NASA specialist shares why she’s a Space Exploration merit badge counselor

Foreground: Rachel Brachman, public engagement specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Background: Holden Crater on Mars. (Background photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

For a full portrait of Rachel Brachman’s passions and proficiencies, don’t look at her LinkedIn. Start with her merit badge counselor registration.

Brachman, a public engagement specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, is a counselor for seven merit badges: Art, Astronomy, Canoeing, Disabilities Awareness, Horsemanship, Inventing and Space Exploration.

“Each of these badges reflects a different aspect of my life,” she says.

As a NASA specialist at the place where scientists built the Mars rover Curiosity and Saturn probe Cassini, Brachman is a natural to serve as a counselor for the Space Exploration merit badge.

“Since I’ve been working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 17 years, I’ve had a front-row seat during significant moments in space exploration history,” she says. “I love sharing what I’ve learned about Saturn and Mars with Scouts who are earning their Space Exploration merit badge.”

Brachman has been an active Scouting volunteer since her son became a Tiger in 2011 and a merit badge counselor since 2017. We asked Brachman for her top advice for merit badge counselors, which you’ll find below. She also shares a lovely free-verse poem about why she takes time to serve in this role. And finally, Brachman tells fellow volunteers about a NASA-sponsored essay contest no space-loving Scout will want to miss.

3 … 2 … 1 … let’s go.

Meet Rachel Brachman

Brachman was born in London, Ontario, and was a member of Girl Guides of Canada. She worked her way up through that program and became a Brownie, Guide and Pathfinder. She even earned the All Round Cord, a since-discontinued award that required girls to complete adventures and earn badges in subjects like astronomy, first aid and citizenship.

Brachman was active in science fairs throughout school and made it to the Canada-Wide Science Fair three times. In sixth grade, she won a silver medal at the fair for an invention that helped nonverbal children use a computer to communicate.

After high school, Brachman studied physics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and earned a master of space studies degree at the International Space University in France.

She worked at the Canadian Space Agency, NASA’s Ames Research Center, The Planetary Society and Caltech before landing a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2003.

In 2011, Brachman’s son joined Scouting as a Tiger. Brachman signed up, too, serving first as a volunteer in his Cub Scout pack and then in his Scouts BSA troop. Her current role is advancement chair for Troop 191 of Sherman Oaks, Calif. (Western Los Angeles County Council), where her son is a Life Scout working on his Eagle project.

Advice for merit badge counselors

As a Space Exploration merit badge counselor with the Western Los Angeles County Council, Brachman enjoys sharing her love of space with the Scouts who participate in WLACC’s Virtual Merit Badge University.

“I’ve taught the online Space Exploration merit badge class 16 times since April 2020, with a dozen Scouts in each class from all across the United States,” Brachman says. “I’m a strong believer in paying it forward. So many people have contributed to my education along the way, and it’s my job to make sure the next generation is inspired and educated, too.”

With the Space Exploration merit badge, Brachman knows she’s working with a head start. Based on its name alone, the merit badge is one of the coolest-sounding badges on the entire list of 137.

But any merit badge can be memorable and meaningful if delivered in the right way. You just need passion for the subject and a willingness to help Scouts experience something new.

“Share what you know about your subject, and make sure Scouts have a chance to share what they know about the subject, too,” Brachman says. “Be a mentor and a role model for your Scouts. As with all Scouting activities, Be Prepared.”

Brachman suggests using technology to help you — a PowerPoint presentation, perhaps — but warns against turning your merit badge into a lecture. Scouts will have a better experience if they get to interact with the counselor and their fellow Scouts.

“Leave lots of time for Scouts to ask questions,” Brachman says.

And what if you’re planning to teach the Space Exploration merit badge but don’t have a job at NASA? Don’t sweat it.

“NASA has some fantastic resources for teachers that can also be used by merit badge counselors,” Brachman says. “You can use primary sources — photos, videos and lesson plans from NASA — to show examples of past and present space missions. I like using NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System software to show where all of NASA’s spacecraft are at the moment and what they’re exploring.”

The Merit badge counselor: a poem

Brachman shared this free-verse poem about her experience as a merit badge counselor, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Take a look:

Scout Merit Badges
Today I am teaching
Art and Space Exploration.
Tomorrow I will
be teaching two Inventing workshops.
As a merit badge
counselor, my biography is spelled out in the badges I counsel.
Art. Astronomy.
Canoeing. Disabilities Awareness. Horsemanship. Inventing. Space Exploration.
That sums up my
life pretty nicely.
What I do and what
I love and what I care about.
It summarizes the
difference I want to make in the world.
Making it more beautiful.
Learning and wondering
about the universe.
Going on adventures
while getting stronger and staying healthy.
Helping other people.
Connecting with
Being creative and
solving problems.
Making new discoveries.
Not a bad life so
I’m glad to be able
to share what I have learned so far
With Scouts who
are seeing it for the first time
And following their
own paths through life.

One more thing: An essay contest for your Scouts

As part of her role at JPL, Brachman gets to run NASA’s 2020-2021 Scientist for a Day essay contest for students in the fifth through 12th grade.

Brachman asked me to share the opportunity with blog readers, believing that the contest is especially appropriate for Scouts.

“Scouting is all about adventure and exploration. NASA shares these goals,” she says. “Many astronauts started off in Scouting, because the life skills learned in Scouting also serve you well at NASA.”

The contest, which runs through Feb. 12, 2021, asks participants to study three of Uranus’ moons, choose one and write about why that moon would be the best place to visit with a spacecraft someday.

“NASA wants to know what you think, so don’t just repeat facts you find online,” Brachman says. “Why do you think one moon would be more interesting to explore than another? What do you hope you might find if you explore this moon?”

Learn more here and submit your essay here.

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.