What do you get when you combine our amazing Solar System with earth-shattering passion? A shooting star? An asteroid shower? Or maybe a new NASA Ambassador?
Russell Orr, Education Specialist at Discovery Park of America in Union City, has the perfect combination of a love for outer space and an unbridled passion for space exploration. His love for space and space travel is so expansive that it dates back to his early childhood and instigated his hunger for online communications with NASA.
That’s why the day that NASA sent out an invitation to serve a Solar System Ambassador in the year 2018, he responded to the call. “Who wouldn’t want to be a solar system ambassador?” Russell asked with wide-eyed wonder. Russell went through a rather lengthy application process and then waited, waited and waited. “I even got pretty depressed after a certain length of time went by and I assumed that they had not selected me,” he confessed. But, finally, the day came when Russell opened his mailbox and discovered a letter from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA’s research center that coordinates the ambassadors. “I practically jumped for joy when I saw that letter,” Russell remembered. “I knew that they wanted me to be an ambassador!”
The certificate is nice, but it wasn’t necessary for Russell to be quite the ambassador for space and space travel. His love for space started when he was in the fourth grade. His family accepted the opportunity offered to them by two gentlemen to see the stars through their unusually large telescope. “These guys had a huge telescope,” Russell explained. “And, they taught me to look at space as I had never seen it before.” “I’ll never forget the first night I actually saw a galaxy,” he said. “The amazing thing is that the galaxies were always there, I just had to learn how to see them!” Russell found this ability so fascinating that part of his life’s work is sharing it with others.
“Did you know that if you go into a completely dark room and stay there for 10 – 12 minutes with absolutely no light, and then you go outside and look at the night sky with your pupils completely dilated from the dark room, you will see things that you never knew were there?” Russell asked. “So many people don’t know this simple trick, and it is amazing,” he went on to say.
Russell shared a story about an incident that occurred when he was in the fourth grade. There was an astronomy book in his classroom about black holes in space. Russell found that book so fascinating that he couldn’t get enough of it. “So, I took it home,” he said. “Did you borrow it?” he was asked. “No, I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had to have that book. I read it over and over again,” he explained. “But, a couple of weeks before school was out, I started feeling really guilty, so I took it back to school and confessed what I had done to my teacher,” he said. His teacher, Miss Rodden, asked Russell to hand her the book. She opened it to the back page and wrote these words: “to Russell Orr, from Miss Rodden, June ‘93.”
“I will never forget that,” Russell stated. The name of the book is How Did We Find Out About Black Holes by Isaac Asimov. According to Russell, it is still available in some libraries and he encourages all children, but especially those with a natural interest in space, to read it.
Russell graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in Earth Science. He absolutely loves his job at Discovery Park because it affords him the opportunity to be influential in the lives of the children and students with whom he interacts on a daily basis. “I will never, never, ever get tired of seeing the look that amazement when the light bulb goes off in a student’s mind,” Russell shared. “And, I only hope that I am as good as the people who taught me about space and got me excited about it when I was just a boy. I’m still grateful for that. I will never forget it,” he added.
Russell works at Discovery Park Tuesdays through Saturdays each week. Sometimes he is teaching classes and coordinating field trips, but his favorite activity is interacting with the guests and specifically trying to get young people excited about science, space, and space travel.
At least four times a year, Russell will go out into the community to share information about NASA and space exploration. “There’s never any charge associated with anything I do when it is in conjunction with NASA,” Russell explained. “Sharing with the community is simply part of being an ambassador,” he added.
The certification that Russell found in his mailbox from NASA is a source of great pride for him. However, anyone who knows Russell or works with him at Discovery Park will attest to the fact that Russell has long been an ambassador for NASA, Space, and the Solar System; the certification is just icing on the cake.
So, the next time you and your family or friends visit Discovery Park of America, feel free to ask for Russell. If he is not otherwise engaged, he will be happy to share his love of space and his knowledge of NASA’s programs and current projects with you. “It is my very favorite thing to do,” Russell said, adding that he never gets tired of talking about space.
Discovery Park is a unique venue with a mission of educating children and adults and helping them see beyond their current level of knowledge. Discovery Center is the flagship of the park with its nine distinct galleries featuring Natural History, Regional History, Enlightenment, Transportation Gallery, Military Gallery, Children Exploration Gallery, Science Space & Technology Gallery and Energy Gallery. Additionally, there is an Earthquake Simulator, Starship Theater and popular Observation Tower inside Discovery Center.
“We consistently receive a 5-star rating on Trip Advisor,” Discovery Park of America CEO, Jim Rippy, stated. “If anyone is traveling in the area, it is absolutely a must-do experience! And, they need to plan to spend the entire day at the park, and still won’t see it all,” he added.
The Grounds at Discovery Park offer a Log Cabin Settlement, Ag Center, Mill Ridge, European Garden, Japanese Garden, American Garden, The Chapel, Antique Full-Size Train Exhibit, Freedom Square and lovely venues for parties and weddings.