Video: Why First-Year Science Majors Read “The Martian”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYDSqc04yWg&w=560&h=315]

Norwich University Office of Communications

September 21, 2016

Incoming freshman in Norwich University’s College of Science and Mathematics discuss Andy Weir’s blockbuster about survival, science, engineering, and leadership on the Red Planet. Prof. David Westerman discusses why he recommended the book and NU Board of Fellows member and UVM polymer chemist Chris Allen leads the discussion.

What I Do: NASA Manager Dennis Davidson ’82

Photo: Formal head and shoulders studio portrait of Norwich alum and NASA manager Dennis Davidson
WHAT I DO:

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Dennis Davidson ’82
Manager, Program Control and Integration Office

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NASA Commercial Crew Program
Johnson Space Center

Mention NASA and most people think of astronauts and engineers. But any space program “starts with the budget,” says Norwich alum Dennis Davidson. “Without money, nothing’s gonna happen.” During the Shuttle era, Davidson was the no. 2 in charge of business operations for the $4 billion-a-year program. Today he manages 35 staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 billion for NASA’s crewed space flight program. The program’s main thrust is vehicle development contracts with commercial aerospace companies Space X and Boeing to send astronauts to the International Space Station and on other low-Earth orbit missions. He started his de facto NASA career shortly after his NU graduation, working for five years at Johnson Space Center while wearing an Air Force uniform. Thirty years on, he helps navigate Congress’s stopgap continuing budget resolutions to keep agency missions aiming for the heavens.

What’s your job at NASA?
In government lingo, program control is all the business functions. It’s procurement and contracting. It’s the finances. It’s IT. It’s security. Public relations. Legislative affairs. Interfacing with the center legal offices. We have a lot of oversight committees, seven or eight, including an aerospace safety advisory panel. It’s also about keeping the money flowing from fiscal year to fiscal year, so that the astronauts and engineers can go do their jobs and the contracts can perform.

Are you the top guy?
I am.

What’s it like to work at NASA? Any highlights?
There was a point in my career where I had an office in the same building as Mission Control. So being there every day, walking past Mission Control Center, being aware of that history. “Houston, we’ve got a problem” from Apollo 13. Or “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That all those words came to Houston first. Being a part of that going forward was just huge.

The second piece is just the quality of the workforce down here. I mean you come in every day and work with just awesome people, who are fun to be around, smart, [and] solving hard, hard problems every day. Being in a position to participate and at times just observe and see that take place has just been fascinating.

I’ve moved around to several different jobs. But I was in the Shuttle Program for the last few years that we were flying. Being a part of those last few missions, when you knew STS-133, STS-134, STS-135 were almost at the end. We finished assembling the Space Station. We were not going to fly these vehicles anymore. These were the last flights. Just knowing the importance of what was going on at that point in time and being a part of it.

What do you see when you look at the space exploration landscape today?
NASA on the whole is still doing in-house development for deep space exploration. Whether it’s the robotic spacecraft that are currently operating on Mars or the Orion crewed vehicle that’s being developed here that will be capable of going to the moon or to Mars. There’s also a new NASA rocket, called the SLS, the space launch system, that’s going to take the Orion into space.

What we’re starting to do commercially is operating in what we refer to as low-Earth orbit, so up to 250 to 300 miles. Primarily that’s the International Space Station. We’ve got three vehicles that they’re working on for cargo. Two of them are operational already. Then we’re working on the two vehicles with Boeing and Space X for crewed transportation, getting us away from reliance on the Russians. The big focus outside of NASA, a lot of it is what they call the tourist industry. Those folks would take passengers up to space, but not for long.

What’s driving advances in your field and what are the big hurdles?
The big hurdle is the cost of getting things launched. A couple of companies are working on reusable launch vehicles. It’s the single use vehicle—you got to build a new one every time—that drives the cost. With Shuttle, it was a multiuse vehicle. But because of the nature of it’s design, it was almost as expensive. So finding a reusable way [to launch]. Both Blue Origin and Space X have working concepts to land their first stage rocket. They do the launch. They bring it back. They can actually fly it back and land it on landing legs, where you then refuel it and use it again. That will be the biggest single thing that will open up the market.

Why does exploring space matter?
The simple answer is, what if Columbus never had a desire to set sail for India? What if Lewis and Clark had never set out to see all the country of the Louisiana Purchase? What if those people had never done that? What would we have missed out on? We’re taking the human race into that next unknown. Will we ever colonize another planet? Maybe. [We’re taking] that next step. Asking, is it possible? Could we colonize another body—the moon, Mars, or anywhere else—if we needed to?

Dennis Davidson serves on the Board of Fellows advisory panel for the Norwich University College of Science and Mathematics.

Norwich University Office of Communications

September 14, 2016

Astrophysicist Tabetha Hole on Supernovas, Teaching, and the Universe

Norwich University Office of Communications

March 25, 2016

K. Tabetha Hole joined the Norwich physics faculty last fall as an assistant professor. The daughter of an American doctor, she was born in Nigeria and earned her PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Using computer models and Chandra X-Ray Telescope data, her ongoing research studies the structure of supernovas and massive star winds. This spring, she teaches Intro to Astronomy, the capstone Senior Seminar II, and an independent study while supervising a senior research project. In a recent interview, Hole reflected upon the beauty and mystery of the universe and teaching.

Pop quiz: In 60 seconds or less, explain dark matter.

Dark matter is a name for our ignorance. If we look at the structure of galaxies, how fast the sun is going around the center of our galaxy should tell us how much mass there is in the galaxy. When we look at that, the amount of gravitational mass is way more than we can account for by actually looking at the stuff that’s there.

Ninety percent of the mass of the universe does not correspond to anything we know about on Earth. We’ve tried to account for it. But [we] just can’t. There’s missing mass. We know its effect. But we don’t know what it is, and that’s what we call “dark matter.” It’s “dark,” because it doesn’t glow. It doesn’t interact with light. It’s some completely different kind of matter that we’ve never been able to touch or detect directly. Obviously, we’ve been trying to. But we still don’t know what it is, and we’ve been looking for decades.

What do you call yourself?

Astronomer, astrophysicist, and, of course, physics professor. I spend most of my time being a physics professor. It is my focus, because I really enjoy teaching. Generating new knowledge is wonderful. But as is true in pretty much every academic discipline, if I discover something new about stars, only a few people in the world will ever read about that. Whereas, working with students, teaching introductory physics, I am able to share with them something beautiful and amazing about the universe.

You published a research paper titled, “Can We Detect Clumpiness in Supernova Ejecta?” Well, can we?

Yes.

Why should we care about supernovas?

When a star explodes, it turns out that that explosion makes most of the heavier elements in the universe. The iron in your blood had to be made in a supernova—there’s no other way to make iron—and probably more than one. So the iron in your blood came from multiple stars exploding. We can see supernovas across the universe. They affect the stars around them. They start star formation. They end star formation. They are responsible for changing the chemical makeup of the universe over time. They are responsible for making us. They are a test for our understanding of physics in extreme conditions that we just can’t do on Earth. If you want to study how the universe changes over billions of years or how galaxies change, you have to understand what happens in [supernovas].

Does your brain ever hurt thinking about these things?

Not so much. I think maybe the bigger puzzle is how to get students to understand. Because especially in physics, you first have to remove the misconception and then you can bring in the real fun. And that’s something no one knows how to do perfectly. I mean people ask, If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we feed the hungry? The reason we can’t is because of people. We can harness the power of a couple thousand people who want to work together to go to the moon. [But] you can’t put people in a box and poke them until they do what you want. All in all, I would definitely rather feed the hungry. Humans in some ways are a much harder puzzle than the universe. Helping people learn more about themselves and learn more about the world, that is actually in some ways a bigger challenge.

You say your interest in physics was sparked, in part, while studying astronomy in high school. You mention things like studying the phases of the moon. The moment when you visualized that relationship from space, rather than the surface of the Earth, and how that suddenly provided clarity. Can you talk about that?

By changing your perspective, something that was incredibly complicated becomes incredibly simple and elegant. That’s a larger part of what I find so amazing about the universe. You take things that are on surface incredibly complicated and you peel back the layers to find the incredibly simple rules that the universe operates by. Then you can build back up to the complication, piece by piece, and understand each one. And then the universe is not this weird unpredictable mess. It’s actually beautiful and elegant underneath, even if it’s not what we would ever have expected.

What excites you about the field today?

Oh, there’s so much. One big [thing] is that we now have a new way of looking at the universe: gravitational waves. It’s like opening your eyes. When we’re in astronomy, all we can do is study what the universe sends us. Most of the information it sends us is in light, radio waves, x-rays. Gravity comes from mass. So we now have a tool for looking at things that don’t even necessarily produce light. It’s going to give us more information that we could’ve gotten in the next hundred years using regular telescopes. So that is the most exciting thing right now. That we have a fundamental new way of knowing about the universe.