Dr. Tracy Becker Honored with 2023 Carl Sagan Medal for Science Communication

2023 Carl Sagan Medal recipient, Dr. Tracy Becker, who is a group leader in the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science Division. Dr. Becker is a planetary scientist whose research interests include remote observations of space phenomena such as the asteroid system shown here. (Credit: Southwest Research Institute)

This year’s prestigious Carl Sagan Medal, also known as the “Sagan Medal” and named after the late astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan, has been awarded to Dr. Tracy Becker, who is a planetary scientist in the Space Science Division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. The Sagan Medal recipient is chosen by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and is meant to acknowledge planetary scientists who are not only active in science communication with the general public but have taken enormous strides in helping the general public better understand, and get excited for, the field of planetary science.

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Touch Galaxies and Listen to Black Holes. Now You Can Explore the Universe With Multiple Senses

A tactile map of Stephan's Quintet. Credit: NASA's Universe of Learning

One of the amazing benefits of modern astronomy is the wealth of astronomical images it gives us. From Hubble to Webb, new images appear online almost every day. They are powerful and beautiful, and so bountiful they are easy to take for granted. But those images aren’t for everyone. Whether you are visually impaired, color blind, or best process information auditorily or kinesthetically, astronomical images can be extremely limiting. Because of this, NASA’s Universe of Learning project is exploring how astronomy can be conveyed in multi-sensory ways.

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Bringing the Gift of Hope to Ukrainian Kids through Astronomy

Earthlings Hub is bringing education and counseling services to orphans and refugees in Ukraine, Credit: Earthlings Hub

The war in Ukraine has taken a terrible toll, and the damage extends far from the shifting battle lines. In addition to the many soldiers and civilians who’ve died, over 2.5 million children have been displaced within the country. The war has also exacerbated the problems of orphaned children, who are especially vulnerable in urban areas where the fighting has been most intense. Ensuring these children and their families can get adequate food and medical care is always challenging. Ensuring they have access to education and counseling services so their lives are not severely interrupted is even more so.

But there’s also the need for inspiration and hope for the future, which becomes all the more important in times of war and displacement. This is the purpose of Earthlings Hub, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing astronomy and science education to refugee and orphan children in Ukraine. Founded in 2022 by members of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), Earthlings Hub is made up of scientists, teachers, and psychologists working to provide students with access to scientific research, equipment, and an inquiry-based educational program that goes beyond the standard school curriculum.

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NASA’s Europa Clipper Taking “Message in a Bottle” to Jupiter

NASA’s “Message in a Bottle” campaign allows astronomy fans to send their name stenciled onto a microchip to Jupiter onboard the Europa Clipper mission which will also ferry the U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.” (Credit: NASA)

NASA believes in getting the public excited about space, and they’re carrying on this tradition by recently announcing that space fans from around the world can travel to Jupiter with the Europa Clipper mission. Though, not literally, but by adding their names to a microchip for the “Message in a Bottle” campaign that will also contain “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa”, which is an original poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón.

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“To Boldy Go”: The Nichelle Nichols Foundation Continues Actress’ Legacy of Inspiration

The Nichelle Nichols Foundation carries on the actress' legacy of inspiring young women and people of color to reach for the stars! Credit: Nichelle Nichols Foundation

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.”

Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

This past summer, the world said goodbye to Nichelle Nichols, the famous actress, activist, and musician who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek franchise. This iconic role was one she popularized in the original series (1966 to 1969), six feature films (1979 to 1991), and multiple television specials. But for those familiar with the life and times of Nichols, her legacy as an activist and inspirational figure are what many will truly remember her for. In honor of her tireless work and advocacy, her family, friends, and fans have come together to launch the Nichelle Nichols Foundation (NNF).

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Scroll Through the Universe with This Cool Interactive Map

Expansion of the Universe (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) continues to pad its space community résumé with their interactive map, “The map of the observable Universe”, that takes viewers on a 13.7-billion-year-old tour of the cosmos from the present to the moments after the Big Bang. While JHU is responsible for creating the site, additional contributions were made by NASA, the European Space Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation.

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Join the 32-Hour Hangout-A-Thon for Space Education and Outreach

In the latest budget proposal for NASA, it appears as though one of NASA’s jewels — education and pubic outreach – is going to take a huge hit. The proposal seeks to slash NASA’s education budget by about a third, going from $137 million to $94 million. Also proposed is an initiative to combine (and in effect, water down) what NASA does by consolidating different educational efforts across the nation.

The American Astronomical Society issued a statement saying that the proposed cuts “would dismantle some of the nation’s most inspiring and successful STEM education assets.”

Dr. Pamela Gay, who heads up a big educational and citizen science effort with Cosmoquest, has written passionately about how these proposed cuts as well as the current sequestration of US governmental agencies will affect not only her work with education and citizen science, but educational programs for schools and universities across the US. Additionally, people who work in these areas face job losses.

So faced with funding cuts, the Cosmoquest team has decided to try an old-fashioned tele-thon (remember Jerry Lewis and his MDA telethons every year?) using new technology.

On June 15-16, Pamela Gay and Nicole Gugliucci are hosting a 32-hour Google Hangout on Air – a Hangout-a-thon – to raise money to support public engagement in science.

It starts at Noon EDT, 16:00 UTC on June 15, 2013 and will feature guests like Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), NASA scientists and educators, the cast of Beyond the Wall, Mat Kaplan from Planetary Radio, and our very own Fraser Cain. Yours truly might make an appearance as well, beaming in from the middle of nowhere in Minnesota.

A complete schedule of guests and events can be found here.
Facebook Event Page

If you aren’t able to donate money, Pamela has written a great post about all the different things you can do to help.

As the CosmoQuest team said, they want to make sure astronomy education survives and remains strong. “While one team, and one telethon can’t fix everything, they hope this event can raise awareness, while protected one small corner of astronomy research and education.”

Education and technology are so important for our world’s future; if you can support this effort in any way, it would be greatly appreciated.

You can make a donation (tax deductible in the US where laws allow) through PayPal here.

The main G+ page for the Hangout-A-Thon

Proposed Changes to NASA’s Education and Outreach – A View from the Outside

Will NASA's stellar education and outreach programs be cut?

The first Moon landing inspired a whole generation of scientists and engineers. And NASA, to its great credit, didn’t rest on those laurels: Outreach programs attached to the different NASA missions became a standard mode of operation. Some have reached legendary status. Without outreach, and the broad public support it engendered, the Hubble Space Telescope quite probably wouldn’t have had its faulty vision corrected.

And, not least thanks to the Internet, many NASA resources are available worldwide, and have a substantial impact on outreach efforts in other countries. (And in case you were wondering: yes, that’s the reason that I as a German am writing this blog post about NASA and, later on, about US policy. We profit from NASA resources – thanks! – and if NASA outreach loses, you lose, and we lose.)

One of the reasons science outreach by NASA and similar organizations is so powerful is the sheer fascination of black holes, distant galaxies, planets around distant stars, human space-travel, the big bang, or plucky little rovers exploring Mars. But there is another important factor, and that is the direct involvement of scientists and engineers who are immersed in, and passionate about, what they do. Quoting from a slightly different context:

“[The] ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very little to do with technical method. […] It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a sort of passion.

A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it—that man can always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is almost as contagious as fear of the barber’s itch. […] This passion, so unordered and yet so potent, explains the capacity for teaching that one frequently observes in scientific men of high attainments in their specialties […]”

We might not fear the barber’s itch quite as much as they did in the 1920s, when American journalist and essayist, H. L. Mencken, wrote those lines. But Mencken’s main message is as true now as it was back then. The best science outreach projects I’ve seen — and as managing scientist of a Center for Astronomy Education and Outreach I try to keep reasonably up to date — directly involve people whose enthusiasm for their subject is contagious — scientists communicating their own research, or outreach scientists and educators working closely with researchers.

That’s the reason why I’m worried about the future of NASA education and public outreach. There is, right now, a major effort by the Obama administration to restructure federal STEM education efforts (STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Apparently, the committee known as CoSTEM that is the driving force of this initiative didn’t do a very good job in engaging outreach practitioners in a dialogue about the changes, because the first thing many of those active in the field heard about the sweeping changes were ominous statements in the administration’s NASA Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2014, published on April 10 (PDF 34 MB).

NASA's Leland Melvin talks with Tweet-up participants at the STS-133 launch in February, 2011. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.
NASA’s Leland Melvin talks with Tweet-up participants at the STS-133 launch in February, 2011. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

The proposal is somewhat sketchy on the details, but what was there was worrying enough for a number stakeholders to speak up: Phil Plait, who used to be himself involved in mission-based outreach, has commented on the “bad news”, and Pamela Gay, whose group is responsible for CosmoQuest, among other projects, has weighed in (also here) — her group largely depends on the kind of NASA funding that could be eliminated in the restructuring. More recently, the American Astronomical Society has issued a Statement on Proposed Elimination of NASA Science Education & Public Outreach Programs.

On June 4, there was a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (the link has an archived webcast of the hearing, as well as some written statements). Judging by some of the answers at the hearing, the implementation of the restructuring hasn’t been fully worked out yet — but what information is out there is indeed somewhat worrying. It sounds like an efficiency-and-evaluation drive with little regard for the power of scientific passion.

The proposal calls for slashing NASA’s budget for education by almost a third. It promises that NASA’s “education efforts will be fundamentally restructured into a consolidated education program funded through the Office of Education, which will coordinate closely with the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution”. In particular, the consolidation concerns the outreach activities connected directly to the various missions: “mission-based K-12 education, public outreach, and engagement activities, traditionally funded within programmatic accounts, will be incorporated into the Administration’s new STEM education paradigm in order to reach an even wider range of students and educators”.

The Smithsonian Institution will take the lead on informal outreach and engagement. It’s not quite clear what that means, but they will get $25 million to do it. They have apparently promised to interact very closely with the mission agencies they would be “helping” in their role of “clearing house” for this kind of activity. Does that mean that they will become the main agency to develop outreach materials — will NASA missions have to provide them with information about their science, and receive custom-made (or not) outreach kits in return? Or will they have more of an advisory capacity — will they somehow assist NASA outreach units to develop material, and help with the distribution? Your guess is as good as mine.

A number of committee members expressed their concern in this direction, as well, asking about the role of their local institutions such as science museums, STEM initiatives and the like in the new scheme. The answers weren’t very encouraging. There was talk of strong partnerships being developed, but apparently the desire to build partnerships didn’t go as deep as actually trying to communicate with those stakeholders beforehand.

Committee member Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) actually raised the matter that is my main concern in this blog post: she talked about the importance of engaging science practitioners and engineers directly, having them interact with school students; she also talked about the excitement for science that NASA has been so good at generating.

Again, the answers weren’t very encouraging (this is around 1h 40m into the hearing). The NSF representative (Joan Ferrini-Mundy) talked about the increased reach the Department of Education could provide, and the NASA representative (Leland D. Melvin) went down the same road, praising how the Department of Education was helping NASA to make their hands-on activities available in more states than ever before. Neither appeared to have understood that the question was about something altogether different than mere efficiency in the distribution of educational materials.

Participation in classrooms from NASA personel might be a thing of the past. Here, Kristyn Damadeo from a project called SAGE III on ISS project reads to students during Earth Science Week. Credit: NASA
Participation in classrooms from NASA personel might be a thing of the past. Here, Kristyn Damadeo from a project called SAGE III on ISS project reads to students during Earth Science Week. Credit: NASA

And while the inspiration by astronauts interacting with school students, or the excitement generated by the direct contact with researchers, was at least mentioned during the hearing, the role of outreach scientists — as mediators with a background in science and a job in science communication — was completely absent from the hearing and, incidentally, from the CoSTEM documents.

To me, all of this appears to add up to a move into precisely the wrong direction. For powerful science outreach, you want to channel the passion of the researchers/engineers through the educators and outreach scientists; to that end, you want the connections between those groups to be as close as possible.

A small-to-medium-size outreach team working directly with one or a few missions fits the bill. Replace local teams with large, centralized entities responsible for a much wider portfolio of activities and missions, and you are bound to lose those immediate connections. So, by all means, consolidate where consolidation makes sense — centralized distribution, centralized services such as graphics or video editing, web services, consultation with experienced educators, a school partnership network coordinated by the Department of Education, or what have you — but mission-based outreach scientists and educators do not fall into that category.

If the “new paradigm” widens the gap between the scientists and engineers on the one hand and the educators and outreach scientists on the other, that’s bad news for NASA outreach.

The good news is that the committee demonstrated considerable interest in the matter — and a healthy dose of skepticism. Several members talked about the questions they had received from constituents and stakeholders about the reform. Some remarked on having seldomly seen the meeting room as crowded.

After June 4, committee members apparently still have two weeks to submit their written questions to the witnesses: to presidential science advisor John Holdren, NSF assistant director in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Joan Ferrini-Mundy, and Leland D. Melvin, who’s the Associate Administrator for Education at NASA. And a number of committee members (watch the webcast!) seemed quite aware that there are open questions, reasons for skepticism, and room for discussion.

So there’s your chance to do something for NASA (and other agencies’) outreach: Here is a list of the committee members. Express your concern. Ask them what the changes will mean for existing programs (here is a complete list of the programs concerned). Remind them that this is not only about abstract numbers, but about people. The way things are organized right now, there are many individual outreach scientists, researchers, engineers, educators who’ve spent years gaining experience with, and coming up with innovative ideas for, communicating their science. That’s a considerable resource right there — so what will happen with those people and their expertise under the new scheme?

If you have a favourite mission, outreach program or activity (Chandra, CosmoQuest, Hubble, …), ask the committee members how it will be affected by the consolidation. What will happen to the people who made the program/activity what it is? And do so soon, so the committee members can pass their questions and concerns on to the people responsible for this restructuring. This restructuring seems to be something of a turning point for federally funded science outreach in the US (and, yes, for all of us in the rest of the world who profit from that outreach as well). If you or your children have profited from any of those outreach activities, here’s your chance to give something back.

World Space Week ( Oct 4th – 10th ) — Join the Fun!

World Space Week - October 4th - 10th, 2011. Image Credit: World Space Week Association


What is World Space Week?

Founded in 1981, World Space Week Association is one of the world’s oldest space education organizations. As a partner of the United Nations in the global coordination of World Space Week, WSWA recruits and supports a worldwide network of coordinators and participants. WSWA is a non-government, nonprofit, international organization, based in the United States.

World Space Week is an international celebration of science and technology, and how each benefits the human condition. In 1999 The United Nations General Assembly declared that World Space Week will be held each year from October 4-10, commemorating two notable space-related events:

The annual kick-off date of October 4th corresponds with the October 4th 1957 launch of the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1.

The end date of October 10th corresponds with the October 10th 1967 signing of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activites of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s some information from their F.A.Q on how you can participate in World Space Week, either by volunteering or by attending an event.

Where and how is World Space Week celebrated?

World Space Week is open to everyone – government agencies, industry, non-profit organizations, teachers, or even individuals can organize events to celebrate space. WSW is coordinated by the United Nations with the support of WSWA and local coordinators in many countries.

What are the benefits of World Space Week?

WSW educates people around the world about the benefits they receive from space and encourages greater use of space for sustainable economic development. WSW also demonstrates public support for space programs and excites children about learning and their future.
Some of the other benefits include promoting institutions around the world that are involved in space and fostering a sense of international cooperation in space outreach and education.

How can schools participate?

This event is ideal for teachers to promote student interest in science and math. To encourage participation, World Space Week Association gives various educational awards each year.

Sign at NASA's Johnson Space Center announcing World Space Week. Photo Credit: NASA/WSWA

What can I do for World Space Week?

If you’d like to become involved with WSW you can:

  • Volunteer for World Space Week Association
  • Organize an event directly
  • Help expand and coordinate World Space Week
  • Encourage teachers and students to do space-related activities
  • Become a Volunteer
  • Hold an Event During World Space Week
  • If you hold an event, be sure to add your event to the World Space Week calendar and tell the media and your regional WSW coordinator about your planned event. You can also order World Space Week posters and display them in your community.

    If you’d like to find a World Space Week event in your area, visit:http://www.worldspaceweek.org/calendar_2011.php

    You can learn more about World Space Week at: http://www.worldspaceweek.org

    Source: World Space Week Association

    Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11

    NASA announces student Essay Naming Contest for the twin GRAIL Lunar spaceships. The essay writing contest is open to students in Grades K - 12 at schools in the United States. Submission Deadline is November 11, 2011. GRAIL A & B are twin science robots that will explore the gravity field of the moon like never before.


    Student Alert ! – Here’s your once in a lifetime chance to name Two NASA robots speeding at this moment to the Moon on a super science mission to map the lunar gravity field. They were successfully launched from the Earth to the Moon on September 10, 2011. Right now the robots are called GRAIL A and GRAIL B. But, they need real names that inspire. And they need those names real soon. The goal is to “capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration”, says NASA – the US Space Agency.

    NASA needs your help and has just announced an essay writing contest open to students in Grades K – 12 at schools in the United States. The deadline to submit your essay is November 11, 2011. GRAIL stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.”

    The rules state you need to pick two names and explain your choices in 500 words or less in English. Your essay can be any length up to 500 words – even as short as a paragraph. But, DO NOT write more than 500 words or your entry will be automatically disqualified.

    Learn more about the GRAIL Essay Naming Contest here:

    Read all the Official Contest Rules here:

    Download the Naming Contest Submission Form here:

    Students: NASA Wants You to Name that GRAIL !
    Write an Essay and name these twin Lunar mapping satellites. NASA’s twin GRAIL A & B science probes are now streaking to the Moon and arrive on New Year’s Day 2012. This picture shows how they looked, mounted side by side, during launch preparations prior to blasting off for the Moon on Sept. 10, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

    The GRAIL A and B lunar spaceships are twins – just like those other awe inspiring robots “Spirit” and “Opportunity” , which were named by a 10 year old girl student and quickly became famous worldwide and forever because of their exciting science missions of Exploration and Discovery.They arrive in Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012.

    Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

    And there is another way that students can get involved in NASA’s GRAIL mission.

    GRAIL A & B are both equipped with four student-run MoonKAM cameras. Students can suggest targets for the cameras. Then the cameras will take close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.

    “Over 1100 middle schools have signed up to participate in the MoonKAM education and public outreach program to take images and engage in exploration,” said Prof. Maria Zuber of MIT.

    Prof. Zuber is the top scientist on the mission and she was very excited to announce the GRAIL Essay Naming contest right after the twin spaceships blasted off to the Moon on Sep 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

    What is the purpose of GRAIL ?

    “GRAIL simply put, is a ‘Journey to the Center of the Moon’,” says Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

    “It will probe the interior of the moon and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. We will learn more about the interior of the moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined. Precisely knowing what the gravity fields are will be critical in helping to land future human and robotic spacecraft. The moon is not very uniform. So it’s a dicey thing to fly orbits around the moon.”

    “There have been many missions that have gone to the moon, orbited the moon, landed on the moon, brought back samples of the moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the moon is what the deep interior is like.”

    So, what are you waiting for.

    Start thinking and writing. Students – You can be space explorers too !

    Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
    GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
    GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
    NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
    GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
    Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
    NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
    GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
    GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery