The Augustine Report was released this month, and there isn’t much good news for those of us who want to see NASA accomplish all of its goals in human space flight. The choices are all tough, many folks employment future at NASA has been placed in uncertainty, and no tangible results will be reached until nearly 2020 under the best of options. One Twitter Spacetweep said it best, “I guess we are all bogged down in trivia, and don’t have the same curiosity and excitement anymore.” Therein lies the problem with human space flight…it doesn’t carry with it the excitement anymore.
I volunteer at the Kopernik Observatory and Science Center, which is a rather unique institution located in Vestal, NY just south of Binghamton, NY. This facility has many missions. The first mission is to support local educational institutions (K-12, local colleges and universities, as well as organization such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts) in science education activities. Its second mission is to offer educational programs of its own completely independent from the local community related to science, space, and astronomy. Its third mission is to perform public outreach to people of all ages and backgrounds with respect to science.
The facility is fully equipped with various lecture halls, a computer lab, and just about anything needed to educate. Most impressive are the three domes, which make up the observatory. The three telescopes are a 6” f/12 AstroPhysics Refractor, A Celestron C-14 Telescope mounted on a Celestron goto mount, and a fully automated Optical Guidance Systems f/8 20” RC Reflector (research grade). Just visiting this wonderful place in the daytime results in the “Wow Factor” for most people.
The strongest tool for promoting science, space, and astronomy topics is the “Wow Factor.” If you get someone, adult or child, to say “wow” involuntarily, you have left a mark on that person’s mind that will last a lifetime. Whether it is a great demonstration, showing a child the night sky through binoculars, a fantastic astro-photograph, or describing the make up of The Great Globular Cluster (M13) while an adult or child gazes upon it through a telescope. The best wow factor I have seen yet in my time volunteering is from children and adults who get excited about the powerful green laser I use to outline the constellations in the night sky. To the experienced amateur astronomer – the simple things always invigorate the public, once they have the chance to experience those things first hand.
Kopernik Observatory pumps thousands of people through its doors every year (maybe even 10’s of thousands). This work is accomplished through the hard work of five Kopernik staff, and a handful of volunteers. Most of the volunteers come from the Kopernik Astronomical Society, the local amateur astronomy club. Every Friday night, the observatory is open to the public. Much of its funding comes from generous donations, public grants, and its own programs which draws youth from all over the country. This place is a real gem in the scientific community.
The Broome County and Tioga County areas have generated four NASA Shuttle Astronauts over the years. Astronaut Douglas H. Wheelcock, Astronaut Doug Hurley, Astronaut Eileen M. Collins, and Astronaut Daniel W. Bursch. A by far disproportional level when considering the collective population of the area is only around 150,000. But it does show the area’s excitement and interest in science and space. Two of the astronauts listed above could very well have been impacted by Kopernik’s activities, which lead them to their career goals. One cannot build a direct link between the observatory and its impacts; however, the indirect impact of its effort may very well be real.
OK, I am biased here, I have to admit, I am Vice President of membership affairs for the Kopernik Astronomical Society. However, the single best way to re-invigorate America on Science, Astronomy, Space Exploration, Manned Spaceflight, and other technological contributions to these fields, is to create that “Wow” factor through some first hand experience and tying it to things that occur everyday. In this approach, small organizations can make a huge impact on the children of tomorrow and also their parents.
Public outreach has for a long time been known to be an effective tool in science promotion. This outreach is most effective when getting that “Wow Factor” to surface.
This past week I did a stand-in presentation for the Kopernik Observatory’s public Friday activities. For which we had about 50 people from the public in attendance. The presentation I gave was on Saturn’s moons, an intriguing topic to me. However, I must admit that I was feeling a little self conscious about the presentation, that my interest was possibly boring the star dust out of others. However, after the presentation, folks who were simply ignited about the topic overran me. On that night, I made a huge impression on others of the importance of studying such topics, and this ignited the spark in quite a few folks.
“One mind at a time” is the approach to this problem. The curiosity, excitement, and fascination is still out there in the general public, and it is up to those who have been ignited to spread the power and allure of space related topics. The “excitement” is in the materials, it just needs to be passed to the public.