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Remarks by the Honorable Sean O'Keefe at the National Federation of the Blind
01.30.04
 
Opening Celebration
National Federation of the Blind
Research and Training Institute
Baltimore, Maryland


Thank you Donna (Donna Hamilton, News Anchor, WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore) for that gracious introduction and good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I'm delighted to be here tonight to help celebrate the National Federation of the Blind's new Research and Training Institute.

On behalf of all the men and women of NASA, I salute NFB's President Dr. Marc Maurer and the Center's Executive Director Dr. Betsy Zabarowski for this truly remarkable accomplishment. I join them in thanking Governor Robert Ehrlich, Senators Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, Congressman Ben Cardin and Mayor Martin O'Malley for their strong support for your organization, which truly is a national treasure.

Joining me tonight is a public servant who's helping to energize our partnership with the Federation and expand opportunities at NASA for people of all abilities, our Assistant Administrator for Equal Opportunity Programs Dr. Dorothy Hayden-Watkins. Through the NASA-Defense Department Computer Electronic Accommodations Program that Dorothy is helping to promote, NASA is making a full range of electronic and information technology available to NASA employees with visual, hearing, dexterity and cognitive disabilities. We are quite proud of this program, which we instituted over a year ago throughout the Agency.
Now this past month I've been involved in some terrific events, including the landing of our twin exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity on the surface of Mars. Tonight is truly the icing on the cake. This evening I'm filled with special pride because NASA and the National Federation of the Blind are partners in an unprecedented exploration mission.

Through our partnership we are attempting to do nothing less than change forever how the blind community has access to science, so that young blind boys and girls will be at the head of the pack of the next generation of explorers. I can think of no more uplifting mission goal for our storied Agency.

To illustrate what we are doing, I'd like to mention that with us in the audience is Dr. Robert Shelton from NASA's Johnson Space Center. Dr. Shelton is using his math and computer expertise to help develop easy-to-use, cutting-edge technology tools that make math and science accessible to all students, including students with disabilities. Dr. Shelton is conducting this work through NASA's Education Enterprise which is led by Dr. Adena Loston, who is also with us. Would both of you please stand up and be recognized.

Now this summer, NASA will support the Research and Training Institute's summer science camp for blind students. We're excited that students in grades 7-9 will get hands on experience at our Goddard Space Flight Center in a number of earth science experiments that range from an exploration of soil moisture content to bird migration patterns and temperature variation.

Our Goddard Director Mr. Al Diaz is here tonight, and he also deserves a great deal of credit for making this initiative a major focus for our agency. Al would you please stand and be recognized?

Now if you think that summer camp sounds like fun, how would you like to be among the high school level students who will develop rocket payloads at the Institute and then launch them at our Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. That's one class I wouldn't mind going back to school for!

Of course, through the Research and Training Institute we will work with the Federation to adapt NASA's educational materials for blind students in classrooms across the country.

One of our great projects in this regard, one many of you are familiar with, is the beautiful book entitled, "Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy."

For the first time, thanks to the wonderful work of Noreen Grice (rhymes with Rice) and Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, this book uses stunning imagery obtained by the Hubble to open up the far reaches of the universe to blind students through its imaginative use of tactile illustrations of stars, planets and other heavenly bodies.

For those of you who don't know her, Noreen helps present Planetarium programs at the Boston Museum of Science. Several years ago, she noticed a number of blind students at a planetarium show and asked them afterwards what they thought of the experience. She was told in no uncertain terms that the show wasn't very fun or meaningful to sit through.

Like a good scientist, Noreen decided to do some further investigation into the matter. At the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts she discovered that while there were Braille books on astronomy, none had pictures to help the reader make sense of what was being described. She realized the planetarium goers had no context with which to fully appreciate the astronomy program. The librarian told her that making Braille books with pictures was a very expensive proposition.

Recognizing that she had a tremendous opportunity to do some good, Noreen created a 44 page illustrated astronomy book called "Touch the Stars." NASA's Bernhard Beck-Winchatz saw the book at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and suggested that Noreen do a Braille book on the incredible results of the Hubble Space Telescope. The rest, as they say, is history.

On the back cover of Touch the Universe is one of the best book endorsements I've ever read. It is from Dr. Kent Cullers, the Director of Research and Development at the SETI Institute, the private group that is conducting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Dr. Cullers writes, "As a radio astronomer, and the world's only blind one, at that, I feel a powerful intuitive connection with the astonishing exotic objects in the distant universe. When I touch the tactile image of the Hubble Northern Deep Field of galaxies in Touch the Universe, I am overwhelmed by the same astonishment, a sensory connection with the distant cosmos. It has often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, for the first time in my career, I get the picture.

We at NASA also get the picture. And I can assure each and everyone in this audience this: Working with the National Federation of the Blind, we will do our utmost to make certain the next generation of explorers will have hundreds and thousands of blind astronomers, engineers and scientists helping to advance our exploration horizons to heights unimagined and into frontiers unknown. We have big work ahead, and we are determined that the blind community be vital contributors to this work.

I thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you tonight, and again, my hearty congratulations on this extraordinary kickoff for the NFB's Research and Training Institute.

Sean O'Keefe
NASA Administrator