18 Jun 19
The Ukiah Daily Journal
NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the parent organization for space exploration and science in the U.S., and Elizabeth Garcia is NASA’s Solar System Ambassador for Ukiah, and our tri-county area of Mendocino, Lake, and Sonoma counties. She became a NASA Ambassador in 2018. She was born in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and her NASA Solar System Ambassadors Program Bio states, “Her mother fostered her curiosity and that of her brother by letting them sleep outside during meteor showers…,” a tradition she has continued with her own children.
Garcia’s mother worked at Northrop and became NASA Ambassador in 2018. (Photo by Carolyn Ponts Steckter)
Garcia states, “My dad, who died when I was six months old, was a supervisor of the parachutes used for re-entry in the Apollo program. My mom worked at Northrop. She was a huge influence. She always kept our eyes in the sky. My brother’s also a NASA Ambassador, so we’re a NASA family. My mom kept our interest in space and technology by taking us to observations and museums. She was raising us as a single mom, and I remember her allowing us to ride our bikes all the way across town when I was just little, just to get free NASA Voyager pictures being given out at a bank. She had to work, and when I asked her if I could ride my bike she said, “Get going and be careful.”
English cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s mother also encouraged his passion for science and the sky, and one of his online biographies states, “…his mother, along with her children, often stretched out in the backyard on summer evenings to stare up at the stars. “Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder,” his mother remembered. “And I could see that the stars would draw him.”
The stars have drawn Garcia as well, who in addition to her career as a biologist, has a great passion for learning about and teaching about NASA and space science. A big fan of NASA TV and Radio, she says, “My kids are embarrassed I’m such a space nerd, but when Juno did its orbital entry around Jupiter a few summers ago, they clapped too. They’re keenly aware of space and all the missions that are happening. My son is graduating from UCLA with an Arabic degree, and he’s thinking of going back for planetary science. I try not to push it too much, but my two girls are interested in space and planetary explorations.”
This summer, NASA will perform an Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) flight test on July 2 to test the system for the Orion spacecraft, as part of the Artemis program, which is to establish a permanent presence on the Moon and gain the skills needed to send humans to Mars. On Friday, July 19 at 1 p.m. E.D.T., NASA will broadcast “NASA’s Giant Leaps: Celebrating Apollo 50th as We Go Forward to the Moon.” All of this worth celebrating notwithstanding, Garcia holds an enthusiastically egalitarian perspective on all of NASA’s accomplishments. When asked what she sees as NASA’s most important past and future missions, she states, “Is there really a mission that’s more important than another? No. Which is better? None. They’re all amazing. They’re all so different.”
“All the missions are adapted and unique for what they’re focused on studying. Sometimes you don’t get off the launchpad. Things blow up. Space is hard. It can happen and it can blow up. And space is big. The technology to get further and faster is still being researched and implemented. Parker Solar Probe is the fastest we’ve ever had, and we couldn’t have done this 20 years ago. We’re just now getting to where we can orbit within the Corona, the hottest part of the Sun, without burning up. Parker is made to endure heat, and we didn’t have that technology 20 years ago.”
A flyer containing information about the Ukiah International Latitude Observatory in Ukiah’s Observatory Park. (Photo by Carolyn Ponts Steckter)
“These space technologies really fuel innovation that’s now in the mainstream. It’s something that has applications in all of our lives. Every year we learn more, and our technology gets better for all the different applications.” Garcia also speaks of the endurance of NASA’s spacecraft, “Things are built for a certain time,” and yet “Cassini worked 12 years past its shelf life.” [Cassini-Huygens space research mission (from 1997 to 2017) was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency to send a probe to study Saturn]. “Voyager is still transmitting data to us. It’s still working.” [Started in 1977, the Voyager program uses two robotic probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, to study the outer Solar System]. “Psyche is a mission that’s already been approved. They’re going to a metallic asteroid. What they really think is it is the core of a planet that has already died.”
About places closer to home, specifically the Ukiah Latitude Observatory in the City of Ukiah’s Observatory Park, Garcia states, “The fact that we have something that unique, we have to continue. We have a history of space science and research in our own little town. We have to let people know that and bring it to the forefront. Ukiah shares a latitude with our sister observatories in Japan, Maryland, Uzbekistan, and Italy. We are one of five in the world.” Established in 1899, the International Latitude Observatory’s mission was to understand the variances of astronomical measurements of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Currently, in partnership with the City of Ukiah, the NASA Ambassador Program cosponsors events with Friends of the Observatory, such as Bounce to the Stars twice a year, and hosts school field trips. In addition, Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE) has given Garcia full use of their mobile planetarium, and Garcia writes, “I’m currently working with Ukiah Unified School District (UUSD), Redwood Valley Outdoor Education Program (RVOEP), and Friends of the Observatory to create a STEM [science, engineering, technology, math] learning center at the Ukiah Latitude Observatory. We are working together with Mendocino College Astronomy and Physics Department to play an active role in STEM education for our students as well as the community as a whole.”
Garcia elaborates on this idea in person, stating, “The RVOEP model is amazing and it takes very little funding to make it work. RVEOP has enough to fund one and a half interpreters. We’re hoping to fund one part-time interpreter for the observatory. We’re hoping to make this a STEM program in our community with the infrastructure that’s already there. We can only do this with the school’s interest, and that is our focus, to teach our kids science and technology. We have the ability to have a very unique curriculum there.” She added that she would also like to use the observatory as a forum or venue for more field trips for our surrounding schools’ astronomy and STEM education.
When asked if she thinks space exploration and travel should be a classroom subject available to every student in the 21st century, Garcia responds, “Absolutely. It is the world around us, and we need to learn and understand it so we can understand about ourselves. It has an effect even on a preschooler, and it should be in all curriculum. We’re affected by what goes on in every age, from our grandparents to our great-great-grandchildren; space affects us all. Space research crosses all boundaries, regardless of religion, nationality, gender, it’s a real thing. The more we understand it, the better off we are as a people, humanity. My idea is how to teach the teachers and be a resource for them to take it and use it.”
“I really love doing the small field trip groups because you have so much more time to really get into details of NASA and why it’s important to us. They can see better pictures on the internet, but there’s nothing like seeing it yourself in its present time in its present form. We had a group from Whitethorn do a two-hour astronomy field trip with us. Martin Bradley (former interpreter at the Ukiah Latitude Observatory, member of the Friends of the Observatory, and an amateur astronomer and space advocate) explained the history of the observatory and talked about a scientific mission to better observe and understand our sun, and the sun granted us sunspots that day. When you hear those wow’s, you’re like, this is it. You do it because you believe in it and you love it and it’s a passion. Hopefully, it inspires them to continue their education and just to wonder.”
In speaking about Bounce to the Stars, Garcia continues, “It was really eye-opening to see how interested the adults were. Not only do adults have a keen interest in it, but they can also sit longer than the kids, and they still wanted more, and there was a line outside. Adults are just as interested as the kids, and sometimes even more so.” She envisions the possibility of wine and cheese planetarium shows with adults in the future.
Astronaut, physicist, and engineer Sally Ride, who joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983, said, “Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human, and I’m certain that will continue.”
Elizabeth Garcia continues in this work today as our NASA Solar System Ambassador. She says, “Once we’ve got them, to inspire wonder and keep them interested in learning more, we may get one astronomer out of this. If we can just get people to keep going and look up. Engineers are incredible. Our kids have the unfettered imagination that can take us to the next Cassini, the next Voyager. That’s our mission in our community, to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and curiosity seekers, and hopefully future mission specialists.”