Planetary Radio • May 17, 2023

Inspiring the next generation through space education

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

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Jennifer Vaughn

Chief Operating Officer for The Planetary Society

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David Reitzel

Astronomical Lecturer and Host of All Space Considered at Griffith Observatory

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Ella Ritts

Administrative Clerk and School Program Content Coordinator at Griffith Observatory, Griffith Observatory Foundation

Sam Green

Sam Green, Museum Guide at Griffith Observatory, Astrophysics and Computer Science Student at UC Berkeley

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Jessica Rodriguez

Mt. Wilson Observatory's STEM Education Program Coordinator

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

In this week's episode of Planetary Radio, we're honoring the educators who inspire young, curious minds to explore the marvels of the Cosmos. We’ll speak with guests from The Planetary Academy, the Griffith Observatory School Program, and Mt. Wilson's STEM Education program, all of whom are paving the way for the next generation of space enthusiasts and explorers. Then we'll check in Bruce Betts for What's Up so you know what to watch for in the upcoming night sky.

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Where in the Solar System is there a crater named Macbeth?

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Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, May 24 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Question from the May 3, 2023 space trivia contest:

What's the official name or the official designation for NASA's toilet on the International Space Station?


The official designation for NASA's toilet on the International Space Station is the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS).

Last week's question:

What will the OSIRIS-REx mission be renamed when it starts its new mission to the asteroid Apophis after it drops off its asteroid Bennu sample at Earth?


To be revealed in next week’s show.


Sarah Al-Ahmed: Inspiring the next generation through space education. This week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. As the school year draws to a close, it's the perfect moment to look skyward and reflect on the power of space education to spark wonder in young minds. We'll share interviews with key figures from some of the most impactful space education and outreach programs near The Planetary Society's headquarters in Southern California. And hopefully it'll give you some good advice on how to spark curiosity in the hearts and minds of the young people in your life. We'll hear from the space communicators involved with the Planetary Academy, the Griffith Observatory School Program, and the Mount Wilson STEM Outreach program. Then we'll check in with the ever insightful Bruce Betts for what's up so you can know what to watch for in the upcoming night sky. And here's a fun fact. Did you know that Bruce Betts our chief scientist has a side hustle writing kids' space books? You'll hear more about that later in the episode. But first, let's get into this week's space news. I love this story. A meteorite from the Eta Aquariids may have struck a New Jersey home. This annual meteor shower, which peaked about two weeks ago, is caused by the Earth passing through the debris left behind by the Comet Halley. Some of that debris includes rocks that are large enough to actually survive burning up in the Earth's atmosphere. And one of these rocks may have made its way into the bedroom of a New Jersey home. Nobody was injured thankfully, but the 10 by 15 centimeter or four by six inch rock is now being examined to determine its origin. Imagine just chilling in your bedroom and bam, a space rock. That sounds like the origin story for a superhero, if I've ever heard one. And speaking of space rocks, Planetary defense experts met last week to talk about the close pass of asteroid Apophis, which will pass by Earth in six years. The Apophis T-6 workshop brought world experts on asteroid research together virtually in their annual meeting. Apophis will fly by Earth in 2029 and you may want to mark your calendars because this thing is coming closer to Earth than our geostationary satellites. Don't panic though. This isn't a don't look up situation. The data show that Apophis will not, I repeat, will not hit the earth for at least a hundred years. This is really good news, but this close pass does present an opportunity to study the thing. Usually analyzing an asteroid up close requires traveling far beyond Earth, so this is going to be fun and scary for everyone. And reporting this next story does make me a little sad, but NASA's Dragonfly mission to Titan may be facing delays. The agency's 2024 budget request includes a nearly 20% cut to the mission's budget. The Dragonfly team, which is based in Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, says that this could impact the mission's launch date. It's currently slated to launch in 2027 and arrive at Saturn's moon, Titan, in 2034. I don't know if my heart can take waiting any longer than 11 years for this mission to go into full operation. The thought of a quadcopter flying around one of the weirdest moons in our solar system is literally what gets me up in the morning. But as always, you can learn more about these and other stories in our May 12th edition of our weekly newsletter, The Downlink. Read it or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox for free every Friday at Now, when I talk to space fans and ask them how they stumbled upon their deep passion for science and exploration, I usually get one of two answers. One, "Star Trek made me do it." Or two, "Someone taught me something so mind-blowing about the universe as a kid that I was never the same after." In my case, maybe both, but as the daughter of a teacher who grew up to spend years teaching space science to kids, I know the power that education has to improve lives and inspire the next generation. At The, Planetary Society, we've been doing outreach to young people for decades, but it's not at all surprising that we took those aspirations to the next level and launched a whole new kids membership program under the leadership of our CEO, Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Bill Nye: Does your kids spend their day thinking about space, about the cosmos and their place within it? Do you want to encourage that curiosity? Do you want them to keep learning, to keep understanding the amazing nature of the cosmos and how the stars interact with each other and how the planets were formed and how we're one part of this giant cosmic scheme rocketing through the cosmos? There could be life on another planet. It is freaking me out. Spaceships. Do you want their minds to be blown, rocketing them into another level of awareness of science? Well, that's why we created the Planetary Academy. When we did the Science Guy show 30 years ago, we had very compelling research that 10 years old is about as old as you can be to get the so-called lifelong passion for science. Now everybody loves space and we want to ignite that passion in your kid. Listen, people, I've dedicated my life to this and I promise you this is good.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Even as an adult who literally works with Bill Nye, I'm still starstruck by his presence and that's because he was one of my science role models as a kid. And of course, it's not just Bill. All around the world, educators are changing lives, whether there reaches one kid or a generation. The Planetary Academy launched in November 2022, and it's only been about half a year since the program went into full swing, but we're already seeing excellent results. Here's Jennifer Vaughn, the chief operating officer of The Planetary Society with an update on the program. Hi Jen.

Jennifer Vaughn: Hi Sarah. It's so good to be here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's wonderful to have you on and this is a great excuse to talk to you on the show because it's only been a few months since The Planetary Society launched our Planetary Academy and it's been so heartening to see the results. You've been so deeply involved in the creation of this program. So what is the Planetary Academy?

Jennifer Vaughn: I'm so glad you asked. Indeed, I am deeply involved and I just say deeply honored to have had such a role in this program because we really think that this is the beginning of a long-term commitment to a whole new generation of space explorers. So the Planetary Academy is a membership very much paralleled off of our general membership program. We want people to get so excited about space, they want to be part of something bigger. They want to be part of The Planetary Society. So with the Planetary Academy, we're doing the same thing but for kids. So this is a way for kids to be part of a larger community of other kids who are learning about and becoming very excited about space exploration. And when you are a Planetary Academy member, you're going to get a mailed package. So something that comes to you with your name on it that shows up at your home or your other location of choice. And in it you will have a number of different fun activities and items. For instance, in our first package, you get a lot of things. You get a pair of stereo 3D glasses, you are going to get a lesson booklet that talks all about your place in space. I'm going to give you some activities that you can do at home. I'm going to give you your own special log, your space log to be able to chronicle your activities and your progress and your questions and anything you want to think about or draw about as you go. There are collector cards that come with each particular package that are all around the theme of that package. Each collector card has a fact. And what we like about those cards is that they're easy enough, they're small enough and portable enough that you can stick them in your pocket and perhaps take them to school and showcase your fun fact with your friends. We also have some collector stickers that go with each package. We have a coloring page, we have a poster to put up on your wall. And so each quarterly package that comes for a year has a new topic. And as you go, you explore more and more of our solar system. And so by the time you're done, if you choose to stick with the program for the whole three years, you've explored all the plans of our solar system and the outer bodies as well. So Pluto and Pluto's friends and astronauts and Corvettes. And so you have a nice understanding of your place in space.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What's the general age range that we're targeting with the program?

Jennifer Vaughn: Well, we say under 10 for sure. So that's the target group, but we had to choose a writing level. So we chose seven years old for the writing level. And that allows for some younger children who maybe aren't up to that reading level but that have adults that are working with them. It could still be very engaging and fun for them and also for older kids. I think that it's still going to be... If you're eight, if you're nine, I think that you're still going to get a lot out of that package each time. You're going to be able to do it yourself, for sure, with a lot less need for adults to be working with you. But anywhere in that kind of five to nine range we think is going to be a good fit.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The founders of The Planetary Society knew that outreach and education of children was going to be a big part of what we wanted to do in the long term, but the creation of a program that is as robust as the Planetary Academy took a lot of work. Why did you and the other leaders of The Planetary Society feel that it was important not just to do outreach to kids, but to create a whole membership program for them?

Jennifer Vaughn: That's a very insightful question, and it was a challenging decision to come about, I should say. Looking at all the things that can be done to engage kids. We know a membership program isn't the only thing that we want to be doing, but it was what The Planetary Society is, it's who we are. And so we felt by offering a membership program, we're really extending who we are as an organization just to a new group of people. And just like with all of our members, we want to have people feel like they're part of something bigger, that they're not alone in their passion, that there are others just like them that are learning and getting excited about space as well. We want to feel like they're able to do the hands-on activity and get involved in a meaningful way, just like what we do with all of our members. So we thought that for our particular organization, starting a membership program was essential. But starting a membership program is really hard and it's hard on the resource side. So it's a great idea. It's the kind of thing that as long as I've been with the organization, which is quite a while now, I've been with the organization well over 20 years, we've always talked about having a membership program for children. The issue has been the front end investment on being able to do that. So year after year after year, we talked about it, we thought about it, we broke down costs, we tried to figure out how we were going to get this off the ground, and it took some investment on the front end. And we've been very fortunate to have a supportive donor working with us who has been able to help us with some of those front end costs and get the program launched. And then it's our hope that once the program's launched, it's self-sufficient, it can continue indefinitely. And that's why you want all your programs to work because you get a little help, you get something started, but then they can continue on. And certainly the early success that we're seeing with Planetary Academy indicates that's going to be true, that there is going to be that additional support coming in over time, and it's really thanks to our donor. I should also mention too, the Kickstarter community as well, who helped really get us over the finish line to get this program launched. And so between that extra help, we now have something that we hope will outlive all of us.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think that this program kind of amazed a lot of us, because we knew it was going to be successful, but there's just such a thirst for this kind of program that I think the numbers have kind of amazed us.

Jennifer Vaughn: Yeah, well, I think you try to make your best estimates on how you think something's going to perform, and then you wait and see what the actual reality is and then that becomes your new benchmark. So indeed there is a thirst for it. And it goes way beyond just the Planetary Academy as well. There is a thirst, there is a need out there for great science and space content for children. And that's why I mentioned early on, it's not just the Planetary Academy that we're getting involved in. We're actually developing opportunities for kids to get more deeply involved with space on a number of different fronts. So Planetary Academy is the big program that we're rolling out now, but we also have some really exciting partnerships right now with a publisher, learner publications that gets books into school libraries. And so we're rolling out a whole series on the planets and on the eclipses. Just next year in 2024, we're working with another organization called Epic, that also is in classrooms where we are hosting our random space fact videos that are tremendously fun little bite-sized content pieces with our own Bruce Betts. That's going out into the classrooms as well through Epic. And we're working on more programs right now that we hope to be able to announce in the very near future as a way to reach out to kids on many, many different levels through different media and ideally just spark this passion for space that we hope will last a lifetime for them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Another thing I've really been enjoying, although it's not just for kids, is our Postcards to Space program in partnership with Club for the Future. Because anytime I go to an event where I know there's going to be children, I bring a stack of these special postcards and maybe some colored pencils with me and putting something in a kid's hand being like, "Draw something here, we'll send it to space and send it back to you," makes space exploration so much more real for them.

Jennifer Vaughn: Well, how fun is that?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, it's always so fun.

Jennifer Vaughn: Who doesn't want to do that? Indeed, that is so fun for kids, so tangible. They get to draw a picture or write something and have it go to space and then have it come back to them and they know it's flown. That is so exciting. Yes, we love working with them on that project. The Postcard to Space project is really very engaging as we're finding out. And we are also hoping to put those postcards into Planetary Academy to make it very easy for future members to be able to participate in that program.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And in the meantime, if anybody wants to learn more about the Postcards to Space program, I'll put a link to it on the page for this episode at so you can learn more. We've been doing this for a long time. There are a lot of other fun little programs that we've done over the years to engage children. What are some of your favorites?

Jennifer Vaughn: We've always had this commitment and passion for exciting kids, but what we haven't had until now is this sustainable program. That's why this is slightly different. But over the years we've done amazing projects involving kids. So some of the most notable are the naming contests that we were involved in. First for Sojourner, the rover that landed with Pathfinder back in 1997. That was a contest with kids, and that was a fabulous name that was chosen. And then later was Spirit and Opportunity as well. The naming of Bennu. All these were particular contests to allow kids to submit their ideas and then they become these tangible, either destinations in the case of Bennu, or assets out there in space that are named from their own ideas. So that has been tremendously fun and we hope to continue to participate in ways like that. But when you ask about my favorite, my favorite is really an outstanding program that we did, which lasted about a decade. It was a very long program that we did that was a spinoff of original project called Red Rover Red Rover, which was about teleoperation of LEGO spacecraft in the classroom. So that was a fun project that we did for many, many years as a partnership with a number of different organizations and LEGO. We then had the opportunity to take that project and do something really big, which is get kids involved with real space missions, give them a real meaningful opportunity to participate. So in 2004, we had students who had competed from around the world come to JPL, actually work in mission operations when Spirit and Opportunity landed. So the first month and a half or so of operations. And they had real work to do, they had their own cubicle there and they worked on Mars time and they really saw the inside workings of how a spacecraft is operated and what the people are alike that are doing the work. And that project was so exciting to see it come together. It was very difficult to pull all of those partners together to make that happen, but the outcome from that has been outstanding. I think that we've already spoken before on this program about Abby Fraeman at JPL. She was one of those students. She's one example of someone who took that opportunity, no pun intended, because she was there at the Opportunity landing and as a child, as high school student, and then went on and took her journey through pretty traditional STEM and Planetary science pathway and then ended up being the deputy manager on that project on Opportunity. And it is just so amazing for same spacecraft that she started working with as a student in high school, she then ended up being a key leader of, and that is just such an amazing outcome from that program. And just one of the examples of those kids that have now grown up and become very accomplished adults. That's I think, a really good subject for future show, I think.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We're coming up on the 20th anniversary of that program, so it might be a perfect opportunity to connect with some of those people and see where they're at now in life, because these kinds of programs really do make a big impact on people's lives. I know what space science education did for me as a kid, completely change the arc of my life. So I have no doubt that the Planetary Academy and all these other efforts are going to make a huge impact on people in the long run.

Jennifer Vaughn: Yeah, I agree. And just like we look at our own community all the time, The Planetary Society community, it's so diverse. So yes, we have the people that go on and take over control of NASA's spacecraft, but then we have the people who go wildly different directions in their life, but still have that love and that passion for space and still want to come together and do things in space and have a role and to feel like they're part of a community. And so we want all of those people coming out of the Planetary Academy. So we want people that have a lifetime appreciation and optimism about the future in space.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: If people want to learn more about the Planetary Academy or maybe sign up the young explorers in their lives, what should they do?

Jennifer Vaughn: Go to Keep nice and easy for you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And just in case you want an easy clickable button, I'll put it on the page for this episode as well.

Jennifer Vaughn: Fabulous. Fabulous.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for joining me, Jen, and for everything you've done over the years with Planetary Academy and all these other programs to try to inspire young people to love space because I know it changes lives and I'm so proud of our team.

Jennifer Vaughn: I'm so proud of our team too. It's amazing what has happened already and I can only imagine where we're going to go from here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks, Jen.

Jennifer Vaughn: Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Not far from our headquarters in Pasadena, California is the famed Griffith Observatory. It's home to the most looked through telescope on earth, but there's so much more to that building. The observatory is an iconic landmark in Los Angeles, not just because it's the best place to take a selfie of the Hollywood sign, although it totally is, but also because it's a place where people from all over the world come to learn about space. What a lot of visitors might not know is that Griffith Observatory also runs one of the biggest school field trip programs I have ever seen. And full disclosure, before I worked at The Planetary Society, I was a museum guide at Griffith Observatory. I taught in their school program for years, and frankly, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Our next guests are Dr. David Reitzel, the observatory's astronomical lecturer who plays a huge part in the content creation and vision for the program, and Ella Ritts. She's the school program content coordinator and also the communications coordinator for the observatory's nonprofit partner, the Griffith Observatory Foundation. Hey David and Ella, it's really wonderful to see you both again.

Ella Ritts: Likewise.

David Reitzel: Nice to see you. It's great to be here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I worked at Griffith Observatory for many years doing all kinds of awesome stuff with both of you. But I think the time that I spent working on the school program was some of the most meaningful work I've done both at the observatory and literally anywhere. Do you guys feel the same way?

David Reitzel: I do completely. The school program is the program I manage at the observatory that gives me the most joy, frankly. We have people visiting from all over the world, but seeing those school kids get changed literally during a visit to the observatory and have their eyes open to the universe is really special.

Ella Ritts: I started as a museum guide and it was my absolute favorite shift to do the school program, seeing their eyes light up every time we blew their mind about something. And so getting to contribute to that is one of the greatest things.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So Dr. Reitzel, what is the mission of the observatory and how does the school program fit into that?

David Reitzel: The mission of Griffith Observatory is to inspire people to ponder and to contemplate the universe. The school program fits in as for some of these kids, for some of these students, it's their first exposure to the universe as a thing that can be explored and learned about. It's special for them. It really is. We have folks coming back to the observatory in all stages of life, commenting on how their first visit was back when they attended the school program.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Ella, you taught on this school program. You went through the whole day to day of teaching the kids. So what's kind of an overview of what this program does for students?

Ella Ritts: We have a gallery tours portion, so we take them all throughout the building. They see a planetarium show in our Samuel Oschin Planetarium, and they also see a live comet demonstration in our Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. It's a really wonderful personalized experience and they get to meet different members of our staff and experience all the many facets of Griffith Observatory and explore it for themselves.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What are the main topics that you're trying to actually get across to these kids? Because there's so many things about space you could use to blow their minds, but what do you teach them specifically that you think will make them hunger to learn more?

David Reitzel: That's almost a difficult question to answer because the program is designed to meet California science standards, the next generation science standards. So we've put little lessons throughout it all and the kids don't even know they're getting that lesson. The teachers do. They see that we're meeting these standards, but we've worked it in to a story about life in the universe where you can find life habitability, the need for liquid water for that life, what chemical elements are needed in that life. And this is both through visits to locations that are exhibits in our galleries, but also through the two programs that they experience. The Samuel Oschin Planetarium is our new planetarium, show signs of life. And it is extraordinary and it's wonderful for everybody. In fact, we were worried that it might be a little too much for the students and we're going to have to evaluate that and make sure that it's working the way we want. I believe that it is, I'm seeing happy kids and we're seeing the impact that it's having. So the lesson that I think is most important for them to learn from the school program is that the universe is there to be explored and to be pondered and to interact with. And Griffith Observatory provides the location for them to do that. That's the real lesson, I believe, they're learning.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The program has had to make a lot of changes in the last few years. When I was working on it it was an in-person program. We were taking kids in and out of the building, but then everyone's aware COVID pandemic happened and unfortunately Griffith Observatory had to be shut down for a time. How did your team grapple with this and what does the school program look like now?

David Reitzel: The school program right now is actually back to being in person. And we have students in the building two days a week for the rest of the school year this year. So it's very exciting to have the students there. And next year we intend that to be the case as well. If you want to find out exactly what that'll be, I encourage folks to sign up for Griffith Observatory Foundation's newsletter where announcements like that will be made. But you're right, pandemic hit the building closed, we had to close the in-person school program. We couldn't run it at all. I rapidly knew we need to create something. I worked with our curator at the time, Dr. Laura Danly, to explore how we might want to go about doing this. So we invited teachers and we had a meeting with teachers to find out what requirements they would have for a remote program, what would interest them, how much interactivity, those sorts of questions. Soon after that, Laura let me know that she was going to take the early retirement offer from the city. The city was in financial need to have some folks do that. And she thought, "This will give me a chance to do other things." It would fall on me to create this program, is what I'm getting to. So I knew I needed to assemble a team and I knew I'd need help both with organization, content creation and managing everything. Ella Ritts is one of the folks I turned to help with content. She was already creating kids programming at another institution. She's incredibly well organized. I knew that she was a talented artist, but little did I know how much incredible help she would be in creating the content. She has co-written the scripts with me. What we decided to do is to go with a half hour long presentation for the kids that is a virtual visit to Griffith Observatory. The first module, we take them to the observatory and talk about how we go through our lives observing. It's called Everyone Is an Observer. But then we explore the idea that you can use technology to expand your capabilities to observe. We have telescopes up on the roof. We visit our famous 12-inch-size refracting telescope. We talk about our famous coelostat, triple beam coelostat solar telescope. We explain what a spectrograph is and the kids are really learning about what Griffith Observatory does as an observatory. And it's done live with museum guides and telescope demonstrators. So the interaction is live just like the performances in our Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Griffith Observatory provides a unique experience for these kids. Even when the pandemic hit, it was not a prerecorded experience for them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I really love that because I feel like part of what's so special about the observatory is that ability to go there and meet people that are just as passionate about this kind of thing as you are and have those in-person interactions. And I was really heartened to hear that you were going to keep that in-person element, even in the virtual school program, because I think kids in particular want to know that they're being acknowledged and that they have someone who can really answer their questions. So I think that was a good move strategically.

David Reitzel: Well, thank you. And also, we include a long question and answer session in these virtual visits. A lot of the students need that and they need to know that they're getting their attention. In addition to the one module, we actually have three others that are operating. The second module is our comet demo, Clues from Comets, where we make a live kitchen comet in front of the students. We do it with camera up above, kind of like a cooking show so they can see the ingredients being added into the bowl. And it's a lot of fun. And we even made movies that take us on a visit to the surface of a comet. In fact, Ella put that video together from raw data from the mission that went there.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which mission did you use the data from?

Ella Ritts: This was the Rosetta mission by the European Space Agency. I combed through every shot taken of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and created a stop-motion video of the spacecraft approaching the comet. And what resulted was a very breathtaking and inspiring video showing how a comet moves in space and how the gases sublimate away once it approaches the sun.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's really cool because the before times, before COVID, the school program was awesome, but I think this moment of difficulty kind of necessitated some interesting changes. Before it was a still picture of Comet Chury, but now you've got all this wonderful artwork and all these animations and I think that's a really cool change. And you were instrumental in creating all of this, Ella. I love that we got an opportunity to work together before this, but seeing how you took those skills and just ran with them and applied them to this program, it's been really interesting to see. What has that process been like for you?

Ella Ritts: Thank you. I have a fine art background. I got my BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art. My initial goal was to be an exhibiting artist, but when I found how art could be applied in a cultural institution setting to inspire people, that's when really my goals changed. Working in science, I've discovered it's a field that's defined by wonder, much like art, it's all about what Griffith Observatory is about, using our tools to make science and astronomy accessible to as many people as possible.

David Reitzel: Having access to talent like Ella has changed the way I could view the creation process and what I wanted to make. We have other very talented artists. Chris Butler did a lot of the artwork on the program as well. So shout out to you Chris. And also I want to do another set out to Alan Alt, who was my deputy program coordinator, program manager for the program. He coordinated so much for me, managed so much for me. So thanks to him as well, we have a successful program. Module three is the search for water, and we're wondering where are we looking for water in the solar system, in the universe, and why are we looking for water? Water, it turns out is super important for life. And like I said, our in-person program pivots on that idea and we decided the online program should also have some relevance to that. It was a little bit updated, but we took material from the previous comet demo. And then also material from Water Is Life, the planetarium show from the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, that's our kids program, and merged those together for a new module for the kids. The final module, which is one of my favorite ones is Exoplanets Are Everywhere. And it really is kind of the hottest topic in astronomical research right now. We have to update the number of exoplanets that we talk about. Oh gosh, almost weekly, it seems like. We're up to 5,347-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wow.

David Reitzel: ... at the moment. And when we started the program, I think it was 5,005. So we're literally finding hundreds of exoplanets every year. And it's super exciting to be able to talk to the kids about what the Goldilocks zone is. And of course that's that range where an exoplanet, if it has the right amount of atmosphere and the right rotation and other things, where it could have liquid water on the surface. And we're explaining to the students why that's important. And also talking about, well, what if you're too close? What happens? Well, what if you're too far? What happens? What if the star is brighter and hotter? Then what would happen? So we're engaging that thought process. We're making little scientists, basically. We're having them explore the differences and the different types of stars that could be out there with the exoplanets.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What's interesting about this is, as you said, just the number of exoplanets is changing so rapidly. But our understanding of the field and what we're learning about these exoplanets, as say James Webb Space Telescope comes online and actually analyzes their atmospheres, it's got to be difficult to try to keep up with everything that's going on in science right now and still teach it to the kids. You can't add all the stuff in there on the fly, but are there ways that you're trying to at least clue them into the rapid pace of this discovery and how they can learn more?

David Reitzel: We don't have a lot of flexibility with the program, the online program in particular. The program's scripted and it has to run in a certain amount of time. And the slide presentation, which includes video elements as well as still elements, live elements where the presenters are doing it, that needs to be very consistent. However, we certainly update like the number of exoplanets that have been found. We can update that slide. We can't change the script greatly, but if we were to find an earth size planet with signs of oxygen and methane one day around it, although Webb isn't quite capable of doing that. I don't want to lead you astray. But anyway, if we were to see this sorts of signs, we'd have to make a change. Rather than saying we're looking for a planet that's potentially habitable, we'd have to say, "Looks like we've found one that's very likely to be habitable and maybe even have habitation on it," which would truly-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Fingers crossed.

David Reitzel: Fingers crossed. One day. One day.

Ella Ritts: The program does include a question and answer sessions as well. And so if any students have any current questions about what's happening in the world of astronomy or even if one of our museum guides or telescope demonstrators wants to share some pertinent current information, that is a wonderful opportunity for them to do so.

David Reitzel: I had a question for you, Sarah. What was your favorite thing that you got to teach the students that came to the in-person school program?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, that is such a tricky one because I think being there in person and teaching the Let's Make a Comet show, when you get to put all these ideas together at the end and then pull this fake comment you made out of the materials in the stand, let the kids look at it, that was always really exciting. But for me it was always that moment in front of the periodic table where you're explaining where the elements in your body came from and how that relates to the stars. You always see at least one kid kind of looking at their hands afterwards like you just fundamentally changed what it means to be human for them. So that was always my favorite. What about you guys?

David Reitzel: I think seeing a student see a view through a telescope for the first time can be really exciting. And for the in-person school program, it's a view of the sun and it can be a little tricky to put that into perspective of, "What am I actually seeing here?" And we have to explain to the students that you see the look on their face when they grasp the idea of they're seeing a storm on the sun, a magnetic storm that's bigger than the earth. And that's what sunspots are for the most part. And we've got a lot of sunspots right now, everybody. So if you like sunspots, it's a great time to take a look at the sun. But seeing a student put the scale of the sun together and how small the earth is in relation to that is one of my favorite moments.

Ella Ritts: I'd say my favorite things are a blend of what you two just said, periodic table. It tells a story. I love talking about stars. It's something that they see every night twinkling in the night sky and also during the daytime. Showing them just how essential that star is to us and why and how our placement in our solar system is just so to allow us to survive. Just showing them the greater context of why they're alive, connecting their real life experience of existing to something so cosmic. It blows their minds and it's so wonderful to witness and facilitate.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Finding your local observatory or any place to really take kids and engage with them is really important. I don't know if I've ever shared this with either of you, but the former host of this show, Mat Kaplan, actually fell in love with space as a kid visiting at Griffith Observatory. So that's where he gained that perspective on the universe and it carried him all the way through 20 years of being the host of this show.

David Reitzel: Yeah, well Mat was wonderful as you know, and he would visit Griffith Observatory once in a while and he knew Laura Danly fairly well. But I got to meet him through her and we tried to get him as a guest on All Space Considered actually to talk about it, and he kept saying, "Well, I don't do much. I'm just the host of a show." I'd think, "Oh my goodness, he doesn't understand the joy he's bringing to people in his role as the host of the show." It's pivotal to have someone there to focus our interests around.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How many students a year would you say go through the school program in the before time, but also now that it's virtual? Because I think we should put this in perspective, how many opportunities there are for people to be inspired. Because even if it's one in a thousand, that's a lot of lives you're changing.

David Reitzel: If it's like previous years where we had our full capacity, and again, I make no promises, but if it's like that, we can serve in a whole year about 25 to 28,000 students in person. The online program, should it return, and when it's running in full capacity, we serve somewhere around 100,000 student visits. Now some of those students have come back multiple times, some see all four modules, some see only one module, so it's a little different. The capacity on that is larger, though. We could see even larger numbers if teachers knew about the program.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's a good point. If people are interested in trying to set up a field trip for their classroom or if their teachers want to learn more, what should they do to learn more about this program?

David Reitzel: Well, the online program is currently taking reservations. So if you have a fifth grade class and you are anywhere in the nation, actually we target the counties around Los Angeles and of course the Los Angeles Unified School District as well. We really would love to have every student in LAUSD to have an opportunity to visit Griffith virtually or in person. Just go to our website and sign up and you can sign up to participate in the program. The in-person program is full. It's completely filled up right now and it's completely sold out. The best way to find out about opportunities to attend the in-person school program is to sign up for Griffith Observatory Foundation's newsletter. And you can do that on the webpage, of course, for the foundation. They'll provide all the info about when it'll come back next year or how it'll come back and the best way to register for the program.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thank you both for joining me and for everything you're doing to try to inspire the next generation, because I've personally seen the impacts of this program and the amount of work that goes into it is not to be understated. And you both deserve so much credit.

Ella Ritts: Thank you.

David Reitzel: Well, thank you very much. And I just want to make sure this has been a team effort as well. I appreciate Dr. Laura, but Patrick So has helped, our own observatory director, Dr. Krepp, has been super important for having this program succeed. So I just want to thank everybody that was involved. I can't name all the names, obviously we'd be here forever. But just thanks to all that were involved in the program as well. Last thing I'd like to add is if you happen to be in Los Angeles on a Thursday mid-month, most third Thursdays, come on up and see us at All Space Considered. That's our live space news program that we do at Griffith Observatory. And if you're not in Los Angeles, check it out on YouTube. You can watch our program. We have a lot of old episodes there, past episodes. We have a lot of fantastic guests and just, we have a lot of fun. So I hope you'll join us at All Space Considered.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's a great show. I highly recommend it. And I'm not in any way biased by the fact that I worked on it for many years, but I mean that you can learn so much and there's so much coming out in space news every month that we can't even cover on our show. But you guys, every month do a very deep dive into all of the newest space science and I think people should check it out. Thanks David and Ella, this has been really, really fun and it's wonderful speaking to both of you again.

David Reitzel: Great to talk to you too, and thanks for having us.

Ella Ritts: Thank you so much.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It takes a team and a lot of love to run a program that serves that many students. I know this from personal experience, but it also requires a community. Griffith Observatory's fifth grade school programs are funded by the Griffith Observatory Foundation. That's the observatory's nonprofit partner. If you'd like to learn how you can support their field trips and other programs, you can visit their website at These kinds of science education programs change lives, but you don't have to take it from me. Here's Sam Green, a museum guide at Griffith Observatory who's on the cusp of a new phase of her life pursuing a degree at UC Berkeley. Hi Sam.

Sam Green: Hi.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was recently talking with a friend and he told me that there was once a student that went to our Griffith Observatory school program back when... Well, a little bit before I was teaching it. And now you are a Griffith Observatory museum guide and pursuing a full degree in astrophysics and computer science, I hear. And that's amazing. So I had to talk to you.

Sam Green: Yeah. I was involved in the school program as a student on a school bus rounding the horseshoe and I would walk up. And that was in 2014, I was in fifth grade. And I vividly remember going up and having the time of my life with students and asking all these questions and getting questions answered, super in depth, talking to me about actual science with the scientific jargon. That was just super interesting, super remarkable. Definitely helped start my interest in astronomy because I've always been interested in it with my dad and whatnot. Going to the observatory, seeing the Tesla coil or the Hall of the Eye, that was really interesting. I was like, "Oh yeah, this is what I want to do."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: When did you first fall in love with space as a kid?

Sam Green: I mean, it's hard to pinpoint, but I want to say it was like road trips, where like as a younger kid you stare at the window and you're like, "Why is the moon following us dad?" And then my dad isn't the one to sort of make up a funny story. He'll go in depth, like, "Well, actually the moon's not following us. It's due to yada, yada, yada, yada yada." He's always been a big influence in my life when it came to STEM and he never wanted to simplify any sort of explanation, even though I was like five or six. So I would assume road trips first. And then, because I live in LA, I went to preschool at Caltech.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wow.

Sam Green: They had a lot of cool science things. I was always hands-on and looking at stuff. So I've been interested in science for a long time and I think I just took the time to look up and I was like, "Oh, that's really cool."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. It sounds too, that having adults in your life, either through your father or through the school program that really acknowledged your questions and spoke to you like you had the capability to understand, was helpful in empowering you to feel like you could really grapple with those subjects.

Sam Green: Exactly. Exactly. I think that even though the school program is geared towards fifth grade students, they don't necessarily talk to us like we're fifth graders. If they talk to us, we can understand exactly what they're saying and if we have questions, they're more than happy to answer. And I just found that so welcoming.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I always felt that when I was teaching kids, it was just talking to them like they were actual genuine humans and acknowledging that spark of interest in them because they might not know everything, but they can understand. They're at least 10 years old at this point.

Sam Green: Right, right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Looking back on it, what was your favorite part of the field trip?

Sam Green: The planetarium show was really, really cool. At that point, I think they only had centered, which is why to this day I have a very nostalgic feeling when I go into the planetarium. I'm like, "I remember when I was here for the first time." Watching Standard in the Universe and seeing it sort of shown in such a visual way was very, very fun to me. Just because once again, I live in LA, there are stars here, yes, but because we have so much light pollution, you don't really see all of it. So when you go into the planetarium, that signed and sealed my fate.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Taking friends of mine that have grown up in LA and showing them actual stars lie, "This is what the Milky Way looks like," whether or not it's in a planetarium or in real life, in a dark sky site, it always totally changes their perspective. I encourage everyone literally to do that.

Sam Green: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How does it feel now that you get to work at the observatory and share what you've learned with other people?

Sam Green: Sometimes it's a little surreal when kids that are younger than 12 come to me and they're like, "Oh, I'm so excited to be here. It's a dream to come true." And I show them the piece of the meteorite from edge of space. There's always one or two kids that they already have some preexisting knowledge of it and they just ask all of these cool questions. And I kind of see myself in them because at that age, I didn't have a lot of friends that were into it. So seeing people my age back then in fifth grade being into it, I'm like, "Oh, okay." There's like a growing community of younger kids who are interested in the science, who are just asking surface level questions. They're asking about how do we determine how old the iron and the meteorite is? And they know what isotopes are. I'm like, "One, so cool. Two, let me explain everything."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's cool. I'm going to blame the internet for giving these kids all the access to all this information. Because you could learn it in school before, but now everyone has the opportunity to just with a few clicks, learn amazing things about the universe.

Sam Green: So much information.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But being there in person and having people actually acknowledge you and answer your questions and be as engaged as you are, really kind of, I've seen it. It allows the kids to just open up and really ask all those questions that sometimes might seem basic. Sometimes it's a little scary to ask these questions, but then you're face to face with someone that cares just as much about it as you do. And whether it's black holes or just the position of the moon on the sky, they'll acknowledge you just as equally.

Sam Green: Yeah, it's always really interesting to engage. And then I also feel that when people ask me, I'm interested in how do I get into it? Because I've been interested in astronomy in this Pasadena, greater Los Angeles area, I can give them the information. I had to go to lectures and ask parents to do research where I now have all of that information for myself. When people come up to ask, I can just be like, "Well, there's this lecture series, there's that lecture series, there's the Carnegie one, there's the Cal one at Caltech, we have all space, we have star parties." There are so many resources and it's always fun when people are interested in hearing about the resources. And then they have to go and they're interested because I think it's all about feeling a sense of community. I made my own club in high school so that I could feel a sense of community. And now seeing fifth graders who are interested in it, oh my gosh, it's like old circle.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It really is. And it's wonderful seeing someone like you then try to welcome people into this already existing community that you found for yourself because I know I relate to that a lot. There are a lot of times where I wished someone understood or connected with me on that. And especially as a kid, it can be kind of alienating when you love this thing so deeply and no one wants to acknowledge it in you, especially your peers.

Sam Green: Either that or they have certain degrees and you're like, "Oh my gosh, I'm intimidated to talk to them," because they're like a professor, they're a researcher. And I'm like, "Yeah, but most of the time they want to talk about that stuff too." Plus, look, my end goal is I want to be a professor of astrophysics. So this is kind of getting me into that groove.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. No big deal, big dreams. But it sounds to me like you're on the right path, and I love hearing that you already have a plan for what you want to do with it after you graduate. So many people, they get into it because they love it so deeply and then they don't know what to do after. So it sounds like you got a good plan.

Sam Green: Let's hope it works out. I'll let you know.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, you let me know if you ever need someone as backup and I believe in you, I think it's going to work out just well. Because you clearly have that passion that started at childhood and now you're sharing it with other people. That passion will carry you. Well, thanks for talking with me, Sam, and I wish you all of the luck. I hope you have the best time at UC Berkeley, and let me know how it goes.

Sam Green: Of course. Will do.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks. Griffith isn't the only observatory with outreach programs. Almost all of them do, but the program at Mount Wilson Observatory is something special. Jessica Rodriguez, the Mount Wilson STEM program coordinator is here to explain. Hi Jessica.

Jessica Rodriguez: Hi Sarah. How are you?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Doing really well. When I think of people that love space, but then do the most to try to share it with other people, particularly young people, you're always one of the first people that pops up in my mind. How many different science institutions have you worked with?

Jessica Rodriguez: So Mount Wilson Observatory, obviously, but aside from them, Griffith Observatory and this program that I run for Mount Wilson is actually in partnership with Carnegie Observatories.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Part of it was really fun for me as a kid trying to get into science was not just reading books about it, but taking trips to museums and libraries, and particularly observatories. It kind of gives you a different sense of what you're learning, puts you in the context of why it's so important. So what is so special about Mount Wilson Observatory?

Jessica Rodriguez: Mount Wilson Observatory, in my opinion, and in many who you'll find in the local area, is one of the most important observatories in the world. Back in the 1920s, our perspective of the universe pretty much expanded. We can say that we discovered the universe in 1923. What happened exactly was that Ed Hubble, who we all know, love and admire, was looking through the hundred-inch telescope in 1923, was looking at Andromeda. And thanks to the contributions of Henrietta Leavitt, he used the equation to actually determine the distance between Andromeda and us. And before we had it a little discombobulated, we thought it was within our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy. And come to find out, thanks to Henrietta Leavitt and his observations, is that it was way farther. Meaning that we looked outside of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time, and we can pretty much say that we discovered the actual universe outside of the Milky Way galaxy. So if you ask me, that is pretty remarkable. And that's just to start. George Ellery Hale, he invented the very first and built the first spectra helioscope. We discovered that there's a magnetic field, not only on earth but on the sun for the very first time. I mean, the expansion of the universe, the fact that the universe is actually expanding was also discovered there. I mean, I could go on and on.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How do kids react when they hear about the history of this place while they're present?

Jessica Rodriguez: It kind of varies, I got to say. It depends. Naturally, depending on the age, this program is open for fourth graders all the way up to 12th grade. So you get a variety of things. And our Carnegie astronomers and our docents and all of our volunteers are really great at science communication. So we try to not only tell them like, "Oh, the speed of light was done here or determined here, the universe was seen here." But we really try to explain the concept so that whether it's a fourth grader or a 12th grader, they actually understand where they're standing. I mean, obviously it's excitement and it's in awe. I love it because of the fact that when you make that kind of impact, then it makes them even more curious. Perhaps coming to the mountain they didn't have that much interest in science or astronomy. And then I like to say we make a difference.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, I've seen it happen in my personal interactions with kids. Anytime you really reach them and they really begin to recalculate their place in the universe and what it means to be connected to space, you might not reach every kid, but the ones that you do reach, you make a difference. It makes a pivotal change in their brains.

Jessica Rodriguez: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that's really kind of what I live for, is when you see that they grasp certain concepts that you don't hear about every day in school. And obviously you could see even their self-esteem improve for that moment because they're like, "Oh, I understand what you're saying." And to talk of something with these working astronomers from Carnegie or JPL, sometimes we have JPL help us out as well, it really helps them and inspires them to ask for more, ask more questions. What else can they understand? How far can we go with this concept and how it relates to them? That's why I love astronomy, is because I love letting, especially younger kids know that when you look up, you're looking at where we came from. Everything that we're made of is right above us. It's really awesome to see when they actually grasp that concept.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What kind of educational programs does Mount Wilson offer? What is the scale of this program?

Jessica Rodriguez: This program, it's a STEM program, but it obviously has a focus on astronomy. What we like to do is that we introduce them to the mountain and we try to go from the concept of the solar system, to the galaxy, to the universe. And in addition to that, we talk a little bit about spectroscopy because that's the science behind all of it. We wouldn't be able to understand the chemical compositions of stars or magnetic fields if it wasn't for studying all of the light and whatnot. And we kind of try to go into depth into that. It just depends on the grade level, obviously, but even if we just say something as much as rainbows are science and rainbows have information, it still makes a difference in my opinion. It really exposes them to how awesome astronomy and science can be.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How many students would you say come through the observatory each year?

Jessica Rodriguez: Well, I feel like because of COVID, we're kind of starting over. We have plenty of students that come through and I want to say definitely in the hundreds, and that isn't a lot, but we have the STEM program as an option. But even if you just go ahead and rent the 60-inch telescope, for example, we have Pasadena High School coming up soon, and they're not going to do the STEM program, which includes all those lessons of the solar system and the galaxy and spectroscopy and the discovery of the universe, but they will still get to observe. That in itself, I think is an educational experience. Even if you just rent out the 60-inch telescope or the 100-inch telescope and observe for the night, it's still going to be an educational experience.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, not everyone is as lucky as we are to live near so many great observatories. But do you think that even smaller observatories usually have these kinds of STEM programs or at least opportunities for kids?

Jessica Rodriguez: Yeah, there's usually some kind of outreach. I love this area too because I think that we're really, you and I, in the hub of astronomy as far as at least the US goes, because we have Caltech, we have Carnegie, we have JPL, Planetary Society, Los Angeles Astronomical Society, Griffith Observatory, we have it all. And so Garvey Ranch Observatory, for example, they have a lot of outreach activities and outreach events, and Griffith Observatory has their own school program as well. They have both online and in person. It is drastically different, but all of them are very unique in what they have to offer.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is a hard question, but in your time teaching science to kids, what's been your most rewarding experience so far?

Jessica Rodriguez: Okay, that's a good one. There's a couple of times I want to say. There were a couple of girls, one of them was in middle school and one of them was in high school and they left the mountain saying, "This might have been the best day of this year." The other one said, "I definitely want to go into astronomy now." They actually came to the mountain interested, but they both left telling me that they really wanted to go into astronomy, into the field of astronomy, and they wanted to see if they could email me asking about some direction academically, because the academic career is a whole other job in itself, to be honest. So just to know that that changed them, that the experience changed them was definitely... I'll never forget those two. Really made it all worth it, you know?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. This is a topic that's been popping up in all my conversations around kids' education, but it's really about the community, about giving these kids a place where they feel welcome, and as soon as they feel like this is something that's within their grasp, it changes their idea of what they can do with their future. So I think these kinds of programs are just... I can't say how important they are. It's almost immeasurable.

Jessica Rodriguez: Oh, 100%. I mean, one of the things that I think in science communication that's changing is that science can be very factual, at least when I was growing up in my experience, it could be a little monotonous sometimes. So I think that within welcoming them, it's also about maintaining that encouragement with them, letting them know that it can be not only exciting, but there is nothing to be intimidated by. If you want to do it, you can do it no matter what, to stay focused, to continue pursuing, and that all of it is within reach. I know that, for example, the math can seem very intimidating to a lot of kids. So I love seeing people of all ages today, they've really shifted into welcoming, into embracing kids and letting them know that they can really do it and that it's possible and that you just take one step at a time. Everyone learns at a different pace, and that's really, really, really important to understand. You don't have to be a 5.0 child. That is incredible and that's amazing too, and we love that. I just think that welcoming the broader spectrum of learning is absolutely key for the future.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And there's so many ways to interact and share space and make it part of your career without being the person that does the hard research and the math. It's a key part of the way that we learn about the universe, but whether or not you're expressing your love of space through art or through teaching others about what you've learned, there's a lot of ways you can do it. And putting that in perspective for kids, I think is also a really powerful way to make them feel safe to learn about it because the math can be daunting.

Jessica Rodriguez: Yes, it definitely can be. And some people love that challenge, and if it's not your thing and you want to do art, there's some kids who have asked about astronomy art, and I have a friend actually who's an artist, Chloe Trujillo, and she actually had her art projected onto the moon, and she wanted to do things specifically astronomy related during a time in her life. It's not that her art is, I want to make that clear, but she did for a while and it's because she went to school for physics. And so yeah, you can always take a turn, and if you're more inspired to do art related to science, that's fantastic as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What should people do if they want to learn more about Mount Wilson's education programs or support the program?

Jessica Rodriguez: You can go to and that's MT, M as in Mary, T as in Tom,\stem. Or if you just go to Mt. Wilson, you're going to find a dropdown and you'll see education. And right under education, there's a STEM program, and right there, they'll describe the program. I have an electronic brochure that I can email folks and my email is on there. So my contact and everything are right there available to everyone.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The more support we get for programs like this and the more awareness we bring to them, that's all the more kids that we can really make feel welcome in this community, and we're going to need them because we're about to go back to the moon. We're about to learn so much about exoplanets. We're on the cusp of a whole new age of discovery, and these are going to be the kids that see it and fuel this research.

Jessica Rodriguez: I hope that there's some kind of science that goes with life extension or something because I think it's about to get really awesome.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, yeah.

Jessica Rodriguez: I think that my life expectancy is here for when we make some really revolutionary discoveries in the solar system and yeah, I want to be here to see it all.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Same. You and me, we'll toast the night that we discover life off of earth. Well, thanks for joining me, Jessica, and for everything you do to teach kids, it's so important.

Jessica Rodriguez: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Don't go anywhere. We'll be right back after this short break.

LeVar Burton: Hi, y'all, LeVar Burton here. Through my roles on Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, I have seen generations of curious minds inspired by the strange new worlds explored in books and on television. I know how important it is to encourage that curiosity in a young explorer's life. That's why I'm excited to share with you a new program from my friends at The Planetary Society. It's called the Planetary Academy, and anyone can join. Designed for ages five through nine by Bill Nye and the curriculum experts at The Planetary Society, the Planetary Academy is a special membership subscription for kids and families who love space. Members get quarterly mailed packages that take them on learning adventures through the many worlds of our solar system and beyond. Each package includes images and factoids, hands-on activities, experiments, and games, and special surprises. A lifelong passion for space, science and discovery starts when we're young. Give the gift of the cosmos to the explorer in your life.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: No matter where you live on this planet, there are probably people in your community working to share the love of space and science with young people. Whether you have a kid in your life or you simply want to help support these kinds of programs, I'm sure that your local space educators would love it if you reached out. I'll include the links to all of these amazing kids educational programs on the website for this Planetary Radio episode at Now, other than Bill Nye, I think Bruce Betts the chief scientist of The Planetary Society probably has the most experience teaching kids about space. Let's check in with him for what's up. Hey, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: With all this great conversations about all these people who are doing the good work to teach kids about space, I think something that I'm not sure a lot of people know about you is that you actually have a whole side hustle writing kids space books.

Bruce Betts: You could call it that, but yes, yes, I do. I have written six, and I've gotten more on the way for various ages, and it's been very rewarding.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's cool seeing all that payoff with our Planetary Academy.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, that's also wonderful program we've got going, and I'm super excited about that and creating content for that. So all of it is neat. You lose track until you get some little note from a parent who said, "Hey, my kid wants to read this every night." Then it feels good.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How did you get into writing kids' space books?

Bruce Betts: I was actually recruited from other things I'd done, and so I got offers to write books. And I've gotten very into it, but I've been doing on and off, education related to space, going back to way back when I was doing field trips with dry ice and liquid nitrogen, talking about planets to kids who would visit our research institute. So it's been a long and exciting thing. I just miss the liquid nitrogen.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Same. Had a lot of fun playing with liquid nitrogen, but it's always the dry ice chunks that I had the most fun with with the kids. First thing they want to do is stick their hand right on it, and I've had to stop them many times.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, I really encourage... Oh wait, no, we don't. Yeah, that's why I stopped doing the stuff in person. The books are safer.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The books are safer. Well, if anybody wants to take their kids out and show them what's going on in the night sky this week, what would you recommend for them?

Bruce Betts: Well, first of all, check out Astronomy for Kids by the wonderful author Bruce Betts. Sorry, couldn't resist. We've got Venus almost at its highest point in the sky coming up in another couple weeks, really up there, beautiful in the west. I'm just going to keep telling you because it's just so spectacular and easy to see after Sunset now for couple hours. And Mars is growing closer to it. Mars significantly dimmer, reddish and up higher in the sky. And Jupiter's starting to make its way up in the pre-dawn east, still quite low, and Saturn up above that. And this later part of May, Mercury is coming up very low to the horizon below Jupiter in the pre-dawn. So if you've got a nice view to the east, you can check out Mercury above it. Jupiter much brighter and significantly above them. Yellowish Saturn. May 23rd in the evening in the west, the Crescent moon is near Pollux, and Castor and Pollux and Gemini between reddish Mars above and super bright Venus below. So it'll be a lovely grouping going on on May 23rd.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I always like to go outside during this time of year and go look up at Castor and Pollux because my mom has an identical twin sister, so I always really like to go out and see Gemini.

Bruce Betts: Wait, your mom's Castor or Pollux?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Ooh, that's an interesting question. I'll have to think on that one.

Bruce Betts: Oh, it wasn't philosophical. Sorry. Let's move on to this weekend space history, shall we?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Let's do it.

Bruce Betts: Because stuff happened. Apollo 10 launched in 1969 to go practice landing on the moon, but stopping many kilometers short on purpose in preparation for Apollo 11 a couple months later. And in 2010, the Japanese Space Agency launched IKAROS, which became the first successful solar sale spacecraft deployed from Akatsuki on its way to Venus and demonstrated solar sailing. They had a lot of impressive stuff on, it was about 300 kilograms compared to LightSail 2, which was the second spacecraft to demonstrate controlled solar sailing from The Planetary Society when we were five kilograms. So it's a different class, but congratulations 13 years later, once again to the IKAROS team because it's impressive.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It really is. I'm only just a little jealous that they got there first, but it's not a race. We're all working together.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, right. We go on to [inaudible 01:09:11]. This one's you may know, but I just thought we'd revisit and make sure people are aware of this kind of basic of the random SpaceX. So Earth's orbital plane defines the ecliptic, and the biggest variation among the eight classical planets is Mercury, is about seven degrees its plane to the ecliptic, and that's followed by Venus at 3.4 degrees from the ecliptic, and then all the other planets are closer to one or approaching zero.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wonder what happened to Mercury that caused that?

Bruce Betts: It's still hard for Mercury to talk about it. Let's just put it that way.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, we're here for you Mercury, if you ever want to want to talk.

Bruce Betts: Indeed, indeed. Shall we go onto the trivia contest in which I asked the incredibly important question: What is the official name or designation for NASA's toilet on the ISS, which is also to be used on Artemis II? How'd we do?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: People loved this one. Anything toilet related in space, people always enjoy. Our winner this week is Kirk Zoab from Denver, Colorado, USA, and the answer they sent in is, the Universal Waste Management System or UWMS. That's the answer for this question. Although I loved that they also wrote in that they should have called it the everything waste system or EWS.

Bruce Betts: EWS. Oh, that's much better. I can't believe... This one's so unpronounceable. Maybe we'll do a future contest of acronyms for toilets in space, but not this time.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What's funny about this, the fact that you bring up the naming contest, a couple people wrote in because they were a little confused because there was a naming contest in 2009. They were naming the Node 3 module on the ISS that included a toilet. And at the time, Stephen Colbert, who's like a late night talk show host here in the United States, asked his audience on his show, The Colbert Report, to write in and tell NASA that they should name this node with its toilet the Colbert. And 230,000 people voted for him. So a few people wrote in to say that it was named Colbert because they remember that he won that contest. But in the end, NASA decided to go with this less pronounceable name, and they gave Colbert a consolation prize, which was a treadmill, which they named the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or the COLBERT.

Bruce Betts: One note on the Universal Waste Management System with the terribly unpronounceable acronym, universal, because it's designed to be able to be used in different spacecrafts. So ISS and a different backend, you might say, of the system is employed on Artemis II, but it's the same basic system.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We also got a lot of people writing in with jokes about boldly going where no one had gone before.

Bruce Betts: Oh, my!

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I had a fun one reading through people's messages this week is all I can say. It was great.

Bruce Betts: All right, we'll revisit this popular and disturbing topic in the future, I guarantee.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But what's our next trivia contest question?

Bruce Betts: For now, we're going to go a little more classical and go to Shakespearean literature. Where in the solar system is there a crater named Macbeth? Go to contest.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Just don't send in your answer while you're inside of a theater. And you have until May 24th at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us your answer. And here's a fun bit of extra trivia because Jen Vaughn mentioned the Red Rover Goes to Mars program earlier, and you can actually spot some of the students from that program in the background of Amazon Studios documentary, Good Night Oppy, that's all about the Opportunity Rover. So our winner this week is going to receive a Good Night Oppy thermal mug.

Bruce Betts: I will not be a part of these superstitions.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Here's Bruce just yelling Macbeth in a theater.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, they get really mad.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wonder what the astronomy equivalent is. Is there something you could shout in an observatory that would make everyone antsy?

Bruce Betts: Earthquake?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That would do it.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody, go out there, look up the night sky and think about [inaudible 01:13:47] in trouble and stuff like that. Thank you and goodnight.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with Shubham Kanodia. He's the lead author on a paper about a forbidden planet that probably shouldn't exist. And before we go, I want to send a huge thank you to everybody out there who spends any time at all sharing the love of space and science with young people. Every moment you spend trying to teach science to a young person and inspiring them to think bigger or feel more welcome, you're shaping a better future for humanity. And someday when we're out there sailing among the stars, it will be partly your fault. So think about that the next time you're looking up at the night sky. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our amazing members, both young and old. You can join us as we continue to inspire the next generation and celebrate the space educators at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.