Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer
As Cassini wraps up the first two weeks of the Equinox Mission, the flood of science data from Saturn continues unabated. However, given a lack of propulsive maneuvers at the moment, my typically jam-packed schedule fortunately allowed my participation in the recent Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.
I was wholly unfamiliar with this annual event on the Mall in the nation's capitol, spanning two weeks around Independence Day in America. Over one million visitors attend this free event every summer, and there are typically three main themes with dozens of tents per theme. Typically, one of the themes is a U.S. state celebrating a "roundish" statehood anniversary, while another theme is one of the roughly 200 nations on the third rock.
This year, NASA's golden anniversary, the Smithsonian decided that NASA would be its third theme, a wonderful opportunity for the agency. All ten NASA centers across the nation sent representatives to staff a myriad of space-related exhibits, an awesome chance to interact with literally thousands of public supporters and taxpayers in a direct, visceral way.
When the Cassini Outreach Office sought volunteers months ago, without hesitation I signed up, even with my misgivings about the comfort level of the East Coast in early July's heat and humidity. I had the choice between the week before July 4th or the actual week itself, and in short order I selected the latter. For well over a decade, I have enjoyed watching "A Capitol Fourth" on PBS every Fourth of July, so the opportunity to experience this in person was too nifty to bypass. Invigorated, I packed my bags and set off for DC on July 1st.
My time on the Mall passed far too quickly staffing the small but exquisitely detailed 1/10th scale model of the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft. Cassini personnel shared one of the space science booths with the Mars Exploration Rovers, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, and an aerogel exhibit. Talk about competition! However, in my typical fashion of acting more like a circus barker than an engineer, I drew in as many visitors as possible to hear tales of our robotic emissary, exploring the Saturnian system for four years and counting. It was so gratifying to see the level of interest and to tackle excellent questions from passersby, especially students. However, I think the best part of the week was showing visitors, a few at time, our glorious image of Saturn in backlight during a long eclipse. This sublime image, which graced the cover of National Geographic's December 2006 issue, stole visitors' hearts with its beauty and serenity. I then directed their gaze to a miniscule blip of white light amongst Saturn's rings, a tiny dot and our cradle of life, Earth. There is no way to put a price on seeing the reaction of a person looking back upon themselves, so fragile and so very far away.