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Praised by the President
10.24.06
 
Who Are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer working on robotic machines bound for space. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the student wondering if there is life beyond Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all linked by their quest to explore our solar system and universe. This monthly series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.


NASA scientists Sten Odenwald and Lou Mayo study distant stars and planets. But it's their attention to students here on Earth that recently caught the eye of President Bush. He praised them for their efforts to teach young people about space science.

Bush called Odenwald and Mayo "good, hardworking folks" who teach kids that "science is cool." He went on to say that "science is not only cool -- it's really important for the future of this country." He said this while speaking at a middle school in Maryland.

What made the president notice Odenwald and Mayo? Space Science Explorers set out to learn more about these two scientists. Read on to find out what they do and how they became interested in space.

Sten Odenwald

Though afraid of the dark, Sten Odenwald has always enjoyed looking at the night sky.

President Bush talks with a group of people
His fascination with stars and space started a long time ago. It started before the first space shuttle took flight. It started before a spacecraft first landed on Mars. It even started before a human being first set foot on the moon.

Image to left: Sten Odenwald (far right) and astronomy teacher Dorian Janney (far left) meet with President Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. School principal Kevin Hobbs looks on in the background. Credit: NASA

Growing up, Odenwald collected pictures of galaxies the way some kids collect baseball cards. Instead of pitching and batting stats, he would memorize the distance to galaxies or the names of constellations.

By fifth grade, Odenwald had his first telescope. As a sixth-grader in 1964, he wrote a letter to NASA. He wrote about his interest in astronomy and space science. In response, he says NASA sent him "a huge envelope bursting with booklets and mission foldouts."

That was all the encouragement Odenwald needed. He was officially hooked on space. Since then, he has dedicated his life to studying the universe and to teaching others what he has learned.

Odenwald is now a NASA astronomer. He studies light produced by infant galaxies shortly after the universe was born. He also develops education materials related to NASA missions. And he writes about space science in books and magazines.

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In 2004, he helped NASA get word out about the transit of Venus. This event was the rare passing of Venus between the Earth and sun. It only happens about twice a century. People all over the world watched as Venus passed in front of the face of the sun.

Sometimes the best way to educate is in person. Odenwald makes weekly visits to a middle school in Maryland. He teaches students about astronomy and space. He also explains the physics of pressure and sound.

This past school year, Odenwald led a lunchtime science project at the school. Fifteen students used star data to figure out where the edge of the Milky Way galaxy is located. The students presented their work to President Bush during his recent visit to the school.

Working closely with young people is important to Odenwald. He hopes to inspire a new generation of scientists to follow in his footsteps.

"As an astronomer, some of the brightest stars I discover are in the classroom," Odenwald said.

Lou Mayo

For Lou Mayo, birthdays have never been the only reason to have a party.

Lou Mayo and a student use a telescope to study the sun
By second grade, the young sky watcher was having classmates over for "star parties" in his backyard. Sure, the parties involved a lot of running around and yelling. But Mayo and his friends would also stop to look at the stars though his shiny new telescope.

Image to left: Lou Mayo uses telescopes to spark student interest in astronomy. Credit: NASA

Years later, Mayo is still learning about stars and other objects in space. He does this now as a NASA astronomer. He studies the lower atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. His research is shedding light on Titan's clouds and how its precipitation varies by season.

The work Mayo does as an adult is complex. But he still has the simple curiosity about the night sky that he had as a kid. Mayo nurtures a similar interest in up-and-coming scientists. He takes part in various education activities aimed at students and teachers.

"I want to help kids experience the same sense of wonder and excitement about the possibilities of space as I did," Mayo said.

Lou Mayo and President Bush shake hands outside a school
Mayo runs a network of after-school astronomy clubs. These clubs are scattered around the world. They engage students in fun learning activities, such as star parties and field trips to planetariums. He also visits classrooms to help teachers and students better understand the universe.

Image to right: Lou Mayo shakes hands with President Bush, as U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings interacts with students outside the school. Credit: NASA

One goal Mayo has is to clear up confusion some people may have about space. He says some students (and even teachers) believe the North Star is the brightest star in the sky. Others, he says, think that Jupiter has a solid surface.

Neither is true.

The brightest star is actually Sirius, also known as the "Dog Star." Jupiter's surface is made of colorful clouds of gas.

Those are just two of many mysterious objects in the solar system and beyond. Mayo says the countless possibilities of space can be exciting for young people.

"I think space is a natural hook for kids. It's permission for them to think big and wonder about things that are too weird, too scary or too big to get their minds around," Mayo said.

 
 
Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies