After 12 years as a volunteer Solar Systems Ambassador, Stansbury resident Patrick Wiggins will receive NASA’s top civilian honor next month.
Wiggins will become the first NASA ambassador to receive the Distinguished Public Service Medal — an award reserved exclusively for individuals who are not government employees and who have made a significant, personal contribution to NASA’s mission.
According to Colleen Canary, who heads NASA’s Employee Recognition and Awards Team, top NASA officials decided to select Wiggins for the award after it became apparent that Wiggins, on a solely volunteer basis, had personally conducted more than 1,000 educational events in 12 years.
Volunteer ambassadors are asked to host four such events each year, but Wiggins, who is retired, averages 88.
In fact, Wiggins will be leaving just hours after he receives the award at NASA headquarters on August 14, because he had already scheduled another educational program for the 15th — and he didn’t want to miss it.
NASA only gives the Distinguished Public Service Medal to about 11 individuals a year, because the award criteria are so stringent, Canary said.
Past recipients of the award include famous astronomers such as Carl Sagan, who hosted the television show “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage;” scientists such as Lyman Spitzer, the physicist who first dreamed of building telescopes in space; and even Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek.”
But Canary said Wiggins is unique in that he made his contributions on an entirely voluntary basis.
“This is very rarely given to an individual who is doing something on a volunteer basis,” she said. “It is unique that someone has made such an impact through volunteer work and through their dedication and love of the sciences.”
Wiggins joined the Solar Systems Ambassadors program in 2002, shortly after NASA launched the initiative. At the time, he said, he was working for the Hansen Planetarium and frequently gave educational presentations to visitors.
When he first heard about the ambassadors program, Wiggins thought it sounded like a good opportunity to expand his outreach efforts and to gain some professional development on the side. He first applied in 2001, but never heard back on his application. He was accepted into the program on his second attempt a year later.
Wiggins, now 65, has since retired from the planetarium, but has continued his work with the Solar Systems Ambassadors and with an educational program through the University of Utah. He not only visits third and sixth grade classrooms all over the state, but also reaches out to the public through regular free-admission star parties at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex — which was developed with significant contributions, including financial contributions from Wiggins himself — and through public advocacy that has been featured heavily in media outlets across the state.
Wiggins said he still dutifully attends his Solar Systems Ambassadors training programs and has never missed a training. In 12 years he has logged more than 200 sessions.
“When I first heard about it, I thought they had the wrong guy, because really all I’ve done is send out news releases and talk to the media,” Wiggins said. “But that’s what needs to be done.”
Wiggins said it is his passion for science and space exploration, and his belief in the importance of inspiring that passion in others, that propels him to go beyond what is asked of him.
“I want to keep people looking up,” he said. “Science is important. We need people interested in science in this country. I like to think of us as a world village, but I’m also an American. It would disappoint me if all the big stuff in space was happening overseas. I like to see NASA in the forefront. And there’s also money — all the people working on these projects are making money, so we’re supporting economies.”
Wiggins said he especially likes to work with elementary-age children, because it was a similar in-class presentation that inspired his love of the night sky.
“I still remember a guy from NASA coming to my school and doing a presentation,” he said. “Somebody lit a fire, and since then there have been a number of people who contributed to that fire.”
In addition to his advocacy work, Wiggins has become an accomplished amateur astronomer with numerous discoveries to his name. Earlier this year, Wiggins made the discovery of a lifetime when he became the first to photograph supernova SN 2014G near the constellation Ursa Major.
Wiggins had set a goal to find a new supernova after discovering and naming several asteroids, and spent three years taking 469 pictures of the night sky before he sighted SN 2014G. He and Japanese astronomer Koichi Itagaki are both listed as independent discovers of the supernova, because both sighted the anomaly just hours apart.
Wiggins is now surveying an asteroid slated by NASA for a possible unmanned exploratory mission at the space agency’s request.
In addition to astronomy, Wiggins is also extremely passionate about aviation. Wiggins, an Elko native, joined the air force out of high school to become a pilot, and moved to Salt Lake City in the early 1970s hoping to become a professional pilot after retiring from the air force.
He applied at the Hansen Planetarium only after he failed to find work as a pilot. To this day, however, he continues to fly his own personal plane and to take part in his favorite sport — skydiving.
Wiggins is also an animal lover. About three years ago, he donated a $46,000 retirement fund he had unexpectedly inherited to the Humane Society to help the non-profit construct a new shelter and adoption center for cats. He made the donation in the name of his own pet cat, Pumpkin.
While NASA may consider the medal its highest award for public service, Wiggins said there was another award he would still value higher — a trip to the International Space Station. While he said he thought that “short of a UFO landing in my backyard and offering me a ride,” it wasn’t likely he would ever achieve his dream of space travel. Yet, he thinks it’s still worth a shot.
“I’ve learned not to say ‘no way,’” he said. “Now I say ‘probably not.’ But yes — I am volunteering. Send me up there.”