Fraser Cain: from Hornby Island to outer space
PHOTO: Fraser Cain launched Universe Today in 1999. Photos courtesy of Robert Cain and Universe Today.
Fraser Cain was raised on Hornby Island, but his mind was always on another planet. Most of the time, Cain led the life of a normal teenager. He played video games and fooled around on the two-ferry, two-hour bus ride to school in Courtenay.
But whenever he could, Cain dreamed about the stars, the planets, the universe. He loved Star Trek. Read science fiction books. He watched NASA rocket launches on television.
He devoured information about space like a black hole sucking up everything within its immense gravitational grasp.
Today, Cain is recognized world-wide as an authority on space and astronomy. His website, Universe Today, is one of the biggest and most popular sources of news and information about space on the Internet.
Universe Today had more than 48 million readers in 2016, and 140,000 people follow the website on a daily basis, and they do it religiously. Space buffs are serious about their interest.
He also hosts a weekly podcast on the website Astronomy Cast with renowned astronomer Dr. Pamela Gray, who runs CosmoQuest, a virtual research facility.
His company has published two books on skywatching, and he has an asteroid named after him.
And he does all of this from his home on the Puntledge River in Courtenay.
The early years
Cain refers to his father and mother as “big space nerds.” His dad has been a sci-fi fan since he was able to read.
“I grew up in Vancouver,” father Bob Cain said. “My brother and I built our first telescope before we were teenagers and spent many nights examining the sky.”
To encourage his fascination with outer space, Cain remembers his parents taking him outside to view the night sky, which is considerably darker than in metro Comox Valley, where they taught him about the constellations.
“In the summer, (we) would take sleeping bags out to Helliwell Park where we would watch meteor showers,” his father said.
And, of course, science fiction books and movies were the standard fare around his house. His mother, Josephine, took him to the first showing of the original Star Trek movie. He got his first serious telescope at age 14.
So it was natural that the family would gather around the TV on April 12, 1981 to watch the first space shuttle launch, something they continued to do for every subsequent shuttle mission.
When Cain arrived at G. P. Vanier High School in 1986, he starting writing astronomy columns for the now-defunct student newspaper, The Breezeway. He recalls they were quite well read.
Educator Brent Reid, who taught journalism and oversaw production of the Breezeway, remembers Cain as “a real go-getter.” He graduated in 1989.
Developing his popular website
Turning this passion for space and astronomy into a career didn’t really begin until after Cain enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study engineering.
Well, after he dropped out, to be precise.
Cain left UBC to write books for role-playing games, and co-founded a company called Absolute Software, which has since gone public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. At age 19, he helped invent software that enabled people locate and recover stolen computers, which you can still purchase at any Apple store.
Cain then joined a web design company, Communicate.com, where he helped clients design and construct their websites.
While there he hired a young entrepreneur named Stewart Butterfield, who went on to found Flickr.
Cain calls that, “one of my better hires.”
But Cain didn’t have any experience running a website, so he decided to start one of his own in order to better understand his client’s’ issues and to learn how to help them.
He briefly considered a website focused on gaming, but of course he settled on space and astronomy. And that’s when he learned what he wanted to do with his life.
Universe Today was launched in 1999 and became so successful that Cain was able to quit his day job in 2003 and make space journalism his full-time career.
Cain has succeeded in a crowded field because he’s one of the few space journalists who do it well. He focuses on stories “way off the beaten path,” the topics that other space journalists aren’t covering.
Cain has written many of the 15,000 articles in the Universe Today archive, but the website also publishes the work of more than a dozen full-time and part-time other space journalists.
His senior editor lives in the U.S. His video editor lives in Prague.
Back to the Comox Valley
“It doesn’t matter where I work from,” Cain said. “During the course of the day, I talk to people all over the planet, some in space.”
Cain still travels to astronomy conferences, but he prefers to work from home, where he can help raise his two children.
He’s completed his university computer science degree now, and found the time to start up a new software company, Keyword Strategy.
The name, Fraser Cain, has become a personal brand within the universe of space journalism over the last 10 years. His name and face are now widely recognized.
But the Hornby Island boy hasn’t forgotten his roots. Not long ago, he took his sci-fi-loving dad to see the second last space shuttle launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In a personal article on social media, Cain wrote, “I hate to sound trite, but I’m a living example that you can succeed if you follow your dreams. You know that stuff you loved as a kid, but then decided to grow up and get a real job? That can turn into a real job, if you’re willing to believe in yourself and put in the work.”