Getting the Word Out
Three NASA Solar System Ambassadors may soon be sharing information about NASA's missions a little more often. John Vittallo, Jim Kovac and Michelle Nichols, all of the Chicago area, were recently included in the Library Administrator's Conference of Northern Illinois' Best of the Best Resource Guide.

The guide is published every three years and includes listings of programs nominated by library program directors for being among the best presentations hosted at their libraries.

John Vittallo and Jim Kovac

Jim Kovac and John Vittallo have given presentations on NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission at dozens of libraries, schools and organizations in the greater Chicago area. The duo recently presented at the Morton Grove Public Library on the north side of Chicago. Image Credit: Jim Kovac

Vittallo and Kovac were recognized for their joint presentation on NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. The Cassini-Huygens mission was launched in 1997. It took the spacecraft seven years to make the 2.2-billion-mile trip to Saturn. Since 2004, the Cassini orbiter has been flying around the giant gas planet, taking images and collecting data on the planet itself and its many rings and moons.

In 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan is currently the farthest location in space to have a human-made object land on it.

Vittallo and Kovac have presented on the Cassini-Huygens mission at dozens of libraries, schools and organizations in the greater Chicago area. Vittallo joined NASA's Solar System Ambassador program in 2002, and in 2005 he recruited Kovac to also take part.

The Solar System Ambassadors program is a public outreach effort that works with volunteers across the country. Ambassadors have access to training and materials that help them share the excitement of NASA's missions and information about recent scientific discoveries.

Currently more than 500 Solar System Ambassadors serve all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the program supports NASA's goal of engaging Americans in NASA missions.

Both Vittallo and Kovac said they were drawn to space exploration by earlier NASA missions. For Kovac, it was the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. For Vittallo, it was watching television coverage of the Voyager I mission passing by the solar system's outer gaseous planets. "I remember watching that and saying, 'Wow this is really great,' and maybe in the back of my mind saying, 'Wouldn't it be something to be part of this,'" Vittallo said.

A partial view of Saturn and its rings

This image of Saturn was taken April 23, 2008, by the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In addition to the presentation with Kovac on Cassini-Huygens, Vittallo's other presentations include overviews of Stardust, which is a sample-return mission to a comet, and of Deep Impact, a comet impact mission. Kovac's individual talks include one titled "The Universe in Images." The presentation showcases images from NASA's Great Observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope.

"The robotic exploration allows us to look at the planets that had just been these little points of light in the past and transform these things into real worlds," Kovac said.

Kovac said the Solar System Ambassador program is important because it educates the public about the many worlds that need to be explored and the NASA missions that are exploring them. When he talks about the planets of the solar system, he points out that the planets themselves are not the only points of interest. Each planet has many, many moons. Saturn, for example, has 60 moons, the latest one just discovered last year.

Kovac also talks about the possibility of life on other planets. "The possibility of life elsewhere is a very intriguing thought that I like to communicate," Kovac said.

Vittallo and Kovac, who are both engineers at Motorola, conclude their presentations by pointing people to NASA's Web site and to the specific mission pages within the site. They remind the public that the information and images from NASA missions belong to the people. The images and findings are not available exclusively to scientists and engineers but to everyone, Kovac said.

"One of my criteria for success is can I get at least one audience member to go check out the Cassini Web site after the presentation," Vittallo said.

Nichols, who is the master educator for informal programs at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, was nominated for the Best of the Best honor for her presentation titled "The Planets ... and Pluto." The talk discusses the similarities and differences between planets and other objects in the solar system. She also explains the Pluto controversy and why astronomers had such a hard time deciding what makes a planet "a planet."

Nichols kneeling beside a full-size model of a Mars rover

Michelle Nichols was nominated for the Best of the Best honor for her presentation titled "The Planets ... and Pluto." Image Credit: Michelle Nichols

"The solar system presentation is the most interesting to do because it gives me the opportunity to tell about all the NASA missions that are out there," Nichols said. "They (the public) just don't know that there are so many.

"I focus a bit on Earth, as well, because people don’t realize that there are over a dozen Earth-observing missions."

Nichols holds degrees in physics, astronomy and education. She has worked in education at Adler for 13 years and gives talks about a variety of solar system topics. She has presented on the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers, comets, global climate change, lunar exploration, the new Ares and Orion spacecraft, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that will launch in 2009.

"I usually tailor them (the presentations) to what the library or group wants and what they think their audiences will be interested in," Nichols said. "I've never had one that I didn't want to do. They've all been compelling topics to explore."

Related Resources
Solar Systems Ambassadors Program   →
Solar System Exploration   →
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA's Great Observatories
Hubble Space Telescope
Deep Impact
Saturn's Moons   →
NASA Education Web site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services