When Australian native Julie Edmonds arrived in the United States in 1989 to begin a postdoctoral program at the National Institutes of Health, her mentor — Maxine Singer, then president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington — had just launched First Light, a Saturday science program for D.C. elementary school students. Singer invited Edmonds to volunteer, and the “eye-opening” experience set the stage for her career in science education and public outreach (E/PO).
“Textbooks did not drive the learning in First Light. Rather, students were encouraged to question 'why' and to then investigate in search of answers — then ask more questions, design more investigations — just as science is really done,” says Edmonds, who leads the MESSENGER mission’s E/PO team. “What’s more, the kids did it joyously.”
In 1999, after five years in the biotechnology industry, she stepped out of the research laboratory to join the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE); and she says it’s been her goal ever since “to help as many kids (and teachers) as possible experience that joy of discovery.”
When the MESSENGER mission was proposed in 1998, CASE was included in the submission to NASA as a partner to develop educational materials based on MESSENGER’s mission and discoveries that would that would inspire students to pursue STEM careers, train teachers in the classroom use of these materials, and enhance science literacy for the general public. So, Edmonds has been with the MESSENGER mission since before the spacecraft was built.
As MESSENGER’s E/PO lead, she oversees and coordinates the extensive contributions from education experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Montana State University, Science Systems Applications, Inc., and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. She also designs curricula and other educational products, represents the mission at local and national educational events, and conduct workshops.
“I think that the work of the MESSENGER E/PO team is critical to helping kids and adults become excited and knowledgeable about the mission and its findings,” Edmonds says. “It is essential for us to nurture the next generation of space explorers as well as to contribute to continued public support for space exploration.”
During MESSENGER’s nearly seven-year journey from launch to Mercury orbit insertion, Edmonds says the E/PO team developed a wide variety of products to familiarize students and the general public about Mercury and MESSENGER’s mission. Since the spacecraft’s first flyby of Mercury in January 2008, her team has been able to produce materials using actual data. “And of course, since MESSENGER entered orbit, we have been busy creating new ways to engage, inspire, and educate people with the wealth of data the craft has sent back to Earth,” she says. “One of the great treats in this work is that we get to collaborate directly with the science and engineering teams to develop products. It is thanks to their willing engagement with the E/PO team that we have been able to have such a high-quality program.”
As a child, Edmonds was fascinated by the “space race,” the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for supremacy in space exploration. “As a kid growing up in a small town in Australia in the 50s and 60s, my dad would take us into the backyard and lie us down on the grass to stare upwards in a search for satellites,” she recalls. “We excitedly watched every launch that was televised (and of course I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong made those momentous steps). The words 'Cape Canaveral' had a special magic to me, so being at MESSENGER’s launch in 2004 was a childhood dream come true.”
Another magical moment for Edmonds occurred at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., on March 17, 2011 (local time), when MESSENGER executed a 15-minute maneuver that placed it into orbit about Mercury.
“The atmosphere in the packed auditorium was electric as we watched direct video feed from MESSENGER’s Mission Operations Center,” she says. “Everyone was tense as we waited to learn whether the 'rocket burn' had successfully slowed the craft so it could be captured into orbit about Mercury. And when the burn was successful, the crowd erupted with whistles, hoots, and hollers. I will never forget that.”
“Earlier on,” she continues, “we had seen Mercury itself shining in the evening sky just above Jupiter. Knowing that all those millions of miles away, our little craft was about to make space exploration history was an incredible feeling.”
The MESSENGER mission is well into its second extended mission, and scientists are continuing to discover new things about Mercury. In recent months, however, Edmonds says it’s become increasingly difficult to fully share this bounty with students, educators, and the public. Earlier this year, NASA markedly curtailed funding for E/PO activities in response to the U.S. sequester, a series of across-the-board cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
“There has been a lot of uncertainty about how NASA's E/PO programs will be structured and funded,” Edmonds notes. “One of the suggestions has been to centralize E/PO away from the individual missions. But one of the greatest things about the current structure is that the E/PO team is embedded in each mission, and we have direct and personal access to members of the science, engineering, and operations teams. This relationship has allowed us to authentically convey the excitement and wonder of the latest discoveries to the public, and it would be a shame to lose that.”
When Edmonds is not amazing students and teachers with the wonders of Mercury discoveries, she spends a lot of time with her large extended family in the U.S. and Australia. Edmonds is pictured here, from left to right: With husband, Jim, and friend Carl Mills sailing in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware; holding her grandson, Nate, with his Aunt Becky (Julie’s youngest daughter); and with friends and family at her Capitol Hill home for Thanksgiving.