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If you’re riveted by Cassini’s dramatic end-of-mission plunge into Saturn on Sept. 15, you might want to take a cue from 6-year-old Jackson Kotch, who’s decided to turn the bittersweet occasion into cause for celebration with a goodbye party.
The first grader from Largo, Florida, mailed a handmade invitation—complete with stickers of Saturn, stars, an astronaut, and a drawing of the Cassini spacecraft—to the Cassini mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
“Jackson’s Goodbye Cassini Party! You’re invited! September 15, 2017. 6:00 p.m. We will have special Cassini cake.”
A young aspiring NASA scientist, Jackson has been carefully following Cassini’s progress for the past few months after his mother explained to him the series of daring ring dives Cassini has been doing since April 26. He has been so enthralled by the spacecraft—and saddened by its mission coming to an end—that he decided to host a Goodbye Cassini party. Tucked alongside the invitation was also a personal note to the mission leads—Cassini Program Manager Earl Maize and Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker:
To Dr. Earl Maize and Dr. Linda Spilker,
I love Cassini and I feel sad because Cassini is going away. Are you sad too? Do you like working for NASA? I think your job is great. How do you become a NASA scientist? I want to be a NASA scientist when I grow up. I am in first grade now. How long have you been doing this job? I hope you can come to my party!
While the Cassini team will, unfortunately, not be able to attend—“We’ll be watching from mission control as Cassini sends back science from Saturn right up to the very last second,” Maize and Spilker wrote back to him—Jackson’s party won’t be short on guests or Cassini-themed fun. He already has at least 20 attendees including classmates, family friends, and relatives who will all be heading to his house later this week.
The evening will include games such as “toss the ring on Saturn” (Jackson is crafting the planet himself out of styrofoam and paint), “pin the Cassini on Saturn,” and a group toast to Cassini’s final moments with sparkling grape juice. As for that special Cassini cake? His mom, Jennifer, is making a Cassini-shaped cake for the party in Jackson’s favorite flavor, vanilla.
“NASA wouldn’t have even been a blip on his radar until Cassini,” says Jennifer. “Now we have space everything. Cassini has completely been his inspiration.”
Jennifer discovered the Cassini website during the spacecraft’s Grand Finale ring dives back in April and she decided to share it with Jackson, who “just took off with it,” she says. “Cassini and NASA are the only sites he’s allowed to look at on his tablet. He loves that he can see exactly where Cassini is, always checks its status when he gets up in the morning.”
So why has Cassini meant so much to Jackson? “It’s the only spacecraft I ever knew,” he says. “I thought Cassini was a great spacecraft.” He adds that his favorite part of Saturn is “what the rings are made of” and “my favorite pictures are the ones of Saturn in color.”
Now, whenever the two go to the library, Jackson looks for any and all space books he can find. “We just devour them,” Jennifer says. “Anything about Saturn and anything that mentions Cassini, he has to check out.”
As the mission comes to a close, Jennifer hopes the party will help Cassini end on a positive note for Jackson. "He’s kind of become attached to Cassini," she says. "We talk about it as if it’s a person up there, so he needed to have a goodbye party. I told him Cassini is dying a noble death."
While this week might seem a bit bleak, Jackson’s future is looking significantly brighter. In their letter back to him, Maize and Spilker said they hope to see him working for NASA one day, too:
“That would be great if you can join us when you graduate from college. Work hard in school (even the classes you might not like) and never stop exploring. Maybe you can help plan another mission to Saturn.”