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February 11, 2010: News & Views

Space policy expert James Oberg ’66 presented two lectures to students, faculty, and the public at Ohio Wesleyan this week: “Theory of Space Power” and “Sleuthing Space Secrets.”
Photo by John Holliger

Far Out!
OWU alumnus James Oberg ’66 is space expert

Since he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1966, James Oberg’s career has launched into space. A space policy expert, Oberg has been NBC News’ on-air “space guy” since 2003.

On February 8, he landed at Ohio Wesleyan to present two lectures: “Theory of Space Power” and “Sleuthing Space Secrets,” in conjunction with the new Sagan Fellows course, “International Competition and Cooperation in the Exploration of Space.” The course is intended to take students from the theoretical to the practical and will include a trip to Japan to study that country’s space program.

During his visit, Oberg spoke to students about the importance of applying theory to study and solve real-world issues. He also admitted that he once found the theory part just a little boring.

“I was more into practice than theory,” he recalls. “To me, theory was useless musings about how to do things. I had no respect for it. But then I got smarter.”

Part of becoming smarter, he says, was realizing that although he wasn’t all that smart, he could always strive to get smarter. That’s where theory comes into play.

“Theory is how you make your decisions—how to measure the goodness of alternative choices,” Oberg says. “The stronger you believe in anything, the more often you have to ask yourself, ‘Well, suppose I’m wrong?’ You have to be able to look at it from another person’s point of view.”

As for Oberg’s theory that he wasn’t all that smart? Don’t believe it. This OWU alumnus was a math major who graduated summa cum laude. He also was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, worked in Ohio Wesleyan’s first computer center in 1963, and he served as an alternate on the “GE College Bowl” team of in spring 1964. Oberg then went on to earn master’s degrees in applied mathematics and computer science.

He credits his liberal arts education with broadening his interests and teaching him how to be creative and imaginative with problem solving.

“The great thing about Ohio Wesleyan was that there were no subject-related cliques,” Oberg says. “Everyone melded with one another. I not only enjoyed my math and physics courses, I also liked learning foreign languages, such as Russian and French.”

Oberg says he also always has liked space. “My grandpa got me a copy of Jules Verne when I was young and I would watch television programs like ‘Space Cadets.’ I also lived outside New York City, so I would attend educational activities at the Hayden Planetarium.”

He realizes, too, that he is living his dream. “When I was 12, I remember I had a dream of lecturing people with an easel and stick and making my audience laugh while also informing them.” And that’s exactly what this “space guy” is doing today.

– Emily Hastings ’10