February 14, 2003
Whether he is talking to children or adults, Solar System Ambassador Angel Sanabria knows how to capture everybody's imagination about the wonders of space. And the former aerospace education teacher has plenty of fun doing it.
Drawing from his 27 years of experience with the Puerto Rico Department of Education, Sanabria banks on the children's interest in sports. Using anything from marbles to basketballs, he speaks of the different sizes and orbits of the celestial bodies.
"I let them play with the different balls and eventually we start to compare them to the various planets," Sanabria says.
Another popular prop he uses to introduce the solar system takes advantage of the learner's sweet tooth.
"Candies are everybody's favorite, so I use edible rocks to illustrate concepts and build edible solar systems," explains Sanabria. "First we build it and then we eat it. That's always a fun activity."
As a Solar System Ambassador, Sanabria is part of a program sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that recruits volunteers to organize space-related events in their communities. He organizes various events in and around his native town of Sabana Grande, in the southwest part of Puerto Rico. He goes to schools, fairs, libraries and just about anywhere people are willing to let him share his knowledge and excitement about space exploration.
A Love for Flying and Teaching
Sanabria says he loved everything that had to do with flying and space when he was a boy. He read every space-related book he could find and he never missed a science show on television. His favorite toys were airplanes and everything he could build that could "fly." He also proved to be a resourceful teacher even at a young age.
Sanabria showed up at his first science fair, at age 12, with the brain of a cow. He wanted to show his peers what the real thing looked like so they didn't have to rely solely on textbook illustrations. To get the goods, he had enlisted his grandfather, who worked at a slaughterhouse.
"I remember I wrote some information on how the brain works," he says. "Now I tell my students how scientists at NASA study how the brain and the heart work in space."
Of course, sometimes an activity doesn't go exactly as planned. In such cases, Sanabria improvises.
"Once I was sharing about orbits and trajectories, using a tennis ball and a cord," he recalls. "The thing was that the tennis ball got loose and I had to rapidly talk about Newton's laws of motion, escape velocity and inertia."
His biggest challenge is when he is in front of an audience composed of different levels of understanding.
"I had the opportunity to hold an event at a rural elementary school nearby, and in the audience I saw young kids with their parents and teachers," he says. "So I kept the activities simple and I left plenty of time to answer questions and to give the audience the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities. It helped a lot that I had decorated the room with NASA images, which facilitate understanding and fire up people's imagination."
But regardless of who is in the audience, Sanabria says the enthusiasm for the space program is everywhere.
"Young and old, they all show me how hungry they are for pertinent and updated information on NASA's work," he says. "Everything that deals with space exploration puts them at the edge of their seats, and the questions flow like a river."
When he is not speaking about space, the 52-year old Sanabria enjoys playing basketball with his three daughters and spending time with his three grandsons. He also has a passion for computers and astrobiology.
"As an ambassador, my biggest satisfaction is to be able to say, 'I represent NASA and JPL's Solar System Ambassadors Program,' " he says. "This is my dream job."