Oak Park has a new ambassador, but not to the worlds of Frank Lloyd Wright or Ernest Hemingway. Think bigger.
Oak Parker Mark Benson was recently named ambassador to the solar system by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Solar System Ambassador Program.
This new concierge to the celestial neighborhood joins the ranks of nearly 1,000 ambassadors across the United States — about 20 of whom are in the Chicago area — in highlighting real NASA missions that explore the solar system.
Benson has always had a passion for NASA and its space missions, but his journey to ambassadorship began the summer he started volunteering as a telescope facilitator at Adler Planetarium.
He purchased a telescope a few years ago to share the stars with his daughter. They also started taking trips to Adler to look through the big telescope. One day, while looking at the hours of operation on Adler's website, Benson came across a volunteer page and learned about the telescope facilitator program.
"I thought, 'You mean you're going to let me come in and run your telescope?'" he recalled.
Benson took his enthusiasm for the space program further in the fall, when he successfully applied to attend Jet Propulsion Lab's completion of the Cassini Mission — that's JPL's 13-year mission exploring the atmosphere of Saturn.
Benson traveled to the JPL lab in Pasadena, California to watch as scientists crashed the Cassini spacecraft into the planet's surface.
That's where Benson learned about the ambassador program.
He applied and received his acceptance letter on Christmas Eve, he said.
As an official ambassador, Benson is tasked with holding at least four events a year that celebrate the space program.
"I'm eager to plan events around town that will get people using telescopes, and get people the most up-to-date information about what NASA is achieving," he said in a news release announcing Oak Park's new space ambassador. "But most importantly, I'm eager to answer people's questions."
Benson is just getting started planning events to get people excited about space, but he plans to start with his daughter's upcoming school field trip to Adler. "The kids are coming in with a list of questions when I meet them there," he said.
As a telescope facilitator at Adler, he has learned that "the most important answer I can give to someone is the answer to their question, not the question I raise.
"They already have a question [when they visit the planetarium]," he said. "They don't need me to rant at them for 15 minutes about what I think is cool."
Benson said he hopes to gain a reputation in Oak Park as a person stargazers can come to with questions.
The Solar System Ambassador Program has been around since 1997, according to Kay Ferrari, program coordinator.
She said the program started in an effort to promote the Galileo Mission, which studied Jupiter and its moons. It was later expanded to include all of JPL's missions in 1999, Ferrari said.
"It's telling the story of NASA and what NASA does," she said.
Ambassadors have found a number of creative ways to share NASA's accomplishments with the world, she said. One ambassador created a weather map that shows areas on Earth that are colder than the location where the Curiosity Rover is exploring the surface of Mars, she said.
"We have creative people who know what works in their communities," she said. Learning about NASA from a local person in their own communities makes it "so much more meaningful," she added.
Some ambassadors hold dozens of events a year; at least one holds over 100 annually, she said.
"Most have been doing this anyway since before they joined," she said.
More information about Benson and the space program is available at: https://solarsystem1.jpl.nasa.gov/ssa/biography.cfm?US_ID=1564.
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