The massive scale of our solar system makes any contact with what’s beyond our planet tiny and faint – a glimpse of Mars through a telescope, the pinprick glow of a satellite in the night sky, the ping sent through space as a rover reaches a distant planet.
As a solar system ambassador for NASA, Tony Rice works hard to magnify those connections, providing the information and enthusiasm that help people of all ages better appreciate the night sky and our own efforts to explore and understand the solar system.
In seven years in this volunteer role, he’s held hundreds of events, from classroom visits to star-watching sessions to gatherings centered on specific space missions.
He’s also worked to make a wider impact by connecting with television meteorologists to share facts on the night sky and the forces that shape the weather. Locally, he writes a blog for WRAL and occasionally appears on air. He also provides information to meteorologists nationwide.
Rice, a Cisco engineer, sees astronomy and meteorology as “gateway sciences” that can lead people to an interest and appreciation for science as a whole.
“If you talk to someone in science or engineering, at some point they’ve had an interest in space or weather,” he says. “What I hope people take away from this is some sort of a connection. I want them to be eager to learn a bit more.”
Kari Wouk, senior manager for educational collaborations at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, has worked with Rice on dozens of events, including the museum’s annual Astronomy Days event.
She says Rice conveys his passion for science and astronomy equally well to groups that have a passing interest and those seeking in-depth knowledge.
“He has a real talent for making all of this seem so real and relevant,” Wouk says. “Maybe you’re not going down to the launch pad, but you’re still looking at it and appreciating and supporting it.
“His motivation is to make the world a better and more scientifically literate place.”
An early interest
Rice came by his love of space naturally. His father worked on the cruise missile program, and Rice spent much of his youth in California not far from where the space shuttle landed.
He had a telescope as a kid and as a teenager developed a keen interest in weather as well.
He considered studying physics or meteorology but ended up in computer science, which he says has also helped him in his NASA role. For instance, he has written computer code that assists him in creating his newsletters and has created an automated Twitter feed that follows the weather on Mars.
“My interests are varied and computer science really enables that,” he says.
He came to the Triangle with Nortel in the early 1990s. His current job at Cisco involves creating security measures for information stored in the cloud.
His work with NASA began when his son became interested in space. Rice started doing presentations at his son’s schools, and when he heard of the NASA ambassador program, he signed on.
The program is designed to spread the word on astronomy and space exploration through local representatives. The application process is rigorous, and the ambassadors receive extensive training on NASA’s work and related topics.
There are 25 ambassadors in North Carolina, though Rice is among the most active. Each is required to hold four events programs a year, and Rice typically holds at least 50.
He does regular programs at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, in addition to visiting schools, universities and civic groups.
Some draw large groups, such as events at the science museum focused on the landing of rovers on Mars and Pluto.
“We had overflow crowds,” he says. “It was an electric atmosphere with everyone just waiting to hear this little ping from half a light day away.”
One event he’s gearing up for is the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. He’s working with local year-round schools that will be in session for the event, making nine trips to Salem Elementary to ensure every student has an opportunity to hear about it.
He also tries to emphasize local connections to NASA, from the Asheville company that makes patches for uniforms to researchers at local universities whose work contributes to space travel.
Sharing the night sky
Rice speaks widely at conferences and other events, and tries to work in space-related activities with his work travels. He recently spoke in German on cloud security and added a day to visit an aerospace museum. He also managed to visit the Japanese agency that is comparable to NASA.
But his most unusual connection has been with meteorologists. It started with a contact at the the local TV station WRAL, who invited him in for an interview about a trip he had made to Cape Canaveral to see a launch.
Rice saw an opportunity to reach a wide audience, and started contributing to the station with a blog focused on “naked eye astronomy,” the kinds of things people could view from their driveways without special equipment.
He now publishes a newsletter that goes to TV meteorologists nationally with information about their local astronomy viewing possibilities. The tidbits are often used to close a weather segment with a suggestion for night sky viewing.
They might include a certain configuration of planets and stars or a meteor shower. A favorite for many, he says, is the passing of the International Space Station.
“Parents are empowered to take their kids outside and say ‘There’s six people up there in space right now,’ ” he says. “It can make a big impression.”
His astronomy lessons might not directly relate to the daily forecast, but Rice says it’s a fitting role for meteorologists to share the information, and it’s good for viewers.
“When you think about the TV news, there is one scientist people see and for most people it’s the only scientist they will see on a daily basis,” he says.
Rice says the same questions tend to crop up during his presentations. A popular one at elementary schools is how astronauts use the bathroom in space. He keeps a short presentation on his laptop to illustrate the answer.
Another question is whether he’s an astronaut himself. He is not, and he tells the students he has no regrets.
“That’s not me,” says Rice. “I’m quite happy here on Earth talking about it and writing software.”
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week?
Contact us at email@example.com.
Born: June 1970, Virginia
Career: Senior cloud security engineer, Cisco Systems; solar system ambassador, NASA
Education: B.S. computer engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Family: Wife Lori; son Matthew
Fun fact: Rice recently presented at the National Weather Association’s broadcast meteorology conference in Virginia. His son, a rising high school junior who is planning to study meteorology, also did a poster presentation on the impact of social media in weather forecasting.