The Catholic University of America

April 29, 2015

Students Receive a Backstage Look at NASA Facilities

  Vadim Uritsky, director of the University's Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, addresses students during a recent visit to the Space Weather Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

A group of 11 Catholic University students were given a behind-the-scenes look at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center earlier this month, as part of a special program intended to promote interest in the sciences while introducing them to the work of University faculty at the national science facility.

The tour, which was open to all honors students, regardless of major, was organized by Vadim Uritsky, associate professor of physics and director of the University’s Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, and Jennifer Paxton, clinical assistant professor of history and assistant director of the University Honors Program.

“I wanted the students to see all of the incredible things that the faculty are up to when we’re not in the classroom,” said Paxton. “The honors program started out as basically a humanities program, but science is so important now. I wanted the science majors to feel that their interests are worthy of attention and I wanted the non-science students to be exposed to the field.”

“CUA has a unique connection with NASA Goddard, which involves a multitude of collaborative research projects supported by dozens of research grants,” said Uritsky. “This creates fascinating opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students who can participate in cutting-edge scientific studies across a vast area of space and astrophysics. I hope that some of the students who took part in our tour will use this chance in a near future.”

The tour included a look at NASA testing facilities, including a thermal vacuum chamber.  

The NASA visit included a stop at the Space Weather Laboratory, where scientists and student forecasters from Catholic University and other local universities use scientific modeling to forecast solar flares, radiation, and geomagnetic storms that could impact spacecraft and technology. There, students heard from Yaireska M. Collado-Vega, a physical scientist who earned her Ph.D. in physics at CUA in 2013, and Yihua Zheng, a scientist who works closely with CUA undergraduates.

The students then visited the Space Systems Development and Integration Facility for a private tour led by Jonathan Gardner, chief of the Observational Cosmology Laboratory and deputy senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The tour included a look at the facility’s clean room, which is equipped with hundreds of high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) air filters in order to maintain an atmosphere 100 times cleaner than average. Even the smallest bit of dust or a single fingerprint could significantly damage the telescope components. Goddard’s clean room has no more than 10,000 half-micron-sized dust particles per cubic foot and is large enough to hold two space shuttle payloads at the same time.

From 1986 to 2009, the clean room was used primarily to prepare the Hubble Space Telescope and equipment for launch and servicing missions. Today, the room is used to prepare equipment for the JWST, which will be launched in October 2018.

The successor to the Hubble, the JWST is 6.5 times larger and will be able to see significantly farther using infrared technology. Gardner said scientists hope its images will capture important information about the origins of the universe and sites of liquid water on other planets.

On the day of the CUA visit, students could see the instrument panel for the JWST, including four cameras that scientists hope will one day capture infrared images of stars and galaxies being formed. Gardner estimated the instrument panel alone is valued at $1 billion.

Gardner also showed students a few of Goddard’s other testing facilities, including an acoustic test chamber, where giant speakers can simulate the noise of a space launch; a large centrifuge that can expose spacecraft to speeds 10 times the force of gravity; and a thermal vacuum chamber. In the fall, the JWST instrument panel will be placed in the vacuum chamber to ensure it can function properly with no oxygen and temperatures close to absolute zero.

  CUA honors students look at a model of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently in development.

Freshman Joe Brusstar, an international economics and finance major from Bronx, N.Y., said visiting Goddard reminded him of scenes from movies he had watched.

“You see huge doors and centrifuges and men walking around in bunny suits to keep things dustfree,” he said. “It was very cool to see.”

Though his major has little to do with astrophysics, Brusstar said he enjoyed learning about NASA’s operations and the JWST.

“It’s very important for humanity to see if there is life outside of our own earth,” he said. “And being able to look back billions of years possibly, it’s very interesting. I look forward to seeing the pictures this telescope will produce.”

Freshman Nicholas Gangemi, a mechanical engineering major from Staten Island, N.Y., said he decided to go on the tour after taking a physics course with Uritsky earlier in the year. He said the tour was a valuable experience for all students, regardless of major, to see what kind of work NASA does and the many multidisciplinary employment opportunities it can provide.

“NASA is one of the foremost research organizations that we have in this country,” he said. “The tour was very interesting and not what I was expecting at all. I hope they do this again so other students can get this opportunity because this is not something the average person gets to see.”




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