Blaine Baggett says one of Saturn's 31 moons sports a geyser like Earth's steamy Old Faithful, only made of ice, and yet another has a crater reminiscent of the Star Wars movie's Death Star killing machine.
He considers himself a mere storyteller but, as an executive communications manager for the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a partner with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the $3.27 billion Cassini-Huygens project, he has a huge job--to tell the world about the universe.
"There aren't many people who get to go to their job and leave the planet every day," says Baggett, 53, executive manager of JPL's Office of Communications and Education, and a parishioner at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. He also believes the outward journey magnifies the inner one.
"It is a spiritual journey as much as a scientific one," says Baggett. "Science informs my spiritual voice. It's highly spiritual in the sense of coming to understand the cosmos and its majesty.
"It gives me a tremendous appreciation for the power of the universe, the immensity of the universe and, combined with the astrobiology of understanding the search for life elsewhere, made me appreciate how much the universe wants for there to be life. The universe can't help but create life," he says.
He has been inside NASA's Mission Control room and JPL's media control center during launches and landings, oversees national media relations, museum exhibits, Kids in Classroom-style programs and websites that offer real-time mission images and do-it-yourself instructions for making a Cassini-Huygens paper model.
He hopes the Cassini will discover even more moons, and unravel the mystery of the hazy yellow planet's bright rings and its winds, which blast up to three times faster than the earth's hurricanes. Moreover, he hopes his enthusiasm for the project is contagious.
"We are devoted to using space as an inspiration for learning all kinds of things," says Baggett. "We've found a way to use the Saturn and Cassini mission in the literacy project, and have been very successful. We've even heard from a textbook publisher interested in using this sort of backdoor method of teaching literacy by teaching something about outer space," he says.
Take Sonya, for instance, a California fourth grader and "the poster child" for the Cassini Language Arts Program program who never spoke in class and, when pre-tested, wrote a few sentences about Cassini-Huygens "with a lot of misspelled words," Baggett says.
"She took our module and drew a beautiful picture of the spacecraft. She wrote something like three pages. Her teacher told us it was the first time she spoke in class. Anytime we can use the heavens and the universe as an inspiration, it's wonderful. It helps to bring out the best in us."
The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn began October 15, 1997, and is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency and JPL, which designed, developed and assembled the 22'x13' orbiter. Cassini was launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying the wok-shaped Huygens probe, which is equipped with optical and
microwave sensing instruments including cameras, spectrometers, radar and radio. After a 2.2-billion mile flight it entered Saturn's orbit June 30 of this year and will study the giant planet.
The Cassini was named for Italian-born French astronomer Giovanni Cassini, the first director of the Royal Observatory in Paris and who from 1671-1684 discovered four of Saturn's moons and the major gap in its rings. The probe was named for Christian Huygens, a Dutch physicist and astronomer who in 1655 first described the nature of Saturn's rings and discovered its moon
On Christmas Eve, 2004 (in U.S. time zones), Cassini is scheduled to release the piggy-backed Huygens probe to journey to Titan, Saturn's largest moon. If all goes according to plan the Huygens, after a 20-day ballistic free fall, will enter Titan's atmosphere on January 14, 2005. It will deploy parachutes and begin several hours of intensive observations. The probe will transmit information back to Cassini which will relay it to earth.
The study of Titan is one of the major goals of the mission because the moon may preserve, in deep-freeze, many of the chemical compounds that predated life on earth, according to Dr. Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist, in an interview on the NASA website.
"Titan is like a time machine taking us to the past to see what Earth might have been like. The hazy moon may hold clues to how the primitive Earth evolved into a life-bearing planet."
Baggett says this aspect of the mission is important because Saturn is like a solar system in miniature "and because Titan, a primordial earthlike moon so large that, if it were orbiting the sun rather than Saturn could be a planet, is like a deep-freeze time capsule of what the earth might have looked like 4 billion years ago."
In spite of space program cuts in the 2005 proposed $92.9 billion budget, Baggett says the Cassini-Huygens has already proved to be "a very economical way to try to understand how we came to be."
"The images we're now getting back of rings are probably a hundred times better than the ones we saw with Voyager. There are rings we now know about that we didn't know existed--rings on the outer planets."
On Tuesday of this week, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee backed the spending bill because of budget deficits, expected to top a record $400 billion this year. The bill, approved in subcommittee, cuts NASA funding by $229 million compared to 2004. It also chops $538 million from a $910 million request to finance a long-term plan to return humans to the moon and then on to Mars but fully funds the $691 million request for unmanned Mars missions and leaves intact the requested $4.3 billion for the space shuttle program.
A common misconception is that NASA's budget ranges at about 20 percent of the national budget, said Baggett.
"Actually, it's less than 1 percent of the national budget," Baggett said. "I'm willing any day of the week to spend one cent out of my federal tax dollar for federal space exploration. It's woven into the fabric of our history and culture. The technical spin-offs more than pay for themselves, like cell phones and medical instruments like breast cancer detection using
"My father-in-law is a crawfish farmer in Louisiana and could care a whit about going to Mars but when I say we use technology to look at weather patterns and climate that affect his work, then he becomes interested. It's all helping to make for a better society here and make us more competitive. It more than pays for itself."
A former PBS journalist and a finalist for the Journalism in Space program, initially Baggett didn't set his sights on the planets.
Born in Mississippi, he was raised a "hard-shell Baptist" who flirted with Catholicism. After serving with the Peace Corps in Liberia, he worked at a series of Public Broadcasting System stations in Mississippi and Washington, D.C., before moving to KCET-TV in Los Angeles.
Space-related documentaries to his credit include "Space Flight," which traced the history of space exploration from Chuck Yeager through the Apollo and early shuttle missions and aired on the Arts & Entertainment network in May, 1985. He also produced a six-part series, "The Astronomers," in 1990, and that led him, about five years ago, to JPL.
"My first real experiences at lab were very, very difficult times," he recalls. "In fact, it was the worst time for the lab. There was the Mars expedition that plowed into the planet because of a metric conversion error that we didn't know about, followed by the Mars polar-lander that cratered on Mars.
"But, we came out of that and I'm very proud of what we did. We believe in openness. We try to tell the public what we do, whether it's good or bad news, we put it out there in front of them. Exploration's always about ups and downs. If it's so safe that everything's successful, we're not exploring very hard. Anytime you step out in space you are in a very hostile
"I don't think the space program as a whole has done a very good job of getting that across. Sometimes, when we're successful it looks easy, but it never is. We have to let people understand what's going on. It is essential for democracy to understand. The worst thing we could do would be to try to sugarcoat things. We just put it out there."
Regarding his own faith journey, he says he and his wife Michelle were church-shopping for a church home for their sons Austin, 12, and Walker, 2. They visited All Saints, Pasadena, on a Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and felt at home.
"They were playing Gospel songs," he recalled. "There was incredible energy. Ed Bacon (rector of All Saints, Pasadena) led a great service. And Michelle, my wife, turned to me and said, 'This is it. This is what we've been looking for.'"
"I went there for one purpose, but found it's been very meaningful to me."
For Baggett, the faith journey is a lot like space exploration, like the awesomeness of life. He compares it to a time he spent inside NASA's Mission Control during a mission to Mars.
"When the images pop up on the screen, it's as if I'm in the delivery room with my sons again. It is an incredible moment of something that's never happened before. We were looking at a place no one's laid eyes on before.
"I know it has traveled 200 million miles to Mars, with technical difficulties. I know the sacrifices the team has made over three years to make it work. It was a very, very powerful moment--the addictive high of the exploration.
"There's the whole deterministic notion of science that you can explain everything but science hasn't been able to get anywhere close to the question of creation. We think we understand the big bang, but the moment of creation, we just don't know.
And then there's the whole world of super strings and other dimensions and quantum physics--they're just great mysteries out there. Faith and mysteries go hand in hand to me."
For more info on Cassini-Huygens, visit the mission website at www.jpl.nasa.gov.