February 14, 2003
NASA has selected a diverse network of volunteers nationwide to organize community programs that teach the public about solar system exploration.
Engineer, real-estate broker, orthodontist, teacher, pastor: They're all among the space enthusiasts in 50 states, Puerto Rico and Okinawa chosen for the 2003 Solar System Ambassador Program coordinated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
"I've seen kids get so excited learning about space, it got me wanting to teach them more," said one new ambassador, Walter Koehler, an environmental engineer for the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center at Lakehurst, N.J. Boy Scouts he advises on rocketry merit badges, for example, gain new interest in mathematics for calculating ascent heights, he said. Koehler intends to work with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and local museums to offer programs as a Solar System Ambassador. He is among 46 new ambassadors this year, joining 247 who are back from last year.
The ambassadors run 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 orbiting distant planets. The program is part of NASA's mission to inspire the next generation of explorers.
"I want to help reinvigorate interest in space exploration and tap into the sense of wonder of learning about the unknown," said Jennifer Lamison, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, beginning her second year as a Solar System Ambassador. People of all ages attend illustrated talks and telescope-viewing sessions she offers at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on the west side of Las Vegas. "Kids are always interested, but when the parents start raising their hands and asking questions, too, that's when you know you've clicked, and it makes you feel good," she said.
The Solar System Ambassadors help JPL share the results and excitement of space exploration with people all around the country whose taxes fund missions such as Mars Odyssey, currently orbiting the red planet; Stardust, on its way to catch a sample of comet dust; Genesis, currently collecting solar wind particles for return to Earth next year; and Cassini, due to begin orbiting Saturn next year.
"The ambassadors come from all walks of life, but what they have in common is active involvement in their local communities and a keen interest in space," said JPL's Kay Ferrari, coordinator of the program.
Dr. Stephen Paige, an orthodontist and new Solar System Ambassador in Ocala, Fla., said, "Those early satellite launches back when I was in high school helped instill a love of science that has influenced the directions I have headed in my life. It's important that students today know about the future possibilities open for them." Paige is tapping into the network of other ambassadors to learn from their experiences in planning successful presentations at career days, school visits, library talks and other opportunities. He also is considering a display area in his waiting room that will track the progress of current missions to Saturn and Mars.
Bookmobile visits to schools are the primary outreach style for Janet Pionkowski, a second-year Solar System Ambassador in Kansas who works for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. She created a program called "Whazzup in Space?" to excite students about learning more on their own from books and the Internet. "I've never taken an astronomy class, but I love the sky," she said. "I wanted to be an ambassador because I'm fascinated by the robotic missions to other planets."
Kevin Gullion, a pastor in Sciotoville, Ohio, assisted local schools with projects about space exploration even before becoming a Solar System Ambassador this year. He expects the ambassador program's NASA connection will help him strengthen those endeavors and be a boon to the community. "There are a lot of kids I can touch base with who would never be likely to meet anyone from NASA or JPL," he said.
Many ambassadors include telescope-viewing opportunities in the events they organize. Tori Spratling-Anderson, of Salt Lake City, said, "When people see Saturn through a telescope for the first time, you hear the 'Wow!' and you know they're going to remember it." She combines her new Solar System Ambassador role with a full-time outreach job for Salt Lake City's public planetarium, visiting schools throughout Utah.
Online information is available about the Solar System Ambassador program at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.