn picture of an alien butterfly on a pin, which a colleague from Southwestern Research Institute in Boulder dreamed up as a tongue-in-cheek call sign/mascot for him when he took the museum post in January. There's also a bumpersticker on his door that reads "Honk if Pluto Is Still a Planet," and under an inflatable alien in the back corner of the room is the yellowing electric guitar from his junior-high band, Liquid Earth. (He still plays the instrument.)

Just a few months earlier, sitting here immersed in these quirks of his personality, Grinspoon learned that on October 12, the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences would reward him with the famed Carl Sagan Medal for success in popularizing science. Considering his life, it was written in the stars.

David Grinspoon has Venus Envy.
Mark Manger
David Grinspoon has Venus Envy.

The oldest son of a Harvard psychiatry professor, Grinspoon grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a "sterile suburb" that he and his friends abandoned for Boston as often as possible. Like most children, he had his share of idols, including sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov and popular science writer and personality Carl Sagan. However, unlike most kids, he was inspired around the dinner table by Asimov and "Uncle Carl," who were family friends. "I remember [Asimov] as the kind of adult that kids loved to be around because he was very funny and he always made you feel like you were in on the joke, maybe in some conspiracy against the rest of the adults.... The guy knew everything about everything. Maybe he was a robot, but if so, he was a quirky and lovable one."

As he reminisces, Grinspoon's computer surfs his iTunes, which is about forty gigs full. The songs are eclectic, a random sampling from his brain that ranges from obscure underground hip-hop to Zimbabwean guitar. A song from the new Blackalicious album, The Craft, comes on, then some Turkish music that he picked up in March while chasing a solar eclipse to the Mediterranean coast. "An eclipse is more powerful than you'd ever expect," he says. "Everything changes -- the light, the air. It's a very trippy experience."

Again the music changes, this time to the Grateful Dead. "I've been way into the Dead since, like, the '70s," he says. Starting after his freshman year at Brown University -- where he dual-majored in planetary science and philosophy of science and played in a band called the Geeks -- he assisted the Voyager camera team at the Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology. That was 1979, the summer of Voyager's encounter with Jupiter, and he was a fixture at JPL between trips up the coast to see Dead shows.

He was also there in '80 for the buzz run of Saturn and '86 for Uranus and '89 for Neptune. Over the years, he's seen about a hundred Dead shows and followed the Voyagers to the outer limits of the solar system. "There was this feeling of traveling along with the Voyagers as they reached farther from the sun, encountering the giant outer planets over the years as we got older and moved on with our lives."

In 1989, he received his Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona at Tucson and then took a post-doctoral research job at the NASA AMES Research Facility in Silicon Valley, which he left in 1991 for a professorship in the Astrophysical and Planetary Science Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After spending seven years teaching at the university, Grinspoon left academia for the Southwestern Research Institute, where he found his niche studying the climate and evolution of Earth-like planets with the hope of better understanding both our own climate and what it would take to survive on others.

But in the late 1990s, he surrendered to the wormhole of scientific events -- such as Galileo's discovery of possible oceans under the ice of Jupiter's moons -- and started focusing on astrobiology, an up-and-coming area of scientific study that blends evolution, biology and astronomy with a focus on the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the universe. He published a paper with Dirk Schulze-Makuch in the Journal of Astrobiology called "Biologically Enhanced Energy and Carbon Cycling on Titan" that laid out the case for possible life under Titan's ice cap.

Of course, he says, these little green men would look nothing like the green inflatable alien hanging in a corner of his office at the DMNS, or the alien knickknacks on top of his filing cabinet.

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