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Ambassador for Space
Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments for probing hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the elementary schooler wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Some things just need to be shared.

When people feel passionately enough about something, they just can't help telling others. They have to share the excitement.

David DelMonte sits at a table

David DelMonte worked for the World Bank before becoming a Solar System Ambassador.
Image Credit: David DelMonte

Take, for example, David DelMonte, a member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors project.

"I have been a fan of the space program since, as an 8-year-old, we sat in a circle listening on a transistor radio to the sound of Sputnik in 'outer space,'" DelMonte said. "I followed each part of the manned program and kept up with the unmanned space exploration program. I cried at the losses of Apollo 1 and Challenger. I sat up with the Mars landers that failed and watched in awe as Cassini was inserted into orbit around Saturn."

He was frustrated by media coverage that seemed to report more on negative spaceflight news than on accomplishments, and by a resulting ambivalence on the part of the public. So he decided to do something about it.

"Given my love of the program and my instinct that it is our destiny to save our planet, and to explore worlds beyond ours, I wanted to find a way to be an ambassador that could touch people and make them conscious of what was going on," he said.

That's how DelMonte became involved with NASA's Solar System Ambassadors project. Through the project, NASA leverages the excitement of spaceflight enthusiasts around the nation into a network of public outreach volunteers, working toward the agency's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Established in 1997 to capitalize on interest in NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Solar System Ambassadors project is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The project currently has 494 volunteers, who work to convey the wonders of space to the public. Ambassadors receive online training from JPL, as well as educational materials related to robotic space exploration missions.

Ambassadors cover all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Current ambassadors come from a wide variety of fields, including such careers as teachers, firefighters, engineers, entrepreneurs, students, land surveyors and soldiers.

"Solar System Ambassadors come from all walks of life," said Kay Ferrari, who manages the project at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "They come from all kinds of backgrounds and from all over the country. The qualities these volunteers share are a love of space exploration and a desire to share that love with people in their communities."

Solar System Ambassadors participate in a variety of community events, and organizations can submit requests through the project Web site for Ambassadors to make presentations.

DelMonte said his efforts as a Solar System Ambassador were inspired, in part, by experiences he had as a computer system developer for the World Bank. He was involved in a project to bring distance-learning capabilities to children in Papua New Guinea, in hopes that reaching the nation's youth would bring about change in conditions there as they got older.

"I realized that this was my key to being an Ambassador -- get to the children," he said. "My proposal was essentially to contact local schools and give presentations on (three things): an outline of the solar system as we are learning about it; missions and plans; and potential careers for young people in many ways that people don't think about when planning their future."

Already, DelMonte said, that approach seems to be working well.

"I have not been an Ambassador for long, but have had a few highlights already," he said. "I was asked in March to be a judge at a science fair in a distressed school in a very tough part of D.C. I was amazed at the range of projects, but one kid sort of stood out. Many of the projects were clearly the work largely of the parents -- and I was delighted that in this part of town, that parents and families were involved -- but this young man had developed his project by himself. No one helped him. It wasn't really well-documented, but it was really clever.

"So I made a special point of telling him what a brain he had, and how if he applied himself, he could be in the (space) program or become anything he wanted to be. His eyes were as big as saucers. Honestly, these moments are highlights in my own life, let alone these young people."

Another highlight, he said, has been giving classroom presentations about Earth and space science. "Always, the kids are spellbound by the videos," he said. "There are dozens of questions -- from girls and boys -- and the adults are even awed with new knowledge.

In fact, DelMonte said, the audience members aren’t the only ones amazed by new knowledge. He said that, as someone who has long followed space exploration, he has been amazed at what he has learned through the materials JPL provides for the Ambassadors. "I am learning tons," he said. "I myself am amazed by what is going on."

A side benefit of his participation in the Ambassadors project, DelMonte said, is that his friends and family members have taken greater interest in space exploration.

DelMonte said he has enjoyed having the opportunity to share with students his passion for exploration.

"The most important thing I want to convey to students is this: we are learning that we have impact on our environment," he said. "We are learning that there are worlds in our solar system we could reach and learn about our own origins, and perhaps head off disasters that befell them. If we devote our lives in some way to these ends, we stand a chance of surviving as a species, growing as human beings and opening new horizons, in ourselves and in our general knowledge. I don't mean that everyone works for the space program, but that everyone learns what it's about and to give it their support.

"And to children especially, no matter if they get no support from families, teachers or friends, that they -- if they persevere -- can be anything they want to be -- if only they work hard and keep thinking, studying and learning."

Related Resources
Solar System Ambassadors  →
David DelMonte  →
NASA Education Web Site  →
Galileo Mission  →
NASA Solar System Exploration: Education  →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services