The High Dive is known for drawing crowds into the local music scene, but this week, music wasn’t what drew nearly 200 people to the venue – it was NASA.
Nerd Nite Seattle is a monthly gathering at the bar in the city’s Fremont neighborhood, featuring beer, tasty Mexican food, science talks and, of course, nerdy Seattleites. Tuesday night’s event drew in plenty of the regulars, plus an assortment of first-timers.
One of the first-timers was NASA astronaut Anne McClain. She mingled with the crowd, and then got on stage to speak about her rigorous astronaut training, share hilarious stories about other members of her astronaut class, and reflect on how growing up in Washington state made her want to go to space.
“I decided when I was about 3 years old, the first time I told my mom I wanted to be an astronaut,” said McClain, who is now 37. “Luckily she is a bit of a nerd herself, and so she really fostered that.”
Young McClain and her family (who came out to support her at Nerd Nite) were frequent visitors to the Pacific Science Center. They also went to the Space Needle, where McClain played pretend-astronaut.
“I remember riding the Space Needle and going up in the elevator and being scared, but thinking, ‘This is going to be like going up a launch tower,’ and so I would sit there and try to face that fear,” she said.
McClain followed up on her childhood dream by attending West Point and becoming an Army major, helicopter pilot and flight instructor. In 2013, she won a spot in NASA’s most recent class of astronaut candidates.
She’s still waiting for her first spaceflight assignment, but in the meantime, she’s playing a role in the development and testing of future spaceships.
This week may have marked the first time the denizens of Nerd Nite Seattle hosted an astronaut, but it wasn’t the first time they’ve gathered to talk about space. Nerd Nite volunteer Jenny Haaland said they’ve hosted talks about planets and other space topics before. One Star Wars night in particular got very intense.
Nerd Nite’s quirkiness is a big part of its appeal. Haaland said she loves finding out what people are passionate about, and taking in the night’s nerdy atmosphere.
“Bars tend to be very insular, and Nerd Nite just isn’t,” she said. “People are willing to turn to one another and say, ‘Well, what did you think about that?’ and talk about what we just heard.”
Nerd Nite does bring in some families – but a large pool of attendees are in their early careers, typically working at tech firms such as Amazon and Boeing. Amazon software development engineer Michael Li said he enjoys coming because it’s a refreshing break after a long day’s work.
McClain’s Seattle visit was part of a NASA tour program known as Destination Station, which sends astronauts, researchers and outreach specialists to cities across the country. The Destination Station team also checks in with local companies to spread the word about commercial opportunities in space.
During this week’s stopover, the team visited Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture, Microsoft and Starbucks. Among the topics that came up at Starbucks were the challenges of managing product shelf life and brewing coffee in zero-G, said Pete Hasbrook, an associate program scientist for the International Space Station program.
Tuesday’s Nerd Nite ended with an inspiring video about the space station and its crew, plus a round of audience questions that sparked a conversation about leadership in space.
Inspiring the nerd crowd may not have been the only thing on McClain’s schedule, but being at the High Dive and reconnecting with her childhood memories were definitely among the highlights.
“I still feel inside like a little kid from Spokane with a dream,” she said. “My heart would race when I went to Pacific Science Center because I would pretend to be an astronaut, and now I get to come back and give back to the community that I think compelled me to where I am.”