Patricia Hofer Reiff

2009 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Patricia Hofer Reiff received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award for Enhancement of the Public Understanding of Earth and Space Science at the Joint Assembly, held 26 May 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The award honors “individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.”


Patricia Reiff has been active in space research for over 35 years, and has always worked to encourage others to learn and appreciate science. Even as a graduate student, she volunteered as a speaker for public events such as Astronomy Day, for continuing education courses at schools, and as a science fair judge. She received the first U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in astronomy teacher education in 1988 and, together with Carolyn Sumners (Houston Museum of Natural Science), created summerlong “teacher research” programs. Since then, she has offered teacher workshops and courses, ultimately leading to the master of science teaching degree that she created at Rice University.

While serving on the NASA Space Science Advisory Committee (1993–1998), Reiff was pivotal in convincing NASA of the importance of including education and public outreach (E/PO) as an integral part of mission design and funding. Since then, she has served on the E/PO teams for the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) mission and for the NSF Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling, and is now director of E/PO for the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission. She has been on the AGU Space Physics and Aeronomy E/PO committee since its inception in 1993. She developed a “Space Weather” CD-ROM that teaches about heliospheric science. Now in its tenth edition, it has been distributed free to over 130,000 teachers and to the general public.

When the “Public Use of the Internet” opportunity was announced by NASA in 1993, Reiff (with Sumners) proposed the first Internet-accessible museum kiosk (“Shoemaker-Levy 9″), which opened only 6 weeks after the Jupiter impact of comet SL9 in 1994. The museum software they developed, “Space Update,” now runs in more than 15 museums worldwide and has reached more than 2 million visitors. Some 40,000 CDs (now DVDs) have been distributed, mostly to museums and teachers, but also have been sold to the public. Over 3500 K-12 teachers are in her “e-teacher” network, and another 560 museum educators are in her “spacemus” network.

In 1997, the Reiff/Sumners team created an Earth science version of their museum software called “Earth Update,” which topped 20,000 CDs distributed this spring. That project also created the world’s first Earth science full-dome digital planetarium shows and the first full-dome digital planetarium in the United States, which opened in 1998. Well over a million visitors have seen these shows, and another million have viewed museum kiosks. In 2003, Reiff and Sumners extended this project by developing “Discovery Dome” (a portable planetarium) and additional content shows. There are now over 77 sites in 22 states and 21 countries in their outreach network. Over 100,000 students learned in portable domes in 2008, and over 15 terabytes of images and movies were downloaded free. In all, Reiff has been involved in the production of 10 planetarium shows and 20 pieces of educational software.

Reiff has personally taken the dome to dozens of outreach events, including events targeting Hispanic students, Native Americans, and young women. She has reached out to nearly 5000 middle-school girls in the Houston, Tex., area by hosting the annual “Sally Ride Festival” on the Rice campus. She and her company have donated dome systems to Ethiopia in 2008 and to Zambia in 2009.

Commercial development is a demonstrated success metric; Reiff is now president of two spin-off corporations, Space Update, Inc., and MTPE, Inc., which distribute shows, software, and equipment for the Discovery Domes.

Patricia Reiff has devoted a significant part of her professional life to conveying her passion for science, and space science in particular, to the general public. She personifies the ideals honored by the Athelstan Spilhaus Award: that science should be fun, that science is exciting, and that science is significant in our society.

—ROBERT H. EATHER, Keo Consultants, Brookline, Mass.