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Narrator: Sharing the stars: a soldier's story. I'm Jane Platt and you're listening to a podcast from JPL -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Solar System Ambassador. Now there's an unusual title. A title held by 470 volunteers trained by JPL. These ambassadors share the wonders of space and exploration with star-watching parties and other public events across the United States and in Puerto Rico. Well, now this celestial magic has spread even farther across the globe. Joining us today, from a forward deployed location in southwest Asia, Solar System Ambassador Sgt. James Wallace of the U.S. Air Force, originally from Alamogordo, New Mexico. Sergeant Wallace, thanks for arranging telephone access today.
Sgt. Wallace: Thank you for having me on.
Narrator: What can you tell us about what you're actually doing over there in the Air Force?
Wallace: I am a space systems operator, so I normally work with satellites and objects in space that are very close to the Earth.
Narrator: And was it an interest in astronomy that led you to that particular area in the military?
Wallace: Yes, it was. I was interested in astronomy before I came into the military, and when I found out that I could actually work with space once I came in, I tried for that job and ended up being able to work with it for the past 15 years.
Narrator: Now, you are a solar system ambassador and you're the only one we have in that part of the world. You actually started doing this when you were in New Mexico.
Wallace: I actually became a solar system ambassador the beginning of 2006, and right after my application was approved, I received orders to come overseas. So I had scheduled events back home and wasn't able to do a single one actually, because I came over to southwest Asia, here. And I just decided to change my venue. I decided to do the events here for the military. And I go out and just talk about the stars, talk about the JPL missions and just answer questions that people have about the solar system and about space.
Narrator: You include members of the U.S. military but people from other countries, as well. Is that correct?
Wallace: Yes. Because we have different military nationals here on base, they're welcome to attend.
Narrator: What kind of reaction do you get when people hear that you're having a star party or whatever? Are they skeptical, enthusiastic?
Wallace: We've had a lot of people that are just really excited to hear that there are actually star parties going on. It's not something that you would normally find on an Air Force base back in the U.S. And when people come out here, they don't expect to find something out of the ordinary like this. So they're very excited. They also realize that the stars are different here than they may be back home, so they are interested to come out and see what's different.
Narrator: How are the stars different? You're seeing different things basically.
Wallace: We are further south here than a lot of locations in the US, so we can see objects in the south, the southern skies, much better. They're much higher in the sky, and it actually surprises a lot of people. We do have some areas on the compound that are dark skies, even darker than what people get back home, from say New York or somewhere where there's terrible light pollution. We do get to see more stars.
Narrator: How do they react once they're out there and they're actually seeing things and you're explaining things to them?
Wallace: They actually – the most fun part about doing any sort of astronomy is the ooohs and the aaahs when people see something that they've never seen for the first time. Just being able to see the moons of Jupiter with a small telescope, and here they are in the middle of somewhere that they never expected to be sometimes.
Narrator: Any favorite anecdotes, I don't know, maybe you had somebody who was really skeptical and then was completely blown away by what he or she saw? Anything like that?
Wallace: We've had a few people that come every week almost, and just listening to them talk about, say, looking at the moon and how it's an old friend, how they see the moon here and they know that their family is seeing it back in the states, where they're from. It's something that can follow us no matter where we're at.
Narrator: And you're looking at the solar system and galaxies and things that we share all over the globe basically.
Wallace: Yes. We don't have a lot of time on our hands because the mission is pretty intense, but what happens is those times when we're not doing the mission, the quiet and the darkness becomes overwhelming a lot. And people do look up, they look at the stars and they consider family and things like that. So the stars are something that we can tie back to family back home. And people can quiet down and calm down a little bit sometimes. And they come out to the star parties to do just that, get out into the dark away from a lot of other things and be able to talk about something that ties them back with everyone in the world.
Narrator: Do you know and can you tell us how much longer you'll be there?
Wallace: I just have a few more weeks, and I'm constantly looking for someone else to take up the mantle, because I am the only solar system ambassador that's really out of the states, that I know of. I'm looking for someone to try to take that on out here and keep it going, because there are a lot of people that are interested.
Narrator: And you'll be coming back to New Mexico?
Wallace: Yes, I'll be going back to New Mexico first and then the military will probably move me again pretty soon.
Narrator: And wherever you go, you're going to take your solar system ambassadorship with you?
Wallace: Yes, I will, and that's the one thing that, it doesn't matter where I get stationed in the world, the stars are always up there.
Narrator: Thank you so much, Sgt. Wallace, for joining us today, I really appreciate your time, and we appreciate your efforts in setting up this long, long distance phone line.
Wallace: Well, thank you very much for having me on.
Narrator: Sgt. James Wallace, a solar system ambassador. More info on the program is at http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/
. Thanks for joining us for this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.