Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer


Todd Barber
Todd Barber

I recently completed an outreach 'extravaganza' in Utah, just before Labor Day weekend. The Cassini Outreach Office supported this whirlwind trip, including time at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Provo Canyon. As much fun as it is to do NASA outreach around Southern California, the level of public excitement and interest is unmatched when visiting sites far from the 10 NASA centers around the country. What a wonderful if hectic trip I had a few weeks ago!

My journey began with an evening flight to SLC on the last day of August. I ushered in September 2010 driving from Salt Lake City down to Orem and my hotel. After battling endless road construction and getting lost (Saturn is much easier to find, believe me!), I settled in for a restful but abbreviated four hours of sleep before my first commitment in Utah—an appearance on the live morning show “Good Things Utah.” This 10-11 a.m. weekday show on the Salt Lake ABC affiliate KTVX reaches more than 20,000 viewers each day, and I received the “green light” to be a guest on the show less than 24 hours before show time! My wonderful host in Utah, Nan Black, drove me back up to Salt Lake and we had a great meeting with the producer. I teased the make-up artist that she would have to bring out the heavy stuff typically used on young Hollywood starlets after all-night partying, given the dark circles under my eyes.

The TV appearance itself couldn’t have been more wonderful. I was able to discuss the NASA outreach work I would be doing over the next few days in Utah, as well as talk about the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival itself. After my on-air segment, following the show I sat down with the four co-hosts and we enjoyed a solid half hour of NASA Q&A and fawning over the Cassini image of Saturn in backlight. I would have loved to have stayed longer, but my next outreach engagement beckoned—500 students in grades 1to 6 at Foothill Elementary back in Orem. The principal donned his finest space tie for my visit, so I had to lift my pant leg to show my space socks to him and the kids. (Naturally, this was in addition to my space tie!). I spent about an hour each with grades 1 to 3 and 4 to 6, talking about the planets and JPL missions. The students also prepared a wonderful space montage to welcome me to their school. Except for some PC-to-Mac issues with the animations in my slides, it was a wonderful experience.

The author surrounded by co-hosts from 'Good Things Utah.'
The author surrounded by co-hosts from 'Good Things Utah.'
After a tiny break, it was time for a Cassini-specific lecture at the Orem Public Library. This was the only venue during my trip that was open to the public, and the library was quite pleased with an attendance of 70. I was most encouraged by the number of students K-12 in attendance, so I tailored my talk appropriately, sharing the fascinating legacy of the Cassini mission to date. After a quick dinner following the talk, I had little trouble finding slumber—especially given an extremely busy day to come. Thursday dawned bright and sunny, and I began my three-venue, five-talk day at Maeser Academy. Upon my arrival, this school surprised me by telling me classes had not yet begun! I was expecting 150 students in grades 7 to 8, but I ended up with 70 parents and students. Given that attendance was voluntary, during their last week of summer vacation, no less, at least the families who were there really wanted to be there. Unfortunately, ten minutes into my presentation, the power went out for the entire neighborhood! Luckily, the school laptop had good battery life, so I invited all 70 attendees to “gather around” the laptop as I completed my talk. With all the wonderful Q&A, it actually took over ninety minutes before I completed the slide show. I told them, “At this point, if we had power, I’d show you the Mars Exploration Rover animation DVD” and right then the lights came on, and we watched the show! Nearly late at this point, I zipped off to the Utah College of Academic Sciences (UCAS), a magnet high school. I was scheduled for a lunchtime talk (again, with student attendance voluntary) and one sophomore physics class, but I ended up having so much fun I added another 10th grade physics class immediately after the first two back-to-back talks.

My voice was starting to get scratchy by this point, but I still had an afternoon appointment with the chemical engineering department at Brigham Young University as a seminar speaker. One of my passions is chemistry, though I haven’t had a course for a long time. My fondness for chemistry is how I ended up in propulsion within aerospace engineering, actually! Anyway, to “bond” (if you’ll pardon the pun) with this chemistry-centric audience, I spent the first ten minutes telling tales of my near-death experiences during middle school and high school with my chemistry set (on steroids). After reminiscing about mercury spills in my carpet, bedroom fires, dissolved rubber stoppers and bromine clouds, begging for a natural gas line to be installed into my bedroom so I might use a Bunsen burner, etc., I settled down to tales of Cassini, with emphasis on chemistry-themed results at Saturn and its moons. This talk went really well, as did my final presentation the next morning at Alpine Academy, a solar system overview for 200 students in grades 6 to 8. Whew, what a trip!

Vallen Thomas and Todd Barber
Principal Vallen Thomas with the author
At this point, I was free to attend the Storytelling Festival, which I did with great relish. During the festival, I saw many excellent tellers, taking mental notes on how their mastery of the lost art of storytelling might help my NASA outreach to be more compelling. I also swapped space facts with the precocious son of Bil Lepp, probably the most vaunted storyteller in attendance. I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that this young lad actually stumped me more than I stumped him. I also spent thirty minutes with a political candidate and his family; he will likely become a freshman U.S. senator from Utah this fall, as he is far ahead in the polls. You never know whom you might run into at storytelling festivals (I’ll resist the obvious joke about politicians having to be good storytellers!). I was also interviewed by a local newspaper reporter about JPL and NASA’s participation in the festival, a wonderful ending for my Utah odyssey.

I would like to thank the folks at “Good Things Utah,” all of the teachers in all of schools for which I spoke, all those who made the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival possible, and especially Nan Black and her family for their generosity during my visit. It was an honor and a privilege doing NASA outreach in the “Beehive State.” Finally, my special thanks to Alice Wessen, Judy Nelson, Jane Houston Jones, and Bob Mitchell for making this trip possible. I hope this isn’t my last outreach trip to the beautiful state of Utah.