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With Elena Kagan, Supreme Court Has 3 Women for First Time

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DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to American Mosaic in VOA Special English. I’m Doug Johnson.

Today, we visit a bluegrass music festival that has a special activity for children ...

And we explain how to get a job at America’s space agency, NASA ...

But, first, a report on the new Supreme Court justice, Elena Kagan.


Elena Kagan

DOUG JOHNSON: The United States Supreme Court made history this month when it swore in Elena Kagan as its one hundred twelfth justice. It is the first time in history that three women will serve together on the nine-member court. Barbara Klein has more.

BARBARA KLEIN: Elena Kagan joins Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Ginsburg has served on the court since nineteen ninety-three. Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to serve on the court when she was confirmed last year.

President Ronald Reagan appointed former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman ever to serve on the court in nineteen eighty-one. She served until her retirement in two thousand six. Elena Kagan will become the fourth woman to sit on the court when its new term begins October fourth.

It took more than eighty meetings and seventeen hours of testimony for the new justice to gain her confirmation. After months of hearings, the United States Senate confirmed Elena Kagan in a vote of sixty-three to thirty-seven on August fifth.

With her confirmation, women now make up one-third of the court. President Obama praised this development.

BARACK OBAMA: "A sign of progress that I relish, not just as a father who wants limitless possibilities for my daughters, but as an American proud that our Supreme Court will be a little more inclusive, a little more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before."

Fifty-year-old Elena Kagan was born and raised in New York City. She earned her bachelor's degree from Princeton University in nineteen eighty-one. She went on to earn additional degrees from Oxford University in England and Harvard Law School in Massachusetts.

Ms. Kagan worked for Thurgood Marshall in nineteen eighty-seven and calls him her hero. Mister Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.

Elena Kagan also worked as an advisor to President Clinton. Later she was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School. Most recently, she was the first woman to be United States solicitor general. She argued cases for the United States government before the Supreme Court. Those who know her say it was always her goal to serve on the Supreme Court.

Elena Kagan spoke about her appointment during a confirmation celebration.

ELENA KAGAN: "Tomorrow, I will take two oaths to uphold this solemn obligation: one, to support and defend the Constitution; and the other, to administer justice without respect to persons, to the rich and poor alike."


Working for NASA

DOUG JOHNSON: This week’s listener question is about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Quasim also wants to know how to get a job at NASA.

On October fourth, nineteen fifty-seven, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik One, the world’s first man-made satellite. To the United States, this meant one thing: the space race was on.

Politicians and scientists feared that America’s technology was falling behind the Soviet Union’s. They worked quickly to catch up. Less than a year later, on October first, nineteen fifty-eight, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, or NASA, began operations.

Today NASA operates in many areas across the United States. It employs more than fifteen thousand people. They include engineers, computer scientists, meteorologists and astronauts.

Sixty percent of NASA’s jobs are professional, engineering and scientific. Twenty-four percent are administrative and management. Nine percent are technical and medical support. And seven percent are clerical and administrative support.

Interested candidates can apply for a job by logging onto the website USA A person can apply to as many as five jobs. Written resumes can be sent to NASA’s Resume Operations Center.

All jobs are competitive. But becoming an astronaut is the hardest job to get. Only three hundred thirty-nine people have been selected as astronauts in NASA’s history.

Applicants must have a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. They must be in excellent physical condition. And they must have perfect vision or vision that can be corrected.

The selection process includes a week of interviews, medical tests and orientation. If selected, applicants become “astronaut candidates.” They are sent to Houston, Texas for two years of training.

The first seven American astronauts were all military pilots. Since then, astronauts have been schoolteachers, doctors, scientists and engineers.

However, almost all of the jobs at NASA require United States citizenship. Sometimes NASA will hire non-citizens as contractors. The agency suggests that non-citizens investigate its international partners in Brazil, Italy, Canada, Japan, Germany and the European Space Agency.

Bluegrass Academy

(MUSIC: “Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line)”/Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver)

DOUG JOHNSON: Summertime in the United States means camp for a lot of American children. Sometimes that means swimming, horseback riding or playing sports. But camp can also be a special place where kids go to study something they love, like bluegrass music.

Faith Lapidus has our report on the Grey Fox Bluegrass Academy for Kids.

(MUSIC: “I Am a Little Scholar”/Don Rigsby)

FAITH LAPIDUS: Some bluegrass fans want to do more than attend concerts and buy albums. They want to play the music, too. So each year the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, New York, includes a music camp for children.

Louis Kaplan was one of the bass teachers at the camp that took place last month.


Emma from Poughkeepsie, New York, was one of Mr. Kaplan’s students. It was her first year at the Bluegrass Academy. She has not been playing long.

EMMA: “Only a year.”

REPORTER: “But it’s a different kind of bass playing, isn’t it?”

EMMA: “Yeah, in school, that’s where I first learned how to play bass, it’s classical, so, it’s much different.”

REPORTER: How did they teach you?

EMMA: “Just know the chords and make sure you are steady.”

(MUSIC – “Late Harvest” – Ira Gitlin)

Ira Gitlin and several of his banjo students
Ira Gitlin and several of his banjo students

Ira Gitlin also taught at the academy. Among the instruments he plays are the banjo, bass and guitar. He is an award-winning musician whose honors include a National Bluegrass Banjo Championship.

IRA GITLIN: “Some kids have just been given a banjo the week before, I’ve had that. Or a mandolin, or a fiddle or whatever. And some kids come with years of classical violin lessons or Suzuki violin or school orchestra lessons. So we’ve got a whole range of skill levels, from total beginner on up through some pretty proficient young pickers who’ve been playing for three, four, five years, maybe.”

Camp was intensive. Students met with their teachers for four hours Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then, on Sunday, camp director Brian Wicklund led an excited and skillful group of child musicians on to the stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The young guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, cello and bass players performed to a cheering crowd.


REPORTER: “What was it like up on stage?”

STUDENT 1: “It was pretty fun. I was mostly chopping because I’m not good with chords. But I also tried to play the melody.”

REPORTER: “And what about you? How long have you been playing?”

STUDENT 2: “I’ve been playing banjo for like two months.”

REPORTER: “So what were you playing before you played the banjo?”

STUDENT 3: “Violin.”

REPORTER: “What made you switch?”

STUDENT 3: “I like the noise.”

STUDENT 4: “I’m actually only three weeks into the banjo. I played guitar beforehand. But Ira is just such an awesome teacher and he taught us all a lot. We definitely couldn’t have been up there today without him.”

REPORTER: “Want to play something for me?”


The Grey Fox website will soon have details about next year’s Bluegrass Academy for Kids. You can find a link to Grey Fox at

Among the performers at Grey Fox was the Del McCourey Band. We leave you with “Rain and Snow,” one of the songs the group performed at the festival.


DOUG JOHNSON: I'm Doug Johnson. Our program was written by June Simms, Mike DeFabo and Katherine Cole. Caty Weaver was the producer.

You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our shows at If you have a question about American life, send an e-mail to Or write to us at American Mosaic, Voice of America, Washington, D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, U.S.A. We might answer your question on this show. Please remember to tell us your name and where you live.

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