To be a Solar System Ambassador

Last Sunday, during the question-and-answer session following my talk at the Shelter Island Historical Society, someone pointed out that the Longitude Problem had been solved during the Age of Reason at a time of great discovery -- but that now we seem to be entering an age of un-reason and un-discovery. (This event followed a certain governor's remarkably uninformed remarks about Galileo.) "What can be done?" my commenter wanted to know.

It was too big a question for a simple answer, but I suggested we all try to share what we know. Later it struck me that I already belong to a volunteer group trying to share knowledge about the planets.: NASA's Solar System Ambassadors Program, which is recruiting new members this month for year-long terms beginning January 1.

Kay Ferrari, who administers the program from her office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, especially seeks candidates from states with only a few active Ambassadors: Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii (Kauai), Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (New York has 23.)

You need not be an astronomer or own a telescope to apply. Kay herself comes from a theater background. When I asked her what constitutes "right stuff" for an Ambassador, she said, "The chief criterion is wanting to make a difference in the lives of others…and then doing it.  We are one huge family of like-minded people.  Sure, we all love space exploration, but our love of sharing the best of ourselves is what makes the program work so well."

Once accepted, Ambassadors can listen in on teleconferences in which scientists and engineers explain specific space missions. The program also gives Ambassadors materials for making their own presentations to groups of interested adults or children. Former Ambassador Sister Clarice Lolich, who died in 2009 at age 90, made a specialty of  talking about planetary science to the inmates of women's prisons near her home in Palo Alto. "She brought small NASA handout items with her for the women to give their children and grandchildren when they visited," Kay recalls. "She wanted them to pass along the inspiring message of space exploration as well."

In a program first this year, two Solar System Ambassadors are getting married -- to each other -- on 11-11-11.