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

Ideas @ Work: #12 Inspiring the Next Generation of STEM Leaders

Photo: Judge and student at Vermont State Science and Math Fair on the Norwich campus

33 ideas big and small from Norwich students, faculty, staff, and alumni that are transforming campus and the world.

The Norwich Record

Spring 2016

Every year, students in grades 5-12 advance from local and regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) competitions throughout Vermont to present winning projects at the Vermont State Science and Mathematics Fair. The spring event is hosted on the Norwich campus and is co-directed by NU emeritus Professor of Biology Carlos Pinkham.

“I am always moved by the way students effect their belief that they can change the world,” says event co-coordinator Tricia Finkle. “Printing skin for burn victims, killing bacteria with spices, building bio sand-filters out of PVC, purifying water, and harnessing energy. They address all the important challenges we face, gaining a deep understanding of the complexity of the real world.”

“It is this desire to be a part of the solution that drives them to the level of achievement you see at the fair. Students seem to be more focused on improving the future than ever. Gone are the projects that compare brands of kitchen sponges.”

More Ideas@Work:

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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.

Office Tour: Neuroscientist and Biology Professor Megan Doczi, PhD

Prof Megan Doczi smiles as she displays famous scientist finger puppets to the camera
Norwich University Office of Communications

October 14, 2015

Norwich University Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi can recall the exact moment she fell in love with neuroscience. It happened during high school, when a psychology class she took as an elective reached the second chapter of the course textbook, which covered the neuron. In the lab, Doczi studies ion channels in avian hypothalamus neurons and the pathways that regulate feeding behavior and appetite. In the classroom, she teaches both anatomy and physiology and neuroscience courses and directs the university’s neuroscience minor and concentration programs. Below, a tour of her office in nine objects.

tough_mudder_skull1. Human Skull
Gift from Lauryn DePaul, a student in the first anatomy and physiology class Doczi taught when she arrived in 2011. “Someone in her family had acquired this. I think they were a dentist.” Doczi repaired the broken skull with superglue. She added the Tough Mudder 2014 headband after completing the 10-mile obstacle course with friends last year. “It’s definitely a fusion between the outdoor enthusiast in me and the anatomist and neuroscientist in me.”

2. Fluffy Brain Toy
“It’s a stuffed brain. I also have a stuffed heart and a neuron.” They belong to her collection of gifts and “nerdy stuff” people have given Doczi over the years.

3. UVM Doctorate
“That was six years of really hard work and a beautiful institution. I value that quite a bit.” Doczi says the frame cost several hundred dollars and was probably her most expensive purchase as a graduate student.

doczi_einstein4. Famous Scientist Finger Puppets
Albert Einstein, Madame Currie, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Magnets are on the back. “They were gifts from one of my family members back in graduate school.”

5. Child’s Drawing
A gift from the daughter of Biology department colleague Karen Hinkle. Last year, Doczi won the Peggy R. Williams Emerging Professional Award from Vermont Women in Higher Education. “Willoughby drew me a picture and said congratulations on winning your award. It was the cutest thing. I think that speaks to the collegiality we have in the department and the university as a whole.”

DNA art6. DNA Art
A PhD graduation gift from friends. “They bought me this DNA artwork package. That’s my DNA from a cheek swab that was sent to a company. They ran a fragmentation and a gel electrophoresis on my own DNA, and I got to choose the color. It just looks cool. It’s really sciencey, and it’s from two really good friends of mine.”

7. Eppendorf Pippettes
Carousel of pipettes in 2.5 through 1,000 microliter sizes for dispensing precise volumes of liquid during lab work. Bought with leftover funds so that more students could work in the lab simultaneously.

neuro_bliss8. Neuro Bliss Energy Drink
Label on can claims contents help reduce stress, enhance memory and support a positive outlook. “The irony is that no drink is going to do that. But it’s cool, because it says ‘Neuro Bliss’ on it.”

9. CDs and Playlist
Depeche Mode, mix CDs from friends, Pandora, Spotify, independent radio stations. Guilty pleasure: Lady Gaga, including “Born This Way” and concerts in Montreal and Madison Square Garden. Last album purchased: “I haven’t downloaded anything in a long time. This is so embarrassing. This is where it stalls.”

Photographs by Mark Collier, Norwich University Office of Communications

Vermont State Science and Math Fair Reaches Critical Mass at Norwich

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Co-directed by Norwich University professor emeritus of biology Carlos Pinkham, the statewide event showcased creative, rigorous science projects by Vermont middle and high school students
Norwich University Office of Communications

March 30, 2015

Middle and high school Vermont science students converged on Norwich University on Saturday to compete in the 2015 Vermont State Science and Math Fair, now in its 56th year. Judges represented over 50 STEM partners from academia, industry and professional organizations.

The event is co-directed by Norwich University professor emeritus of biology Carlos Pinkham. “We are so passionate about fostering a love of the STEM fields from as early an age as possible,” he said. “Norwich University is the perfect setting for it.”

The all-volunteer organization awarded more than $9,000 in cash prizes and $300,000 in college scholarships on Saturday and provided nearly $15,500 to Vermont students and teachers to cover travel expenses to competitions outside the state this year.

In the biggest award of the day, three finalists were chosen to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh May 10-15 to compete for $4 million in prizes and scholarships. The Vermont winners were Nathan Kakalec and Sajani Sivakumar, both from South Burlington High School and the team of Ben Beagher and Vincent Moeykens from Windsor High School. Kakalec’s project used computer modeling to predict the outbreak of emerald ash borer in New Hampshire. Sivakumar’s project studied the effects of vitamin D on pancreatic cells under diabetic stress. Meagher and Moeykens studied whether a home computer server could compete with cloud-based services in terms of speed, cost and ease of use.

All three finalists were awarded Next Generation Scholarships to Norwich University.

Norwich to Host 56th Annual Vermont State Science and Math Fair

Norwich University Office of Communications

March 11, 2015

Norwich University will once again host this year’s Vermont State Science and Mathematics Fair (VSSMF) on Saturday, March 28. The day-long event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., anchored in Norwich’s state-of-the-art science complex, Bartoletto Hall, with an awards ceremony in Dole Auditorium starting at 1:30 p.m.

The fair showcases the work of Vermont public, private and homeschool students in grades 5-12 who have won local science and math fair competitions. The students will display projects that tackle questions and pose solutions arising from the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Accepted projects at the state-wide fair will be independently evaluated by at least three judges over the course of the morning to determine winners for medals, cash, trips and scholarships.

Some 125 volunteer judges will be on hand. They include industry scientists and engineers, secondary education faculty, medical professionals, military personnel, retirees and other science-related professionals from across Vermont. All hold advanced degrees or have extensive experience in STEM fields.

Students compete for more than $10,000 in cash and prizes and $17,000 in trip awards and expenses donated by local organizations and $900,000 in scholarships to Vermont colleges. The fair is also affiliated with the International Science and Engineering Fair, and five other national and international competitions, which award additional prizes.

The event marks the only state-wide science and math fair for middle and high school students in Vermont.

“We are so passionate about fostering a love of the STEM fields from as early an age as possible,” said Carlos Pinkham, co-director of the Vermont State Science and Math Fair and professor emeritus of biology at Norwich University. “And as the country’s oldest private military college, which is rooted in experiential learning, Norwich University is the perfect setting for it.”

The VSSMF, sponsored by the Vermont Principals’ Association, is an all-volunteer, non-profit 501(c)(3) education organization supported by Norwich University and more than 100 other Vermont organizations, colleges and industry partners, all sharing the common vision to excite young Vermont minds about the STEM fields and the opportunities available to them to complete their STEM education and careers in Vermont.

For more information, please contact Carlos Pinkham at (802) 485-2319 or pinkhamc@norwich.edu or Tricia Finkle at scifair@norwich.edu.

This event is free and open to the public.

About the Vermont Principals’ Association

The Vermont Principals’ Association is a nonprofit alliance of education leaders who collaborate on mentoring, professional development and networking while overseeing Vermont’s co-curricular activities. The VPA coordinates the collective interests and needs of school leaders and enhances their professional growth and competency to help improve the quality of education for Vermont’s youth.

About Norwich

Norwich University is a diversified academic institution that educates traditional-age students and adults in a Corps of Cadets and as civilians. Norwich offers a broad selection of traditional and distance-learning programs culminating in Baccalaureate and Graduate Degrees. Norwich University was founded in 1819 by Captain Alden Partridge of the U.S. Army and is the oldest private military college in the United States of America. Norwich is one of our nation’s six senior military colleges and the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). www.norwich.edu

In fulfillment of Norwich’s mission to train and educate today’s students to be tomorrow’s global leaders and captains of industry, the Forging the Future campaign is committed to creating the best possible learning environment through state-of-the-art academics and world-class facilities. Learn more about the campaign and how to participate in the “Year of Service” here: bicentennial.norwich.edu