Pondering the stars: An interview with Erik Tandberg

Photo courtesy of the Consulate General in Houston Tandberg is known for making scientific concepts approachable and interesting for laypeople.

Photo courtesy of the Consulate General in Houston
Tandberg is known for making scientific concepts approachable and interesting for laypeople.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

When I saw an announcement for a Lunch N Learn program with Erik Tandberg, a consultant at the Norwegian Space Center in Oslo, I immediately wanted to attend. His credentials are impeccable—he’s an aerospace engineer who studied at the University of Santa Clara, Stanford, and Princeton; he has served as the chairman of both the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology and Oslo Electricity Works; and he is a Norwegian Society of Chartered Technical & Scientific Professionals gold medalist and Officer of The Royal Order of St. Olav. His employment history is also compelling; he worked his way up to a major in the Royal Norwegian Air Force, worked with consulting firms and energy businesses, and was also a television and radio commentator, lecturer, and author—not to mention that he served on the City Council of Oslo for 20 years.

He certainly had a significant influence on the Norwegian public. In a profile of Tandberg featured in Nordic Space, the author Baard Kringen wrote: “Personally I remember that long night when we were waiting for the first human being to step onto the moon. Whilst waiting for Neil Armstrong’s historic leap for mankind, Erik’s riveting comments and explanations, not only about the moon trip but about space research and progress generally, kept most Norwegians glued to their television sets throughout the night.”

Alas, the event was in Houston, not exactly right around the corner from my Brooklyn home. So I did the next best thing to attending: research further into this interesting event and the guest astronomer.

I learned from Consul General Morten Paulsen that the Consulate in Houston was the sponsor of the Lunch N Learn program. The events have been organized for a few years by the Consulate in Houston in cooperation with Team Norway Partners: the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce (NACC), Innovation Norway, and INTSOK. According to Paulsen, “The main purpose of these events is to engage and inform our local U.S. community of Norway’s numerous interests, capabilities, and focus areas.”

Recent speakers have included Kenneth A. Golden, Commercial Advisor for ExxonMobil Exploration Company, and Hege Kverneland, CTO for National Oilwell Varco. Tandberg had been in contact with the Norwegian Consulate in Houston in preparation for a visit primarily to NASA locations. “We felt very privileged to host such a knowledgeable, well-known, charismatic, and relevant speaker,” Paulsen concluded.

I was very fortunate to contact Erik Tandberg directly about Norway’s role in the space program, his own work, and what he thinks about the future of space exploration.

Victoria Hofmo: When I heard about you speaking at the Lunch N Learn at Norway House in Houston, I was so disappointed that I do not live there. How did the luncheon go?

Erik Tandberg: The luncheon was fine, thanks to the preparations carried out by the Norwegian Consulate. The number of participants was high with waiting lists.

VH: You have the reputation of being able to make complicated scientific concepts about space intelligible to the layperson, like the Space Whisperer for Dummies. How are able to do this?

ET: The most important thing is to know the subject well so that you can use your own words in an alternative way to explain things.

VH: What most surprised you about space?

ET: The number of planets in orbit around the stars—in average more than one planet per star.

VH: What do you see in the future of space?

ET: In the next five years, we will find more Earth-like planets. In 20 years, I expect we can say whether there is primitive life on other bodies in our solar system.

VH: Do you have any desire to participate in space travel?

ET: I do not have a personal desire to travel in space with today’s technology; the distances are too great. A short trip to Earth’s orbit would be fine.

VH: What would you say to those who believe that funding for space science is impractical or wasteful?

ET: The money for space activities is spent here on Earth for the benefit of all mankind.

In his profile in Nordic Space, Tandberg further elaborated on the benefits of funding space exploration:

“Space activities have supplied us with mountains of new knowledge, which it would not have been possible to obtain without dispatching instruments outside the atmosphere and to other celestial bodies. Sensors in orbits collect much of our knowledge about our own planet and processes in the atmosphere. Some types of research are to a large degree dependent on space activities.

“The question is whether society can invest such large resources in space research, exploration and exploitation when there are so many other vital—and expensive—issues that need to be tackled around the world. I believe that most of the grants have been repaid in the form of technological advances, products, employment and, not least, new knowledge. I mean the activities are useful and necessary. The discussion about priority of resources has been going on from the start, and that discussion will continue.”

Whatever your views, whether you plan to one day travel in space or stay on terra firma, when you ponder the stars on a glorious clear night, the words of Vincent Van Gogh ring true: “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Tandberg brings these dream-makers back down to earth.

This article originally appeared in the June 17, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.