NASA Enlists Volunteers to be Solar System Ambassadors

by Jet Propulsion Lab

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Kids participate in Solar System Ambassador activity

Judging from this year's group of Solar System Ambassadors, the volunteers being recruited by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for next year will be a diverse group using many approaches to spread excitement about space exploration in their communities.

James McLean, a software engineer in York, Maine, set up a telescope outside York High School on a spring night to offer adults and teen-agers views of Saturn and Jupiter.

Eileen Poling, a teacher in Parsons, W.Va., told young children a story and led them in fun activities about the planets at a Five Rivers Public Library story hour in July.

Dr. Darrell Hoskins, a veterinarian in Birmingham, Ala., presented visual programs to church groups about exploring Mars and the possibility of life on Jupiter's moon Europa.

"The people who make good ambassadors are enthusiastic self-starters who are already active in their communities," said Kay Ferrari, national coordinator for the Solar System Ambassador program based at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. "They're in all different types of careers: We have a retired nun in California, a TV weatherman in Michigan, a budget analyst for the Air National Guard in Washington."

The program is accepting applications through Sept. 30 for volunteers to serve as Solar System Ambassadors in 2003. Selections will be announced in December. Each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico has at least one of the current 278 ambassadors. Up to 300 volunteers will be selected for 2003, Ferrari said.

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 Mars Odyssey, mapping the extent of water ice and other interesting deposits on Mars. In teleconferences, ambassadors learn directly from scientists and engineers working on the missions. JPL also supplies the volunteers with presentation materials and ideas to help them share exciting news about solar-system exploration with other people in their communities.

Each ambassador, in return, commits to arranging and carrying out at least four public outreach projects during the year. Part of NASA's mission is to inspire the next generation of explorers.

Craig Molstad, a community-development planner in Onamia, Minn., usually combines outdoor sky-viewing and indoor picture-viewing for his Solar System Ambassador programs at schools and summer camps. He has emphasized both the local heritage of Ojibway Indian traditions about the stars and planets and the benefit of having a dark sky far from big-city lights. "I think it's important to actually take people out and look at the sky. It's one of the blessings of living in a rural area," he said.

Monte Pescador, a Colorado college student, writes a column called "Four Corners, One Sky" for his local Cortez Sentinel newspaper as an outreach project, but also sees the rewards from presenting programs in person to fifth graders. "When you see the kids' eyes light up about something like what a comet is made of, that's the payback," he said. "Their imaginations get going and they're thinking about something that's out beyond the farmland and mesas that surround Cortez."

Maine's McLean said, "Part of why I got involved with JPL is that I've got two boys in junior high and high school. I want to help them be excited about space the way I was as a boy back in the time of the buildup toward astronauts going to the Moon."

Poling said she appreciates the networking with other ambassadors, as well as the handout materials and other support from JPL. When she visited Puerto Rico this year to strengthen her Spanish-language teaching skills, she arranged to meet a Solar System Ambassador there, Angel Sanabria. "Who'd have thought somebody from West Virginia and somebody from Puerto Rico would be helping each other plan programs about space exploration?" Poling said.

For more information about the Solar System Ambassadors program, see the Web site at or contact the coordinator, Kay Ferrari, at or (818) 354-7581. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.