The week we are speaking to Prof. Antonio Paris a former Army U.S Intelligence Officer, a published writer, the Professor of Astronomy at St Petersburg College Florida, a Commercial Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM and the Director of Planetarium and Space Programs at the Museum of Science and Technology
Bucket List Chats.TTB is our new Podcast from TickTheBucket.org where we’ve been reaching out far and wide to find the people that are doing the things on our Bucket Lists and finding out how they did it.
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OSKA: Hey guys welcome to Bucket List chat.ttb. And this is our new podcast from www.tickthebucket.org. Recently we’ve been reaching out to some of the most inspirational and wildest characters from across the world, and I’ve been asking them what is the key to following your aspirations?
OSKA: Today in the studio we have an acclaimed scientist and Professor; Antonio Parris. This guy has done a list of absolutely insane things. It’s as long as my arm but some of the stuff that i’ve found about about him is that he used to be a former army army US counter intelligence officer. He’s written two books and he’s produced a documentary on Area 51, he’s the professor of astronomy at St Petersburg college Florida. He’s gonna be a commercial astronaut, because he’s part of this project called Project Possum, which is supported by NASA’s flight opportunities program. He is also the director of the planetarium and space program at the museum of science and industry at Tampa, Florida. So, Professor, welcome to the show, thanks for coming!
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Hey, thanks for having me, I’m really honoured that you called.
OSKA: Thank you, it’s hard to miss you, you’re a pretty big deal on social media.
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Haha, well, social media is I guess the new avenue of getting your message out. So it does help a lot, as long as you’re actively involved in the community. More importantly, actively involved with the people that enjoy the things you do.
OSKA:So you’ve lived a pretty exciting life, some would say, and I’d really like to go into some of the stories that have lead me to interviewing you in the first place., get a bit of a feel of you, professor.
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Sure, no problem
OSKA:So, your time as a US army intelligence officer, what was that about?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Well, let’s go back a little bit – I joined the military for many reasons, including my dad who inspired me to join the service, but it was also a great opportunity for me to use that as an avenue to go to college, here in the states the services do offer a college education if you join. So that’s what I did. And i initially started as an infantry officer, I was an infantry officer for about 2 years, and when you have been an officer for about 2 years then you have the opportunity to transfer to a different branch and I picked intelligence, mainly because I wanted to go back to Washington DC.. And I was selected. There’s different branches in the intelligence community and I selected counter intelligence, so I went there for about close to 7 years, almost 10. Obviously I can’t talk about much of the things I did during my time, but I was a tactical officer, and I served in Iraq, then I was a strategic intelligence officer where I worked in Washington DC. And after my service, I worked as a civilian intelligence officer, I did that for a couple of years before I decided that’s enough for me, I want to be an astronomer, I want to be a scientist. It’s something I always wanted to do, even before the army, so I went to college and became a scientist.
OSKA: Wow! That’s so cool, and so it was completely fine for you to go on and be a scientist even after the army?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Yeah looking up at the stars and wondering about life in the universe, and all the cool things that fascinate me about space travel. I would be out there, in the field, with my binoculars looking up at the stars at night, and I would say to myself, I love the army, but that’s not what I wanna do as a career, I really wanna be a scientist, and the army is what really shaped me into becoming a scientist, you know? And here I am today.
OSKA: Cool! Wow! One the other questions we wanted to ask is about you becoming an astronaut. For this Project Possum supported by NASA. Could you tell me a little bit about that please Professor?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: It’s a private space program – it does have some funding backup by NASA but it’s a private commercial space program where if selected they will send some astronauts, commercial astronauts, private astronauts, not nasa astronauts, into a suborbital launch, and the purpose of the entire program is to study the mesosphere from high altitudes, in this case, space. We’re trying to understand how the mesosphere works, and that’s the main purpose, and so they’ll launch from a private spacecraft. Either out of Europe or Alaska. We’ll go up there and use some instrumentations to study the mesosphere and come on down. It’s a new program and we’ve been training mostly out of Daytona, Florida. Hopefully, I gotta get selected for the training, I just gotta work hard to make sure I get selected for the launch, so there’s still a competitive edge and we’ll see what happens here in the next couple of years, hopefully the funding won’t get cut, you know? We’ll see what happens!
OSKA: So why were you selected to go and be a astronaut Professor?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I was selected due to my background as a planetary scientist, I had done some research in early atmospheres of other planets, so when you apply for the program, they ask you what is your background, your scientist credentials, what studies have yo done with the atmosphere. And mostly, you know, I did that, I studied the atmospheres of Venus, Earth, obviously, and Mars. And so there was a big candidate pool, and I got selected.
OSKA: That’s so impressive, what made you think that you could even be an astronaut in the first place?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I don’t want my life to be one chapter. I want it to be like a book, multiple chapters, everything from becoming a listed soldier and officer in the military, to a working civilian in the intelligence community. Then when when it comes to astronomy there are so many different branches right? Planetary science to Radioastronomy. I just thought that hey, this could be another chapter in my life! This is something that i know I can do, if I put my heart into it. I got a lot of support from my family, especially from my father and mother, they’d just say, even my colleague says; ‘well you’ll never be an astronaut if you don’t apply for it,’ so, haha, I applied for it! For your listeners out there, you’re not gonna become something unless you actually try, and that’s the important thing. You’ll never become an astronomer unless you try, you’ll never become an intelligence officer unless you try. You’ll never be a surfer, a skateboarder, anything in your life, unless you actually try. And that’s what I’ve been doing. By pushing myself to the limit, in everything that I do, sometimes I fail, alright, but you learn from those failures and you just keep going, you don’t quit.
OSKA: I think that’s really good advice. And do you have any advice for anybody taking that first step? Because I think once you get momentum things become a lot easier, but taking that first approach to doing something new is always the hardest. Do you have any advice for anyone for that?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: The first step is you need to make sure that any opinions that you get from other people, especially the negative ones, they don’t affect your decision making process. I have heard it a lot – you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you don’t have the money to do this, and i would do it, one way or another. i just take that negativity, put it to one side, and if i need funding for a programme, i got it. If I need to work extra hours to get something done, I did it. But I think that the biggest help that I gain for everything I do is just friends that support me, my colleagues that support me. So you need to inundate yourself with people that support the things you do. Those who try to deflate what you’re doing or have negative tones, you need to disassociate yourself with those people. So the more positive people that you have around you, then the easier it makes things for you to get things done.
OSKA: Yeah my mum has this quote at the moment that she loves that she says to me; ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe.’ Do you think that’s true professor and do you think you’re surrounded by people that are on the same wavelength as you?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Exactly! And there’s another quote that I always use a lot that’s quite similar to that; ‘There’re no emotions in science.’ People have asked me; ‘You failed at this project, will you fail at that experiment, will you be upset? And I tell everybody, ‘No! Science is not about emotions, it’s about researching and coming to a conclusion. And if you don’t get the results you want, it’s still science right?! Either way you’re gonna publish something!’ I’ve been used to that vibe for the last 5- 10 years, that: ‘Oh god, I haven’t got the results that I wanted and that’s bad.’ And I said to myself, ‘No, that’s actually good!’ You tell yourself the same thing – If you want to do something in life, and you don’t achieve it or you don’t get that full 100%, then don’t see that as a failure, see that as something that you can build upon and continue to move forward
OSKA: Yeah I think that’s really helpful advice. I want to know now, Professor, if I can ask you, have you kept a balance between your work life, being in the army, being a scientist, and keeping yourself balanced as well, striving for success but also keeping yourself calm?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Well, I see all these little things that I’m doing, striving to become… they’re all really the same thing. I wanna continue to be a scientist, and there are multiple things that I can do, if I organise everything correctly. All leaning towards the same conclusion, being a good scientist. So being a Professor helps me a lot, because I’m doing something I love, which is astronomy. And nothing is better that seeing my college students thriving and striving to become scientists as well. You know? Where I teach at, St Petersburg College, does not have an astronomy degree, but we do have classes. And there’s nothing greater than seeing students come up to me and say, ‘Professor, I just dropped out of school’ I’m like, what? What are you, crazy?’ And they tell me, ‘No, I wanna be an astronomer so I’m going to a different school.’ And I’m like ‘Oh, ok that’s different.’ Or they’re going to work for NASA. I have so many students come to me and tell me, ‘Sir, I got a job with NASA because I love what you did. And I think, ok that’s great! that’s great! I love inspiring kids. So that, right there, being a professor, helps me shape that next generation off astronomers. Working as a scientist here at the Centre of Planets helps, because I also do research. I wanna research whatever it is and I find funding for it, whether it’s private or public, and I set deadlines to do my research. And publish those things, and I think I’ve been pretty cool in the last couple of years. And I think aspiring to become that commercial astronaut also helps because all the research that I’m currently doing is actually gonna be something that I’ll actually need if I really launched into space, you know, looking at the atmospheres, looking at the earth from a planetary science perspective. All are going to be part of that resume that I’m actually bring up with me in space.
OSKA: Yeah that must be another large thing as well. Applying for so many grants, and getting that constant rejection. I can’t imagine how that feels, to keep pushing forward.
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Yeah, you know., writing for grants is like applying for a job right? You’re not gonna get the job if you don’t put your resume in right? So, when I write grants, I send out 10 grants, in the hope of getting just one. Like fishing. And that’s how the grant world is. You won’t get the funding if you don’t apply for the grant. Some people look at the application and they think oh my God, this is going to take me 6 months to write, I need to get references, i need to show them everything I’ve done before, should I do all the stuff even if my chances are only 1%? Well, 1% is better than nothing. Once you write your first 2 or three grants, you already have the template, and you just gotta shuffle a couple of things around, and eventually, for most people out there, you’ll get a grant. Eventually. You just gotta keep submitting them.
OSKA: 100%. And that reminds me about what we were talking about before, when I was saying about momentum, when you’ve done the first grant, or applied for the first job, once you get that first speed and that pace.
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Correct. Let’s say you have a resume, and there are 5 jobs up that are kind of similar, basically, what you would do is that you would edit the resume 5 different times, so that it matches what those job descriptions are and then you submit them, you write them kind of similar you know? You look at the requirements, and you basically tweak that last grant that you had to fit the requirement. And then you submit it, and the worst case is that they’re just gonna tell you yes or no right? But they’ll always tell you no if you don’t submit it.
OSKA: Yes I think that’s completely fab. Do you think that your time in the military, with your regimented regime, has helped you with your science and applying for grants?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I don’t think so, but i’li tell you one thing, being an intelligence officer is very similar to being a scientist: in the intelligence community, your whole purpose is to gather data, analyse the data, and then you use the best available amount of information, you write your conclusions, and you provide that to the policy makers. Well, science is almost the same thing. You collect data, you analyse data, and then you publish that to the scientific community once it’s peer reviewed. So I’ve used a lot of the lessons learned as an intelligence officer as a scientist. So it’s very similar in nature, and so it does kind of help a bit from a experience perspective, but I don’t think using that as a resume has helped me a whole lot. In fact most of the grants that I write I just have one sentence that I served in the military and basically that’s it.
OSKA: I mean not just in terms of having good qualifications on your cv, but also having that routine, that discipline, it must be s valuable in scientific discipline.
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I think my past as a military officer, especially in the infantry, I still have a lot of that energy in me, where I do wanna get up and do 100 things in one day. And that sometimes drives people a little crazy ,and they’re like, ‘slow down!’ and I’m like, ‘No!’ So yeah, I think that probably does help a little bit. The whole mentality of not being a quitter, being a ‘hard charger’, really setting your goals and accomplishing those goals as fast as possible, probably does come a little bit from my military background, so yes you’re probably correct.
OSKA: And what about books, if you’ve got any time left? Have there been any books or movies that have really inspired you? Anything really interesting that you’ve read recently that you’ve read that you think is valuable in pushing forward with aspirations?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I think one of the ones, I guess when it comes to movies, most of the stuff I like is science fiction, so I wouldnt probably recommend any of those movies. But there is one movie that you’re probably quite familiar with that I really enjoyed, it’s called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
OSKA: Oh really? Cool!
PROFESSOR PARRIS: And that’s one of my favourite movies because it’s about one individual, a young British army officer, that through as much hardship as possible, he didn’t quit and he got things done. And I really enjoy watching that movie, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. And when if comes to books, oh my God there are so many books out there, I couldn’t even think of one right now. One I normally carry with me is an army book called ‘The Ranger Handbook.’ As a former infantry officer, it’s a book that I always keep with me, even in my office, and it’s a book about leadership styles and how to treat your fellow coworkers and your staff. I think that’s a great book for shaping the type of people that you want around you. Non quitters, people that are motivated and get things done. And I think that’s a pretty neat book that you can get. You don’t need to be a military officer to understand the book, to understand the basic principles of leadership.
OSKA: Thank you, I think i’ll give it a read. One of the other questions I wanted to ask was that what’s next on your bucket list, Professor Antonio. Is space the next thing you’re going to do?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Space for me is something that’s long term. I think the next things on my bucket list are short terms – I do wanna write a 3rd book, centred on Mars, and it’s really more for kids. I’ve set my sights on doing that this summer with one my my colleagues. So that is basically short term. And then I guess long term bucket list is to… I guess I just wanna go back and… I did travel a lot with the army but that was always business and I wanna set my sights on travelling the world again, but as a civilian, and really enjoy the world. And I wanna do that probably with my family sooner than later. But that is my bucket list. Look at the Grand Canyon, go back to London as a civilian, go back to Africa, but this time as a tourist. Go back to Asia, but this time ás a tourist. And enjoy the things that I probably missed, because when I visited these places, I was there for maybe one or two days, and I was rushing to get things done, and I probably missed half the world, because of that expeditious look with which actually visited those places.
OSKA: Yes, I can imagine. Well alright, thanks, Professor, thank you for your time today, I’ve really enjoyed chatting to you. If anybody wants to reach out to you, how can they get in touch? Is it by twitter, facebook, what’s the best way?
PROFESSOR PARRIS: I would say social media is the best. If you’re on twitter its: @antonioparris, and my website which is www.planetary-science.org. I have a pretty good habit of returning phone calls or emails back in a timely fashion.
OSKA: Brilliant! Well professor, thank you very much for coming on!
PROFESSOR PARRIS: Thank you buddy, and I hope to talk to you again sometime. Bye.
OSKA: If you’ve been inspired to do something on your bucketlist, go to www.tickthebucket.org, where we will be helping you achieve your dreams. Thanks guys.