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A Sit Down with a NASA Solar System Ambassador

By: Ms. Autumn Bernhard, Daedalus Flyer Editor & Order of Daedalians Communications Manager

Autumn Bernhard: What drew you to the Navy?

Tim Pinkney: It all started when I was 5 years old when I first took control of the family airplane. My dad had been a co-pilot and flew B-24 bombers, so when he got out of the service, he bought himself an airplane. My mom learned to fly and became quite an accomplished aviatrix. So, I was flying at 5. I got my private pilot’s license when I was three months out of high school, and got my multi-engine rating shortly before I joined the Navy. Dad was an enthusiast in glider soaring, so he and I had father-son competitions. He held the record for the highest non-engine flight of 34,000 feet over the Colorado Rockies. I held the family endurance record for staying aloft for 6.5 hours.

I was born and raised in an aviation family, so military service was the way to go. I asked my dad which service I should go into knowing he was Army Air Corps/Air Force, assuming he would say Air Force. But he said, “Go first-class; go Navy.” After graduation in the 1970s, I went through flight training and got my wings of gold. I got stashed at Naval Air Station Lemoore as a navigation aid. I was itching to go to Vietnam, but the war was “over” in ’73 with the peace agreement, and I thought I missed my opportunity at a career. Every aspiring officer needs to have a war in their resume if they wanted to go up the ranks. I planned to be an admiral, so I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to go to war.

But we joined an electronic warfare squadron, VAQ-137, and it sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge for Vietnam the day my daughter turned 2. When I got back, she was nearly 3. My dad met me at the dock with my family and I said, “Why is the Navy first class?” The short version is, the Army Air Corp always lived in tents and he was stationed at Kodiak, Alaska, so there were pretty harsh conditions. “But the Navy got Quonset huts, and man was that first class,” dad said. I learned to always ask when someone says something is the best to ask why.

I joined the Navy Reserves after seven years of active duty. I spent 15 years in the Reserves with the same squadron. So we started as young junior officers, and 12 years later, we were all commanding officers as our seniority gained. I continued to fly gliders and took my last flight less than a year ago.

AB: Where did your attraction to the last frontier come from?

TP: When we lived in Redondo Beach, (then)-Vandenberg Air Force Base launched a missile when I was 9. As it took off into the sunset, we watched the vapor trail and that created my fascination with space. I had, until recently, put down a deposit with Virgin Galactic to go to space. I wanted to be an astronaut, and I looked at the application back when I was on the aircraft carrier. I didn’t have enough math to enter, so I didn’t. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to go to space. So, I was willing to buy my way into it. But when Virgin Galactic raised their prices to $450,000, I thought I could do a lot more good to help the world rather than help my childhood dream by investing the money somewhere else. Blue Origin hasn’t set their price yet, so I’m waiting to see. I’m not giving up. There have been less than 500 people to space ever, so that number is going to double very quickly, but to still be out of 7 billion people to get off Earth and look at it, is something I look forward to.

The NASA Solar System Ambassador program is a public engagement effort that works with motivated volunteers across the nation to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries with the people in their communities.

AB: How did you become a NASA Solar System Ambassador?

TP: A friend invited me to a presentation he was making as a NASA Solar System Ambassador. I thought, “Gee, I could do that and would love to do that.” In my first three years (2016-2019), I did 50 presentations. In 2020, I did 24 and last year 21. The requirement is three a year. Being an ambassador allows me to be a space geek and remain the excited 9-year-old that saw his first rocket!

AB: What is the process like to become an ambassador?

TP: As of last year, there were 1,071 ambassadors throughout the United States. It takes some vetting, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You just have to have an interest in space. There is an orientation on what an ambassador does and an ethics class as well. We are ethically required to report honest things and not make things up. We don’t have to run our presentations by NASA. NASA invites us to almost weekly programs online where an expert speaks on their subject. For example, we got to have a one-hour presentation on the Mars Rover Perseverance team that drives the rover, what they look at and the decisions they made. So I have access to a library of more than eight years of presentations on almost any topic in the solar system.

AB: What do your presentations cover?

TP: I have 15 already prepared presentations — one on every planet and then some of the specific missions. Most people want to have relevance in the presentations. Two libraries wanted a 10-month seminar starting with the sun and working our way through the planets and touching on a few other topics I didn’t have knowledge about that. So I took what NASA made available to the ambassadors. Some ambassadors have an astronomy focus, some have an astrobiological focus, so they tend to be narrower. I just look at what NASA gives me and go from there.

AB: Who is in the presentation audience?

TP: My youngest has been 5 years old, he knew amazing stuff. I’ve also given presentations to people who were all seniors. Inspiring the youth is something I’ve always wanted to do. With the Aerospace Museum in California, where I was on the board of directors for 10 years and the deputy director in the interim period while they searched for a permanent fit, our focus was 5th-grade kids. I would do presentations there and to see their eyes light up, and do hands-on things. All we are trying to do is out of a class of 100, spark three or five kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). I’m amazed by what the American public does not know about the space program. It is wonderful to inform, educate and expose people to what our space program is. I was thinking about how long I wanted to do this. I’m enthusiastic about life, and I’m super enthusiastic about space, so as long as I have life, I think I will be doing space.

AB: What excites you about what NASA is doing today?

TP: Almost every planet has something going on. It not only excites me, but it captivates me. The Parker Solar Probe: We have never had a probe get that close to the sun, it’s literally touching the corona. Juno was launched in 2011 to Jupiter. Cassini has been on Saturn for 13 years. Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter, landed in 2021. In 2027, we are launching Dragonfly — a drone that’s the size of a pick-up truck, eight blades, 900 pounds and is nuclear powered — to Saturn’s moon, Titan — the only named moon with an atmosphere and it has liquid on it. It will land in 2034. James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) is going to answer questions we don’t even know to ask. It will be stunning, and we are going back to within 200 million years of the Big Bang —13.7 billion years ago — we are going back 13.5 billion years. We are going to see the first stars, and the first galaxies form. It’s going to revolutionize astrophysics and our understanding of what happened in the Big Bang. In one year, we will be saying, “Before Webb, we believed and understood this, and now it’s different.” We know the universe is expanding. We know that galaxies are together because of gravitational pull, but they are getting further and further apart and losing their gravity so everything will go into blackness. Webb is going to tell us a lot about that. It took 9 years to design and redesign Webb, 11 years to build it and 5 years of testing and making sure everything worked right. NASA worked to make sure it was deployed without any hitches. They have learned so much and prepared so well.

Being an ambassador allows me to be a space geek and remain the excited 9-year-old that saw his first rocket!

AB: What are your thoughts on space now being considered a warfighting domain?

TP: I don’t feel adequate to talk about the military aspects of that, but it’s a much-needed branch. If I were that age, that’s the branch I would want to be in. China is the scary force to be reckoned with in all aspects. I think scientist to scientist, there’s not a problem. It’s just forms of government — democracy versus communism — that gets in the way. We will be fighting that for quite some time because if we don’t we will all be speaking Chinese.