NASA, often accused of spending too much time preaching to the choir, took its message to the masses as one of three featured attractions at the Smithsonian Institution's 42nd annual Folklife Festival here.
Festival organizers said an estimated 320,000 visitors came through during the first five days of the festival, which kicked off June 25. Attendance was expected to exceed 1 million by the time the two-week event concluded over the U.S. holiday weekend that began July 4.
NASA, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is only the second government agency the Folklife Festival has featured in its 42-year history. James Deutsch, the Smithsonian's curator for the NASA program, said the U.S. space agency's hardware-rich exhibits and opportunities to chat one-on-one with scientists, astronauts and engineers had been a hit with festival goers, with families with children especially being well represented in more than 10,000 square meters of the National Mall given over to NASA displays.
"The purpose of the Folklife Festival is to highlight the people we call participants ? the bearers of knowledge, the bearers of skills and the bearers of tradition," Deutsch said in an interview here. "We are delighted to have gotten people from all 10 [NASA] field centers."
Edward Goldstein, a NASA speechwriter who helped organize the event, said the Folklife Festival presented the agency with a rare opportunity to engage members of the general public who might not otherwise seek the agency out.
"The remarkable thing about NASA's participation in the Folklife Festival is that usually we go out to events that in some way involve the aerospace community, such as air shows and symposiums," Goldstein said. "Here we are going where we are not expected."
Goldstein said not only did the average Folklife Festival attendee tend to be more interested in NASA than might be expected, the average attendee also tended to have a good grasp of what the agency does.
"We are finding they are very informed about the space program and they are asking very intelligent questions about the missions we are mounting and what's ahead," Goldstein said. "The people who are coming through are very engaged and yet they are not space people. They are just average Americans."
The festival also featured the music and food of Texas and the culture of the tiny mountainous Himalayan nation of Bhutan. While NASA is no stranger to Texas ? and vice versa given that Johnson Space Center in Houston is considered one of the Lone Star state's crown jewels ? the same could not be said about NASA and Bhutan. At least that was the case before the Folklife Festival.
NASA officials here said they have enjoyed interacting with their fellow festival participants from Bhutan. During the opening week, the 23-year-old prince of Bhutan, His Royal Highness Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, took a spin on a student-built Moon buggy prototype, while over on one of the presentation stages, NASA astronaut Carl Walz discussed the cosmos with one of Bhutan's high priests.
Dan Woodward, NASA's operations manager for the festival, said some 500 scientists, engineers and astronauts would participate in the festival by its conclusion, with roughly half that number coming in from Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Greenbelt, Md.
Woodward said the chance to interact with the public goes both ways.
"One of the things we often hear from our own employees is how energizing it is for them as well," Woodward said.
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