Many people contemplate the union of science and religion. But few have embraced both with the fervour and dedication as that of Sister Clarice Lolich, a nun in the Community of the Holy Spirit, a NASA space science education specialist, Solar System Ambassador and bona fide thrill-seeker.
This month Lolich celebrates her 90th birthday, and is still just as devoted to telling the NASA story as the day she began.
Born in San Francisco, Lolich entered the convent of the Dominican Sisters at Mission San Jose two weeks after her 16th birthday, eventually earning two master's degrees and a doctorate in humanistic psychology. In the wake of the Catholic Church's modernisations during the 1960s, Lolich was one of 14 sisters who formed a new sisterly order, the Community of the Holy Spirit, in 1970.
The new sisterly order meant that the nuns had to find jobs. Building on her experience as a science teacher in elementary and secondary schools with the Dominican community, she became director of education for Los Angeles' California Museum of Science and Industry, now the California Science Centre.
She worked organising educational tours to Florida to see the launches of the Apollo and Skylab missions. Her passion for education, specifically science and space, took her all over the country in partnership with NASA's outreach and education efforts. NASA soon provided Lolich with a van and she toured the country visiting various school districts as part of the Urban Community Enrichment Program. Lolich was bringing the excitement and wonder of space exploration to inner-city schools.
Beginning in 1989 Lolich used her time one week a month at JPL, offering special 'Sister Clarice' tours of the Lab to local elementary school kids. In 2001 Lolich left JPL to be closer to her Northern California home of San Mateo, where she has continued her work in education at the NASA Ames Research Centre.
Tom Clausen, Ames' K-12 education manager, praised Lolich for her 'enthusiasm and knowledge of NASA missions as well as techniques that excite and involve students.'
In addition to her other activities, Lolich is also a participant in the JPL-managed Solar System Ambassador program, a NASA public engagement effort that works with motivated volunteers across the nation. These 'ambassadors' communicate the excitement of NASA's solar system exploration missions and information about recent discoveries to people in their local communities. Currently there are 523 Ambassadors in 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
According to Kay Ferrari, the Ambassador Program coordinator, 'Clarice is the only ambassador I know who regularly visits women's correctional institutions as part of her outreach efforts for the program.'
Lolich goes to women's prisons to give lectures about spiritually and space science. During her visits she also discusses issues like self control and self esteem, and teaches relaxation exercises.
Ferrari said Lolich's talks about space exploration also include giving these women small handouts like bookmarks, trading cards, stickers from our education and public outreach supplies.' 'The inmates can then give those items to their children or grandchildren on visitor's days, along with sharing what they've learned about space.'
In her many years of teaching science, Lolich has travelled the world and earned many awards. She has been named Teacher Educator of the Year by the American Society for Aerospace Education; earned the special recognition award from NASA's Urban Community Enrichment Program; was given the Aviation Educator of the Year Award by the California Association of Aeronautics Educators; and received NASA's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aerospace Education Services Program. The Commonwealth of Kentucky even commissioned her Honorable Kentucky Colonel.
The nun travelled to war-torn Bosnia in an effort to bring sanity to children living in refugee camps and not able to go to school.
Lolich has tried to relate the spiritual into everything she teaches, because 'one of the definitions of prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart,' Lolich said. 'In science, as we study and increase our knowledge of the cosmos we are lifting our minds and hearts... To me, spirit and matter are one, and religion and science are one.'
David Seidel, manager of JPL's Elementary and Secondary Education Program, has a long history with Lolich.
'My connection to Clarice goes back to 1972 and the launch of Apollo 17,' Seidel said. 'I attended a trip she organised to the Kennedy Space Centre to see the Saturn V rocket launch to the moon. On the way to the Cape, the tour stopped in Houston and visited the Johnson Space Centre. In December 1972 we watched Apollo 17, the only Saturn V night launch, from just north of the Vehicle Assembly Building. It was an unbelievable sight and, even though I was just 13 years old, something I will never forget.'
Lolich's experiences indicate that she not only loves to try new things but is also quite the adventurer. For her 75th birthday she went bungee jumping, and on her 80th birthday she jumped out of an airplane. This month, for her 90th, she plans to ride into her party on the back of her nephew's motorcycle.
These extreme birthday celebrations are just a part of a take-it-to-the-limit mentality present in everything she does. 'We must risk going too far to determine how far we can go,' Lolich said.
'Wherever Clarice goes, she always finds children to inspire. From Croatia to Iceland to the family down the street, she always takes time to share space exploration with young people,' Ferrari said. 'As she often says, 'If only one child's life is changed, then it's worth doing.''
Seidel has been a witness to Lolich's enthusiasm, vigour and determination. 'Clarice has always been a personification of conviction and faith,' Seidel said. 'But she also has incredible energy and has harnessed it time and again over the years to share space exploration and science education with everyone from little kids in the most harsh environments to political leaders. She has never let up.'