It was 2003, just a year before NASA's Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were set to land on the Red Planet in a feat of engineering ingenuity rarely seen on the third planet from the sun - let alone the fourth -- and there was a problem on the horizon. Museums, planetariums and science centers, the very organizations that would inevitably become local experts for the much-anticipated landings, were severely lacking access to NASA's resources.
"A year before the landings, we started a conversation with about 12 museums and planetariums around the country," said Anita Sohus, who now leads the brainchild of that conversation, the Museum Alliance, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We talked about what kinds of resources they would like and by the end of November 2003 we had 130 organizations sign up [for the Museum Alliance] immediately."
When the landings rolled around, many of the Museum Alliance partners, who had been given unique access to mission personnel as well as visualizations and materials, held their doors open through the night -- some in blizzard conditions -- and still had overflow crowds to witness the landings. "It was clear we were on to something big," said Sohus.
Nine years later on a Thursday afternoon, 65 people log in to one of the Museum Alliance's teleconferences. Susana E. Deustua, an associate scientist on the Instruments Division team at the Space Telescope Science Institute is describing how NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will use the moon as a mirror to observe the upcoming transit of Venus, an event that won't take place again for another 105 years. The telecon inspires a string of questions and curiosities, which will later be shared with the thousands of visitors, students, teachers and life-long learners who visit one of the more than 500 organizations currently participating in the Museum Alliance.
Today, the Museum Alliance continues to play an important and essential role, connecting its partners with the missions and resources they need most and turning those connections into new ways to engage the public. A quick look at the Museum Alliance website, where partners list hundreds of NASA-related events at their various centers, speaks not only to the Alliance's incredible reach, but also the value it provides.
"When we're able to talk to [the scientists doing research on these missions] directly, it makes a big difference in terms of sharing that information with our audience. It's priceless," said Shawn Laatsch, a planetarium manager at the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii who joined the Museum Alliance in 2003 when he was managing a planetarium in Kentucky. "Every planetarium show we do has a live segment, so when there are new discoveries, we try to incorporate them into the show."
For Greg Andrews, the astronomy program leader at Sci-Port Louisiana's Science Center, who says his background in physics hadn't prepared him for the spotlight of public presentations, the telecons are a lesson in translation. "Not everybody thinks the way I do," he said. "The telecons have a great way of breaking down the information so you can understand it and relay it to others."
In addition to the telecons, which cover topics as diverse as distant star formation and NASA's newest visualization programs and bring in dozens of participants each session, the Museum Alliance provides organizations with unique resources and materials that alone can encourage thousands of visits.
"The Museum Alliance is a good place for resources," said Mal Cameron, an education specialist at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, N.H., which in 2005 was one of only two places in New England with large-scale images from the Hubble Space Telescope on display - a mural donated by the Space Telescope Science Institute. "It's been great for getting people to come see us. We're always looking for ways we can advance what we do as a science center."
David Falk, a full-time instructor of astronomy and the planetarium director at Los Angeles Valley College, says the resources offered by the Museum Alliance, which over the years have included educational posters and instructional DVDs, bring in visitors to the planetarium and students to the college's science programs. "We're always trying to get people to attend Los Angeles Valley College, and the Museum Alliance has become a big part of that," he said. "Getting pictures from the Mars missions and others is like gold."
And this constant stream of resources and connections is turning Museum Alliance partners into experts in their own right, who can then use their insights to engage and inspire others.
"I love those teaching moments when kids come up to you with questions to answer and a lot of it I know" said Cameron. "Much of what I've learned is from the Museum Alliance."
With more exciting mission events and discoveries always just around the corner, the future looks bright for the Museum Alliance as it launches into its second decade. "We add value because we give members a direct pipeline to information from NASA and insight directly from mission experts," said Sohus.
To learn more about the Museum Alliance and how museum professionals can get involved, visit http://informal.jpl.nasa.gov/museum/index.cfm.
Visit http://informal.jpl.nasa.gov/museum/Visiting to find a listing of Museum Alliance organizations near you.