What do a teacher, surfer, firefighter, award-winning book author and neurosurgeon have in common? A love of space and a desire to share that passion.  They’ve joined a growing number of private citizens in NASA’s Solar System Ambassador program, which brings space information to the public through planetarium talks, telescope-viewing parties, mall displays and other events.

Twenty-nine new ambassadors joined the program this year, bringing the total to 450 ambassadors from all 50 states and Puerto Rico

For swim coach and surfer Mike Olsberg of Newport Beach, Calif., looking up at the stars overhead always captured his imagination, so becoming a NASA ambassador was a no-brainer.

“When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, it represented the culmination of all of man’s technological achievements up to that moment.  Since that day, space exploration has always has been a personal interest for me,” Olsberg said. He began his career as a swim coach, which led to a teaching position at Fountain Valley High School in Orange County, Calif.

For Kevin Kilkenny, a 15-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department stationed in Brooklyn, N.Y, looking to the sky has been a favorite activity since he was eight years old.  “I like watching the faces of the youngsters as they learn about faraway planets and then go outside and see them through a telescope. Watching them make their own discovery is priceless,” he said.   

Kevin was glued to the TV that summer day in 1969 when Apollo 11 made its historic landing on the moon. He is currently building scale models of the Cassini and Deep Impact spacecraft.

“I have known since my early childhood that I was born to teach,” said Judy M. Dominguez, a 33-year retired teacher of math and science, who lives in Downey, Calif.  “I realized that I had the gift of being able to explain complex ideas in such a way that people could understand them, and by doing so, I experienced great joy.”

“I have been passionate about space, astronomy and related subjects.  I consider it a personal responsibility to communicate their importance, and the wonder and joy of knowing to others,” added Dominguez.

For Dr. Ronald Ignelzi, becoming an ambassador was a chance to speak about how space technology can help improve everyday lives.  Ignelzi recently retired as a neurosurgeon and lives in La Jolla, Calif. 

“I believe space exploration and NASA are a great part of our planet’s future and that already some of the technology developed for spacecraft has applications in medicine.  These spin-offs have propelled medical technology and will continue to do so in the future.”  

“As a long-time space cadet, I loved the idea of becoming an ambassador for the solar system,” said Dava Sobel of East Hampton, N.Y., an award-winning author of popular science books.  “I’m often invited to speak at local schools and libraries about my work. Invariably my talks turn to space exploration and mention of at least one NASA mission, but now I’ll be able to do this in a semi-official capacity.”

Each ambassador agrees to hold at least four public events during the year.  In 2005, ambassadors participated in 2,071 events that reached more than one million people. 

Kay Ferrari, coordinator of the program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said, “The 2006 ambassadors are a wonderfully diverse group.  This program has a tradition of bringing people together who have different backgrounds but share an interest in space exploration.”

In its ninth year, the JPL-managed program prepares these volunteers through a series of Internet training courses and teleconferences.  Ambassadors speak directly with scientists and engineers on missions like Cassini to Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Stardust mission that brought home comet samples. They also receive brochures, posters, DVDs and other materials to help them in their presentations.

For more information on the program, contact Kay Ferrari at ambassadors@jpl.nasa.gov or (818) 354-7581 or visit: www.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/front.html

To contact a local ambassador in your area or find out about an event near you, check the calendar of events at: http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/events.html .

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.