June 2, 2003
With Dr. Keith Steinhurst in their camp, the troops from Fort Hood, Texas, may return from abroad with stars in their eyes. A nuclear, biological and chemical defense officer for the Army’s 1st Medical Brigade, Steinhurst is an army captain who also volunteers as a solar system ambassador for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To fulfill his solar system ambassador commitment to educate others about space science, Steinhurst has been giving presentations to the 95 service men and women stationed with him in Tikrit, Iraq, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
"We are here as an obligation to our country and the Army, but when we have down time, there is always an opportunity for good conversation separate from the present conditions," Steinhurst writes via email from Iraq. "With me, that opportunity presents the ‘teachable moment.’ I always take an opportunity to share my interest and enthusiasm in unmanned space flight, solar system exploration and the role of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in those missions."
Steinhurst has been stationed in Iraq for more than two months. So far, the response from his 'students' has been very positive. "Without exception, everyone I talk to is interested in what I have to say," he writes. "The good thing is that I can speak intelligently to questions and the discourse ends with a good time being had by all and good learning being accomplished."
Steinhurst holds his presentations on a spontaneous, highly informal basis, with small groups or individuals. The subject is tailored to the interests of his audience; for example, if they want to know about Mars, he talks about Mars. If they want to know about the solar system, he may discuss it outside while gazing up at the desert sky.
"The sky out here is outstanding, like that of West, Texas," he writes. "It’s ideal for star parties. I wish I had a telescope!"
Steinhurst is staying at Al Sarah, a former Air Force Academy in Tikrit, now a major medical school and state university. He has visited with clinicians in Baghdad and witnessed Iraq’s culture and people during his trips across the countryside. "Historically, science, medicine and astronomy were important in the Arabic world," he writes. "The same is true today."
Steinhurst has been involved in the Solar System Ambassador program since 1999. The JPL-sponsored program is comprised of nearly 300 volunteer space enthusiasts who serve in their communities to increase the public’s interest-and awareness-of missions to explore the solar system and beyond. Each ambassador agrees to conduct at least four public outreach events per year, in part to help NASA inspire the next generation of explorers.
Other Solar System Ambassadors affiliated with military service who work abroad include: Army Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Long, from Georgia; Maj. Paul Damphousse of the Marines, from Colorado; Navy Lt. Cmdr. Walter Koehler III, from New Jersey; and English teacher Monica Gonzalez-Cortez, from U.S. Air Force Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.
JPL helps the ambassadors keep informed about NASA missions such as Genesis, to collect samples of material ejected by the Sun; Cassini, to examine Saturn; Stardust, to bring home samples of dust from a comet; and the Mars Exploration Rovers, to explore Mars terrain and probe for signs of life. For more information on the Solar System Ambassador Program, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/.
JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
Contact: JPL/Charli Schuler (818) 393-5467