They come from all walks of life to spread the word.
Robert Gass, an accountant, organized an outdoor meteor- watching event in Florida where hundreds of people learned both about NASA's current space-exploration missions and about Seminole Indian star lore.
Sally Jensen, a fifth-grade teacher in New Hampshire, prepared a series of public programs about spacecraft to Jupiter, Mars and other parts of the solar system, and presented them in the planetarium of her local Plymouth State College.
Earl Towson, a retired engineer, helped more than 200 Boy Scout summer campers in California earn merit badges in astronomy and space exploration.
Michelle Baker, a corporate marketing executive in New Jersey, taught families about robots in space during a "Super Science" weekend at Trenton State Museum.
Those are a sampling of activities during the past 12 months by 144 NASA Solar System Ambassadors in 45 states.
Beginning today, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., is seeking applications for people to become Solar System Ambassadors in 2001.
"They're in it because they're excited about space exploration," said JPL's Kay Ferrari, coordinator of the program. "This gives us the opportunity to piggyback on their enthusiasm and it gives them some extra credibility for going out into their communities."
JPL helps the ambassadors learn about missions such as Galileo, to Jupiter; Cassini, to Saturn; and Stardust, to bring home sample particles from a comet's tail. The ambassadors participate in teleconferences and Internet chats directly with scientists and engineers working on the missions. They also receive materials such as brochures, posters and color slides to help them excite other people about the wonders of the solar system.
The ambassadors commit to arranging at least four public outreach projects during the year. Projects range from library talks to original theater productions. Last year, the events directly reached about 400,000 people.
Like most of other ambassadors, Gass, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was an astronomy buff who enjoyed sharing his enthusiasm even before learning about this program.
"I had been looking for new ways to reach people," Gass said. "Before, people said, 'Who is this guy? He's an accountant.' Now, the affiliation with JPL helps. I talk with the mission scientists. I've had training sessions." As a JPL Solar System Ambassador, he has convinced movie-theater managers to let him present real information about planetary exploration outside showings of space science-fiction films.
"A lot of people seem to have a general interest, but they don't know much about what projects are going on now, what's being accomplished," Gass said. "You give them some information. You see their eyes light up."
Jensen, of Plymouth, N.H., said she likes the networking with other ambassadors to share ideas about outreach projects.
Towson, of La Mesa, Calif., has helped Boy Scouts learn about astronomy for years. Joining the ambassador program has helped him do it better by keeping him up-to-date about current space exploration projects, he said.
Baker, of Princeton, N.J., enjoys sharing excitement about solar system exploration with adults who might otherwise not pay it much attention.
"Kids seem to have a natural interest in it, but it's good to reach adults and see them get excited about it again, too," she said.
The Solar System Ambassadors program began last year, as an expansion from earlier outreach projects linked to individual NASA missions. Ferrari hopes to expand it to 200 ambassadors in all 50 states next year.
Applications will be accepted until Sept. 30. Forms and information are available at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador , or by calling (818) 354-7581.
News Media ContactGuy Webster, (818) 354-6278