Derrick Pitts â78, chief astronomer and NASA Solar System Ambassador

The Best Job in the World

Derrick Pitts ’78, chief astronomer and NASA Solar System Ambassador

Daniel Banta ’18

Derrick Pitts ’78, chief astronomer and NASA Solar System ambassador at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, always wanted to be a scientist. It began with what he described in a 2013 interview with NASA as, “three instances—all realizations about the sky before I was 12.”

First was his fascination with rockets and the Mercury astronauts Shepard, Grissom and Glenn’s space travel. Second was the realization that he could use the east-west, north-south perpendicular streets in his neighborhood as a solar clock, reading the motion of Earth in the solar system from his doorstep. And third, “When I went out onto my street to look up at the sky after reading a Scientific American article about how spectra of the most distant galaxies told the story of the expansion of the universe, I looked into the sky with a totally different understanding of it than I had just a few hours before.”

Pitts’ work with the Franklin Institute began when he was a rising junior at St. Lawrence studying geology. Upon graduating in 1978, he was offered a full-time job and since then, his role as chief astronomer has only expanded bridging many communities, in both his hometown of Philadelphia and across the nation. 

In 1986, Pitts was invited to speak at a press conference after the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. During the same year, he authored a popular book on Halley’s Comet, the astronomical event that was captivating the nation. His work began to include finding ways to make astronomy and space science more accessible to the public. 

“It’s the general public that has an influence on how our society and our government uses or does not use science to improve the quality of life for people,” explains Pitts. He views the current politicization of climate science, coupled with growing skepticism towards facts, as proof that a scientifically literate public is more important than ever. 

Pitts describes his role at the museum as creating “content, exhibits, and programs that translate complex science topics to levels that can be understood by interested people of all ages.” As NASA’s solar system ambassador, Pitts serves as a scientific educator who interprets and informs people about the space agency’s work in the solar system. For example he says, “NASA has recently completed a close-up survey of every planet in the solar system,” and explains that the survey helps scientists identify possible locations of life in our solar system. He adds, “How cool is that?” 

Beyond his involvement with the Franklin Institute, Pitts is the outreach advisor for the world’s largest telescope in Hawaii and is a well-known presence in popular media outlets. For the past two decades, he has hosted an award-winning radio show, “Skytalk” for WHYY, and a monthly radio show called “Kid’s Corner,” bringing science topics to young audiences. His ability to effectively communicate science to a wide audience has resulted in Pitts appearing on many popular shows, ranging from “The Colbert Report” to “The Morning Show” on CBS.

As a member of St. Lawrence’s Board of Trustees and a student mentor, Pitts says, “My connection to St. Lawrence has always emphasized the concept that you never stop learning.” His efforts to inspire students to become the next generation of top scientists is not just confined to his alma mater. In 2011, Pitts received an $850,000 grant from NASA to provide education, books, and scientific equipment to families in the less affluent neighborhoods of Philadelphia and has reached over 10,000 households over the course of the five-year grant. 

“That audience typically doesn’t get any kind of direct, hands-on science experience or training, or any encouragement to realize that they can be scientists too… but they can be the same thing I am” explains Pitts. “And I have the best job in the world.”

Deborah Dudley contributed to this article