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Utah's solar system ambassador getting top NASA award

Published: Monday, Aug. 11 2014 12:51 p.m. MDT

Patrick Wiggins is NASA's solar system ambassador to Utah and Nevada. He volunteers his time to educate people about space and astronomical events. On Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, he will receive NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal, the space agency's highest award for civilians.

Mike DeBernardo, Deseret News

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STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — Patrick Wiggins likes to talk. He admits it.

But something happened to him recently that kept him quiet — even if it was only for a few minutes.

Wiggins is NASA's solar system ambassador to Utah and Nevada. Basically, it means he educates people about space and astronomical events.

He opened an email from NASA recently and couldn't believe what it said. NASA was awarding Wiggins its Distinguished Public Service Medal, which is the highest award the space agency gives to civilians.

"This is humbling. To see something like that, it just blew me away,” Wiggins said. “I went online, literally, that’s what you do, right? You Google it to see what the award is about. Then it started listing the people who won it before, and when I read Carl Sagan’s name, I almost fell off my chair.”

Wiggins will receive the award Thursday in Washington, D.C.

NASA requires its solar system ambassadors to hold four education events a year. Wiggins averages about 85 and has been doing so since 2002. Normally, he can be found in the rural towns of Utah, where he teaches classes and hosts educational programs about space.

One of his favorite places is Bryce Canyon National Park, which has some of the darkest skies in the country. It's perfect to observe what’s beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“I do programs once a month, several times a year, down at Bryce Canyon. That's a five-hour drive one way. I do a one-hour program and drive back. My boss thinks that's crazy, but I do it anyway,” Wiggins said.

He also volunteers his time for these programs. NASA solar system ambassadors do not get paid.

“I've got to get something out of it, I admit that. I'm not getting money out of it, but I’m getting satisfaction. I'm getting enjoyment,” Wiggins said.

That’s because there is something about a telescope and seeing a child's face light up like the sun when he or she looks through it.

“I’ll hear this from teachers. They’ll see me at Wal-Mart or something and say, ‘You know, you were at my school last week and I haven’t been able to get my kids to shut up about this stuff yet.’ Or a child will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I did that experiment at home.’ That’s the reward right there,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins spends a lot of his free time at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, where he is a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. He also spent nearly two decades working at the old Hansen Planetarium.

In 1999, he discovered an asteroid outside the orbit of Mars and named it Elko after his hometown in Nevada.

After Thursday, he’ll be able to add a plaque and a medal to his accomplishments.

"They say this is the highest award NASA gives — it's not quite. The highest award would be a ride to the International Space Station, please,” Wiggins said with a laugh.

Email: acabrero@deseretnews.com

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