Known for his sense of humor and passion for science, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” brought his energy for both to Cal Poly on Wednesday.
During the course of a 30-minute meet-and-greet with media members and student fans, Nye said he hopes space exploration will go to broader reaches than ever before.
He said space travel has brought major advancements in satellite-based technologies (including cellphone applications), climate change research and studies on the potential for life on other planets.
“The future of space exploration is very bright,” Nye said. “If you’re looking at the sun, that’s a pun. We’re doing extraordinary things with small spacecrafts, like cube sats, and robots, going to these extraordinary destinations. … As far as manned missions, we have to get people engaged with the idea of going farther and deeper into space.”
Nye had planned to attend a demonstration of a LightSail project, which is being developed by The Planetary Society with help from Cal Poly’s CubeSat program that has sent several mini-satellites into orbit over the past 15 years.
Nye serves as executive director of The Planetary Society.
The LightSail will be released out of small cube satellites from a launched rocket and unfurl into 344 square feet of ultra-thin Mylar sails. The tiny craft will be visible in space from the ground.
Wednesday’s presentation of the kite-like craft was delayed as the engineering team continued to work out kinks with an antenna that transmits signals to a radio.
Nye said The Planetary Society sought the assistance of Cal Poly — which will be conducting pre-launch testing — because of the university’s expertise with cube satellites.
“We know people,” Nye said. “People in the CubeSat business know Cal Poly. One of our founders, Lou Friedman, went to MIT, that other university.”
The LightSail will be neatly folded, like origami, and packed into three cube sats, each about 4 square inches.
The Cal Poly team will be testing the impacts of vibration during high-speed travel on the rocket and extreme temperatures.
The idea behind a sun-powered spacecraft is that it could be a lighter-weight, cost-efficient method of space exploration for a variety of scientific missions.
Nye, a former mechanical engineer with Boeing, said he has appreciated the work of the Cal Poly team rather than advising them.
“I’ve come and offered my brilliant insights as an engineer who hasn’t worked professionally for 30 years,” Nye said, smiling to indicate his sarcasm. “I’ve admired their work. I don’t think I’ve contributed much.”
Nye, who has a television comedy background, educates children in an upbeat manner through his show with sketches and music videos that demonstrate principles on topics including evaporation, the Earth’s seasons, dinosaurs, and planets and moons.
“The reason I inject humor is because it’s my passion,” Nye said. “What your favorite professor, your favorite teacher, what you liked about him or her was their passion. So, whatever you’re teaching, be passionate about it. And boy, people are passionate about the LightSail project.”
Cal Poly students who caught wind of Nye’s presence on campus flocked to take photographs with the TV star, whom they grew up watching at home and in educational videos in science classes.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Nye, I would have died of boredom in sixth-grade science,” said Ian Hayward-Balash, a third-year architecture major.
Kiki Watson, a third-year business major, said she learned of Nye’s appearance and immediately sent out a tweet to share the news.
“I remember whenever they rolled in the TV on wheels in school, usually with a VCR player, you know that it was going to be ‘Science Guy’ day,” Watson said. “He’s so funny. He’s the equivalent of ‘Saturday Night Live’ for science education.”