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Mysteries of Mother Earth, Other Worlds : Space: Learning and making sense of planetary science is mission of San Juan Capistrano Research Institute.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — The boy in the front row held up an uglyrock, gray, jagged and dirty. "It's a meteorite!" he said.

The girl in the second row wanted to know how close she could come to the sun before she and her spaceship blew apart in a ball of fire.

And the girl in the back asked, with the weight of the world etched in her face, whether we will "ever be able to repair the ozone layer."

Douglas B. Nash, 61, fielded each question patiently, as 80 area students spent a morning learning about space at the San Juan Capistrano Research Institute, which receives $500,000 a year from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, partly for conducting such "Q&A" get-togethers.

Nash told the boy his rock might be a meteorite but probably wasn't. (A long discussion about meteorites ensued.) He told the girl that standing in her back yard could generate plenty of damage from the sun. (A discussion about ultraviolet rays ensued.) And he told the other girl that human beings are doing all they can to damage the ozone through the excesses of industry and commerce. Unless society changes, he warned his listeners, the future looks bleak.

Such mornings are not uncommon at the 6-year-old institute, which addresses more than 3,000 schoolchildren a year on planetary science, Nash's forte and that of three other staff scientists, each of whom obtains grants from NASA for studies of the stars. In addition to research, the institute's roles are education, science workshops for teachers and major conferences on all things planetary.

Confabs with Orange County students are a small part of an institute whose high-powered focus often leads to new approaches on NASA space missions or brings together some of the world's most renowned planetary authorities.

The institute's mission, Nash said, is to learn as much as possible about planetary science and then apply it to "the environment--on a scale that's bigger than our city, county, nation or world. I'm talking here about other worlds."

NASA administrators credit Nash with conducting a workshop a year and a half ago at which more than 70 new concepts were presented that later helped shape some of the agency's unmanned planetary missions. And yet despite being appreciated by NASA, the institute is, like others specializing in planetary science, under constant threat of losing its funding.

Overall, scientists applaud the institute for having created a small-scale think tank in a scenic environment, free from the bureaucratic tangle of mammoth agencies and institutions. And civic officials here commend Nash's work for recommending the city for something other than swallows and its famous mission.

The institute began as Nash's attempt to free himself from bureaucratic constraints and put his own job closer to home. As a 30-year research scientist and science program manager of the renowned Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he was one of the first commuters to travel daily between South County and Los Angeles via Amtrak.

Nash calls JPL, a branch of Caltech, "a very powerful organization that has achieved tremendous things for our country, but it's a ponderous beast at times. Scientists, as a rule, tend to be particularly perturbed by bureaucracy."

He worked at JPL until 1992, four years after founding the institute, which got its start through a $15,000 contribution from private donors in conjunction with a matching grant from the city of San Juan Capistrano, which Nash formerly served as a city councilman and mayor. His wife, Carolyn Nash, is now a councilwoman.

Initially, the Birtcher Corp. provided the institute office space free of charge. In 1989, when Nash moved his nine-person staff to a former bank branch owned by Birtcher, the city kicked in with a $6,000-a-month rent subsidy that totaled more than $200,000 before expiring last year. The institute now pays its own rent, Nash said, and has a payroll of $280,000 a year for the entire staff.

These days, Nash's problems are entirely about money. His "annual crisis" is persuading NASA to renew its $500,000 appropriation--no small task in a deficit era that appears hell-bent on claiming planetary science as a victim. Nash said the institute is in no danger of folding but he does hope to cultivate sources of private funding that can compensate for a government shortfall.

Meanwhile, his brainchild continues to flourish. The institute has played host to a series of international conferences attended by scientists from NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech, the University of Paris, the University of Tokyo and several famous Max Planck institutes in Germany.

Henry Brinton, acting chief of the planetary science branch of the solar system exploratory division of NASA, calls Nash "a highly respected scientist in the planetary science community," whose specialty is the study of planetary satellite surfaces and their composition and characteristics.

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