July 4, 2004
His work as an environmental engineering consultant takes Scottsdale resident John Reiss Jr. around the world, to Southeast Asia, Africa, Russia and South America.
His avid pursuit outside of business involves places even farther away — much farther.
Reiss is one of 374 volunteer Solar System Ambassadors for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, assigned to keep people informed and intrigued about things happening millions of miles out in space.
With the Cassini probe going into orbit around Saturn a few days ago, Reiss and the other ambassadors have more to talk about than ever.
The Cassini follows on the heels of two land rovers that reached Mars in January and are traversing the red planet’s surface.
Elsewhere out there, NASA’s Stardust mission is collecting material from the nucleus of a comet and the Genesis mission is gathering ionized particles from solar winds.
The Hubble Space Telescope continues to capture striking photo images of other galaxies, and there are plans for further explorations of Jupiter and its moons.
Reiss’s job is to explain what it all means to his fellow earthlings in the Valley.
For the past five years, he’s been making presentations to local groups ranging from schoolchildren to college students and government, business and civic leaders.
The kids are awed by the pictures of planets and stars Reiss shows them.
So are the adults, although "they want to know what we’re spending those billions of tax dollars for,’’ he said.
Reiss can rattle off a long list of innovations and advancements spawned by the space program — major developments in medical science, robotics, telecommunications and other technologies that have created new industries.
In addition, probing other planets brings discoveries about our own, providing clues to Earth’s past and future.
That’s why the Cassini mission is among the most exciting, Reiss said.
Saturn and its seven rings and 31 known moons, especially Titan, promise a telling glimpse of atmospheric conditions similar to those on Earth billions of years ago, before life emerged.
Reiss traces his emergence into space ambassadorship back to studies for a college degree in geological engineering in the 1970s.
A course in planetary geology piqued an interest that years later led him to take up amateur astronomy.
By the time he learned of the NASA volunteer program, which began in 1997, he had become a perfect candidate for the role.
"John is terrific. He’s an absolutely wonderful ambassador,’’ said Kay Ferrari, who directs the program from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
NASA’s leaders consider the ambassadors critical to the space program’s success, Ferrari said.
"The neat thing about this (ambassador) program is that it personalizes these missions for local communities. . . . It lets people know how the (space missions) affect their daily lives,’’ she said.
Reiss said his satisfaction comes not just from offering information but providing inspiration.
"It’s not just public relations for NASA,’’ he said, "It’s about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.’’
Get in touch
John Reiss Jr. can be contacted about arranging a presentation on the U.S. space program by calling (480) 767-3388 or by e-mail at email@example.com