Even after receiving NASA’s top civilian honor, Stansbury resident Patrick Wiggins said he doesn’t expect life will change too much.
Wiggins, who has spent the last 12 years as a volunteer Solar Systems Ambassador for NASA, became the first NASA ambassador to receive the Distinguished Public Service Medal in NASA history.
The award is reserved exclusively for individuals who are not government employees and who have made a significant, personal contribution to NASA’s mission.
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 for Utah audiences. Volunteer ambassadors are typically asked to conduct four such events every year, but Wiggins, who is otherwise retired, averages 88.
“There was one year he had 150,” said Kay Ferrari, Wiggins’ supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I was astonished!”
Wiggins officially received his award during an awards ceremony at NASA’s Washington DC headquarters. There he rubbed shoulders with NASA’s head administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a member of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and one of Wiggin’s personal idols.
“This is the head, the administrator of NASA, and we’re just talking like we met in a restaurant,” Wiggins said.
But Wiggins hasn’t let even so huge an honor distract him from his duties as a Solar Systems Ambassador -— he left D.C. almost immediately after the awards ceremony to make an event he had scheduled before he knew about the award. And that’s just about how he plans to continue with his usual regiment of speaking engagements, presentations, interviews, and even television and radio appearances.
“It is kind of like, ‘I’ve reached the pinnacle, what do I do now? Is it all downhill from here,’” Wiggins said. “Basically there’s no change for me, unless daydreams come true and NASA really decides to do something. Basically I’ll just keep going and racking up numbers.”
At his present rate, Wiggins predicted he would hit 2,000 space-related events by the time he turned 77.
According to Ferrari, who met Wiggins in person for the first time last week, it is that same unending dedication to his work that has made Wiggins so successful at promoting NASA’s mission to the public.
“I’ve pretty much got to know him remotely and knew who he was,” she said. “The only thing left to learn about him is that his enthusiasm is there all the time. I see it occasionally through his emails, but when you’re with him for more than a few minutes, you can see that this just never turns off.”
Ferrari related that Wiggins had told her an individual from NASA visited his school once while he was growing up, and the presentation was what inspired his love for NASA and for astronomy. She said NASA had attempted to track down the name of that individual for him, but had not been able to locate any records to indicate who the presenter would have been.
“Lacking someone to thank, what Patrick does is go out there and pay it forward,” Ferrari said. “He is seeking to inspire others.”
And Wiggins has succeeded not only in inspiring children and Utahns all over the state, but also NASA itself. Wiggins was one of the first to join the Solar Systems Ambassadors program, and his enthusiastic efforts helped shape the program to become what it is today, Ferrari said.
“He’s done a marvelous job taking on the role of a Solar System Ambassador,” she said. “At the time he joined, we were just starting to envision what this would be. I think that, seeing Patrick grab onto this has helped us in many ways to find that vision at a time when we were in a reorganization phase.”
As for Wiggin’s ongoing, and as yet unrealized, dream of experiencing space flight — Ferrari said she thought NASA would be open to accepting an application from him for its educators in space program, if he were interested.