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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Wiggins discovered an asteroid in 2008, and he has named it after the University of Utah.
NASA honors Utahn for bringing the heavens to Earth

Nation’s busiest solar system ambassador is shining star in the volunteer universe.

First Published Jul 21 2014 04:01 pm • Last Updated Jul 22 2014 09:26 am

The tiny Utah town of Kanarraville was about to be overrun with astronomy tourists.

The problem? No one in the area knew it.

But a call from Patrick Wiggins months before the 2012 annular solar eclipse allowed the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau to set up facilities, vendor booths and activities to help deal with the 20,000-strong horde drawn to a place that 350 folks call home.

"If not for his heads up, we would have been ill-prepared, but we were able to plan for and even advertise the event," said the bureau’s Bonnie Char Hallman. "We managed the crowd safely and effectively because of Patrick and his notification and support through the whole planning process."

That phone call was one of only hundreds of times Wiggins has reached out to help Utahns better understand and enjoy the cosmos.

His work has not gone unnoticed.

Next month, Wiggins, 65, will become the first NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador to receive the Distinguished Public Service Medal, the space agency’s highest civilian honor. Past recipients have included notables such as astronomer Carl Sagan, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and scientists who have worked on NASA projects.

"Patrick really took to heart what we ask of our volunteers — that’s to tell the NASA story and to personalize the U.S. space program for your community," said Kay Ferrari, Solar System Ambassadors coordinator. "He’s done that as far back as I can remember, and he’s done that very effectively. What has impressed me the most about Patrick is his selfless dedication and enjoyment of what he’s doing."

Solar System Ambassadors — who are strictly volunteer — are asked to hold four events a year. Wiggins averages 88. In fact, when he flies out to receive his award Aug. 14, he’s taking an early-morning flight and leaving that same day. When Ferrari questioned why he was cutting it so close, Wiggins told her it was because he had events scheduled for Aug. 13 and 15, and he didn’t want to miss them.

(Scroll over the medals to learn more about the recipients.)

"Not even for his own honor will he miss one of the events he set up in Utah," Ferrari said, adding that Wiggins is the first ambassador to hold more than 1,000 events while with the program. The next closest is an ambassador in Michigan who joined a few years ago and has staged 57.

Ferrari said when Wiggins called her after he received notification of the award, there was silence on his end of the phone.

"It was the first time I’ve ever heard Patrick speechless," she said.

Wiggins — who served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years, including time in Vietnam, and retired as a master sergeant — was unfamiliar with the NASA award. But after researching it, he said he was "stunned" to receive it.

"Considering previous recipients have included the likes of Carl Sagan, [science-fiction legend] Robert Heinlein and Gene Roddenberry, I’m still wondering if they rang the wrong guy," Wiggins said. "But, seriously, this is a very humbling experience."

The Stansbury Park resident’s dedication became evident in regular reports sent back to NASA headquarters. The report about him hitting the 1,000 mark was one of many that caught the eye of James Green, director of planetary science at NASA headquarters. In his nomination, Green describes the passion for NASA Wiggins has demonstrated.

"More than once, Wiggins has been heard commenting that being a Solar System Ambassador has given purpose to his retirement," Green wrote. "We often speak of [Solar System Ambassadors] as ‘serving their local communities.’ Patrick’s story certainly is a wonderful example of a volunteer who does just that."

The citation awarded with the medal reads, "For superior individual dedication to community and scientific engagement as NASA’s most prolific Solar System Ambassador."

(Scroll over the medals to learn more about the recipients.)

Wiggins joined the ambassadors program Jan. 1, 2002, just as he was ending a 26-year career — from 1975 to 2002 — at the Hansen (now Clark) Planetarium.

Von Del Chamberlain, director of the planetarium from 1984 to 1996, said Wiggins hosted star shows for thousands of schoolchildren. He joined the outreach program, where he traveled to small towns with a telescope to show residents the wonders of the heavens. He recalls Wiggins’ infectious enthusiasm.

"I don’t know where he acquired the disease, but he is especially effervescent with that ailment," Chamberlain said. "It’s a pretty nice kind of disease to have, to be passionate about your work, whatever that might be."

Chamberlain noted that the medal likely will serve as a highlight in Wiggins’ life, and that he’s proud Wiggins has continued to take the outreach mission on the road through the ambassadors program.

Wiggins has spent countless hours and driven thousands of miles to reach every corner of Utah. When driving several hours to a location to host a talk or star party, he often will listen to the recordings of training sessions provided to Solar System Ambassadors. NASA’s Ferrari says of the 585 ambassadors in the program, Wiggins appears to be the only one who has listened to or attended all of the more than 300 training sessions.

In addition to furthering NASA’s public outreach, Wiggins works with the "Phun With Physics" program housed at the University of Utah’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Through it, he gives science demonstrations to third- and sixth-graders in Tooele and Salt Lake counties.

He also is a devoted amateur astronomer. He has been an active member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society for 39 years and has held each of the positions on its board through the years. In January, Wiggins made the discovery of a lifetime when he found a supernova. His life largely revolves around the night sky, keeping a schedule that has him wake in the early afternoon so he can stay up through the early morning to observe the stars.

(Scroll over the medals to learn more about the recipients.)

At star parties, Wiggins excitedly chats with visitors about the composition of the rings of Saturn, how binary stars such as Albireo (nicknamed the Cub Scout Star because one is blue and the other yellow) work or how stars form in places such as the Orion Nebula.

Ann House, vice president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, calls Wiggins a "true educator" and lauds his ability to reach diverse audiences, from young children to adults, and help them understand complex scientific principles without patronizing anyone.

"What is so infectious and contagious about Patrick is his enthusiasm," House said. "You need to be around him for only a moment before his passion for astronomy becomes your passion."

That outreach and ability to make astronomy accessible and exciting to everyday folks is largely the reason he was selected as one of this year’s 11 winners, which include people such as "Star Trek" actor William Shatner and Edward C. Stone, former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and physics professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Colleen Canary, lead human resources specialist for NASA’s Employee Recognition and Award Program, said the Distinguished Public Service Medal is designed to show a deep appreciation to civilians who have given their time and energy to furthering the space program.

"The hope is that … we can inspire the family and friends and next generation of scientists and technologists to tell their stories," Canary said. "We want to let them know we appreciate their contribution and time. A lot of people have dedicated their lives to NASA work, and we want to tell families thank you for letting us have their people and that we admire the work they’ve done."

smcfarland@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sheena5427

At a glance

Want to get involved?

Utah is home to seven Solar System Ambassadors, but NASA is looking for more. The application process begins in September. For more information, visit www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador.

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