May 05, 2004
While two rovers roam Mars and the Cassini spacecraft nears Saturn, NASA's Solar System Ambassadors find themselves busier than ever this year, leading events across the nation in malls, classrooms and on the radio to share the wonders of space exploration with the public.
The program, in its seventh year, consists of 374 volunteers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. A new and diverse crop of ambassadors who joined the program in early 2004 has helped reach 22.3 million people—94 percent of last year's total count—in less than five months.
"Through the efforts of these enthusiastic volunteers, NASA's space exploration programs become personalized in communities across the nation," said Kay Ferrari, coordinator of the program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Solar System Ambassadors reach people where they live."
The Solar System Ambassador program is part of NASA's mission to inspire the next generation of explorers. Ambassadors arrange events such as star parties, public exhibits, classroom presentations and library programs. JPL offers them special training opportunities, including teleconferences with leaders of interplanetary missions. It also supplies materials, such as the latest pictures from JPL-managed NASA spacecraft.
"A few months ago, I talked about Mars to a wildly enthusiastic group of 5-to-7-year-olds. They knew the names of the planets and something about each one," said Brother Laurence Harms, a solar system ambassador and a Benedictine monk in the Episcopal Church who holds planetarium lectures at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California. "I am also working with a friend of mine who is an amateur astronomer and probation officer to prepare programs for the boys and girls at Juvenile Hall."
Solar System Ambassador Mary-Frances Bartels discussed her role in the program while heading a radio discussion group for the Rocky Mountain Radio League, based in Littleton, Colo.
"I have already been contacted to speak at an elementary school later this year, so I'm preparing for that," said Tina Cano, an attorney from Austin, Texas, who is so fascinated with the solar system, she holds a master's degree in space studies. "I also hope some political leaders will attend a community outreach program I'm planning, since I am here in the state capitol."
The Solar System Ambassadors help the public follow the excitement of space exploration and get the latest results from spacecraft such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, currently making extraordinary discoveries on the red planet; Genesis, collecting solar wind particles for return to Earth; Cassini, about to orbit Saturn; and more.
"As an ambassador I would like to build a working relationship with local schools, science centers, planetariums and observatories to allow children to observe and study stars and planets, all of which are very different and beautiful in their own ways," said Solar System Ambassador Csaba Palotai, a research assistant at the University of Louisville Comparative Planetology Laboratory in Louisville, Ky.
"I want to share some of the beauty of astronomy and space science, and the passion for its pursuance," said Gary Fujihara, a solar system ambassador from Hilo, Hawaii, who works as a public outreach officer for the University of Hawaii. He has been fascinated with space since childhood through watching television shows like 'Lost in Space' and 'Star Trek,' as well as coverage of NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions.
"I am working with many private, public and charter schools from grades K-12, including Waimea Middle School, which is a NASA Explorer School," Fujihara said. "We have coordinated several events and activities including solar viewing through a specially equipped telescope with astronomers on hand. We planned exciting activities this year to coincide with National Space Day on May 6 and Sun-Earth Day (Venus transit) on June 8."
Online information is available about the Solar System Ambassador program, including a full list of ambassadors in your area, at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador.
JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Charli Schuler (818) 393-5467
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.