Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
By skyseeker [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Maryland, land of … astronomy?

More career star-gazers here compared to the U.S.

Crab cakes and football, meet stargazing.

Maryland natives know and love their hallmarks. But they may not know that it’s nearly 15 times more likely they’ll bump into a career astronomer here than on average in the wider United States.

That bit of trivia comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics program, an annual employment and wage estimate covering more than 800 occupations. More specifically, it’s a reflection of what the agency calls a location quotient, which compares the presence of a particular job in a particular area to the national average concentration.

Here are the numbers:

The latest roundup came out in April, analyzing data from May 2013. The 14.53 location quotient for Maryland astronomers illustrates a share of the state’s total employment that eclipses their share of all American employment, even with a head count of just 480.

The American Astronomical Society pins that number even higher. Rick Fienberg, the society’s press officer, said of 8,000 members in all, 720 live in Maryland – a disproportionately large fraction of the total membership, he said.

For astronomers who call Maryland home, the reasons for concentrating so heavily here are many and obvious: Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute; the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel; and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, home to central operations for space exploration’s crown jewel, the Hubble Space Telescope, and construction of its future successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.

“It’s like — when you build something, they will come,” said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown.

Then there’s NASA headquarters itself in Washington, D.C., and the Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia, which most recently saw the failed launch of the Antares rocket in October, bound for the International Space Station before exploding mid-air shortly after blastoff.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Brown said.

“And all of these facilities have tentacles,” he said, that stretch out to the state’s universities.

Counting associated jobs – technicians, engineers, scientists working in geology and physics – the University of Maryland’s astronomy department chair, Stuart Vogel, includes many hundreds more among astronomers’ ranks.

“Astronomy is just sort of the tip of the sphere,” he said.

Vogel’s department alone employs 16 professors and about 100 Ph.D. astronomers, serving 70 undergraduates and 40 graduate students. The department also receives a big chunk of competitive federal grant funding, mostly from NASA and the National Science Foundation, he said – close to $25 million annually.

And a quick 10-minute drive away from campus is Goddard, with which the university has several partnerships.

When Goddard – NASA’s first real space center, Vogel says – was established in 1959, there were already a lot of space experts in the area, thanks to the federal government’s involvement in space travel-related research in the aftermath of World War II. Money poured in; America landed on the moon.

Though NASA funding has dwindled, the area’s influence hasn’t. Vogel calls it “ground zero” for astronomy.

“There are probably more astronomers within an hour’s drive of College Park and Greenbelt than anywhere else,” he said.

That notion probably runs counter to what most know makes for quality stargazing: minimal light pollution.

“You might think Arizona, with its beautiful dark, clear skies would be the center of astronomy, but in fact we have double the number of astronomers than they do, even though they’re a more populous state,” Vogel said.

That number, of course, includes Vogel, who taught physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after completing his graduate and post-doctorate work in California. He joined the Maryland astronomy department in 1989, becoming its chair in 2007.

He loved upstate New York, he said, and his job there. It was Maryland’s unique opportunities that drew him away.

“It took a lot to move me,” he said.

So, what job is second to astronomer when it comes to occupations in Maryland that distinguish the Free State?

You may already have guessed it (or not): According to BLS data, it’s subway and streetcar operators.


Virginia: Mathematicians (8.07)

Pennsylvania: Gas compressor/gas pumping station operators (4.66)

West Virginia: Mine shuttle car operators (76.87)

Ohio: Foundry mold and coremakers (3.54)

New Jersey: Mathematicians (5.03)