I can remember visiting Astronomy Picture of the Day from the Macintoshes in my elementary school computer lab (this was in the mid-nineties, before Apple started calling its computers “Macs”). Today, some two decades later, I still visit APOD regularly. How many websites can you say that about?
Over at The Verge, Sean O’Kane interviewed APOD creators Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, the gamma ray astronomers who created the site and twenty years ago this week, and still run it today.
APOD serves its titular purpose with minimal flare. Every day — the site updates at 12AM ET — there’s one featured image (or video) of our cosmos. That’s accompanied by a short description with some links for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper.
The site is available in 20 languages, has a Twitter account with a million followers, a Google+ page — don’t scoff, the astrophotography community actually thrives there — with over 900,000 fans, and nearly 200,000 likes on Facebook. There’s an Instagram account, countlessapps, and there’s even a dedicated subreddit. All that helps account for more than 1 million visits to the APOD website each day – a far cry from the first day 20 years ago when it barely cracked a dozen.
APOD launched on June 16, 1995. In advance of its milestone birthday, I spoke on the phone with the two guys who have run the site by hand for two decades, a seemingly unfathomable task in the age of ephemeral content. How do they do it? A combination of Microsoft Word, a fiery passion for astrophotography, and lots and lots of emails.
Do check out the interview at The Verge; Nemiroff and Bonnell are cool dudes, and the exchange is full of gems like this:
Under the hood, how does APOD work?
Robert Nemiroff: I just open up Microsoft Word on my PC. I bring up the text file from an old APOD post from a couple of days ago. I delete out the old stuff, I put the new stuff in, then I transfer it to [the network at] NASA Goddard and I look it over, and with the VI editor I make changes, because I almost always make some kind of mistake somewhere. And then I look at the result and see if it looks reasonable, and if so then I just leave it alone.
If it ain’t broke, right?
Another way to appreciate APOD’s legacy is to check out its archive. It’s huge. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll find the first post is dated June 16, 1995 (there’s a screen shot of the page at the top of this post). Happy early birthday, APOD. You don’t look a day over 10.