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Insider’s Cassini: An Outreach Extravaganza

Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer

After a tiny break, it was time for a Cassini-specific lecture at the Orem Public Library. This was the only venue during my trip that was open to the public, and the library was quite pleased with an attendance of 70. I was most encouraged by the number of students K-12 in attendance, so I tailored my talk appropriately, sharing the fascinating legacy of the Cassini mission to date. After a quick dinner following the talk, I had little trouble finding slumber—especially given an extremely busy day to come. Thursday dawned bright and sunny, and I began my three-venue, five-talk day at Maeser Academy. Upon my arrival, this school surprised me by telling me classes had not yet begun! I was expecting 150 students in grades 7 to 8, but I ended up with 70 parents and students. Given that attendance was voluntary, during their last week of summer vacation, no less, at least the families who were there really wanted to be there. Unfortunately, ten minutes into my presentation, the power went out for the entire neighborhood! Luckily, the school laptop had good battery life, so I invited all 70 attendees to “gather around” the laptop as I completed my talk. With all the wonderful Q&A, it actually took over ninety minutes before I completed the slide show. I told them, “At this point, if we had power, I’d show you the Mars Exploration Rover animation DVD” and right then the lights came on, and we watched the show! Nearly late at this point, I zipped off to the Utah College of Academic Sciences (UCAS), a magnet high school. I was scheduled for a lunchtime talk (again, with student attendance voluntary) and one sophomore physics class, but I ended up having so much fun I added another 10th grade physics class immediately after the first two back-to-back talks.

My voice was starting to get scratchy by this point, but I still had an afternoon appointment with the chemical engineering department at Brigham Young University as a seminar speaker. One of my passions is chemistry, though I haven’t had a course for a long time. My fondness for chemistry is how I ended up in propulsion within aerospace engineering, actually! Anyway, to “bond” (if you’ll pardon the pun) with this chemistry-centric audience, I spent the first ten minutes telling tales of my near-death experiences during middle school and high school with my chemistry set (on steroids). After reminiscing about mercury spills in my carpet, bedroom fires, dissolved rubber stoppers and bromine clouds, begging for a natural gas line to be installed into my bedroom so I might use a Bunsen burner, etc., I settled down to tales of Cassini, with emphasis on chemistry-themed results at Saturn and its moons. This talk went really well, as did my final presentation the next morning at Alpine Academy, a solar system overview for 200 students in grades 6 to 8. Whew, what a trip!

At this point, I was free to attend the Storytelling Festival, which I did with great relish. During the festival, I saw many excellent tellers, taking mental notes on how their mastery of the lost art of storytelling might help my NASA outreach to be more compelling. I also swapped space facts with the precocious son of Bil Lepp, probably the most vaunted storyteller in attendance. I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that this young lad actually stumped me more than I stumped him. I also spent thirty minutes with a political candidate and his family; he will likely become a freshman U.S. senator from Utah this fall, as he is far ahead in the polls. You never know whom you might run into at storytelling festivals (I’ll resist the obvious joke about politicians having to be good storytellers!). I was also interviewed by a local newspaper reporter about JPL and NASA’s participation in the festival, a wonderful ending for my Utah odyssey.

Principal Vallen Thomas with the author
Principal Vallen Thomas with the author

I would like to thank the folks at “Good Things Utah,” all of the teachers in all of schools for which I spoke, all those who made the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival possible, and especially Nan Black and her family for their generosity during my visit. It was an honor and a privilege doing NASA outreach in the “Beehive State.” Finally, my special thanks to Alice Wessen, Judy Nelson, Jane Houston Jones, and Bob Mitchell for making this trip possible. I hope this isn’t my last outreach trip to the beautiful state of Utah.