Purdue has legacy of space research, NASA milestones

April 8, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Here are some highlights of Purdue University's space-related research and historic NASA milestones.

* Purdue has been called the "cradle of astronauts" for good reason. Twenty-three Purdue graduates have been selected for space travel, including the first and last astronauts to walk on the moon, and two of the six American astronauts who have served on board Mir, the Russian space station. Purdue alumni have flown on more than a third of all human U.S. space flights and more than 40 space shuttle flights. Many other Purdue graduates work for NASA and in the space industry.

* Steven H. Collicott, a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has testified before a U.S. Senate committee about the merits of private-sector space enterprise, particularly suborbital research. He has extensive zero-gravity research experience, with dozens of experiments on NASA aircraft and several suborbital rocket experiments, and has earned a doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He designed a major portion of an experiment that flew on the International Space Station in 2006 and 2007 and is principal investigator on the Fluids Education Experiment scheduled to launch to the space station next year. He has been named chair of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and serves on the Science and Technology Advisory Panel for the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which is the organization created recently by Congress to operate portions of the International Space Station as a national laboratory.

* Jay Melosh, a distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, physics, and aerospace engineering, has served as a member of the science team for three NASA space missions to image comets and examine their composition and behavior, and one lunar gravity mission. Melosh is an expert on impact cratering, planetary tectonics and the physics of earthquakes and landslides and has studied the exchange of microorganisms between the terrestrial planets. He is a co-author of two space-related National Research Council reports. The first, the 2010 report "Defending Planet Earth," explores the feasibility of detecting all Earth-crossing asteroids down to a diameter of 140 meters, or about one-tenth of a mile, and of ways to mitigate their hazard. The second, the 2012 report "NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities," examines and prioritizes NASA's entire program for new technology development. He also is co-creator of a calculator used by governmental agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and the U.S. Air Force, to estimate the potential damage a comet or asteroid would cause if it hit the Earth. The calculator, "Impact: Earth!" allows anyone to calculate potential comet or asteroid damage based on the object's mass.

* Purdue researchers are creating motors that push the envelope of theoretical performance limits for future robots. The research, funded with two NASA grants, is led by Scott Sudhoff and Steven Pekarek, both professors of electrical and computer engineering. The effort is part of the National Robotics Initiative, or NRI, a federal effort to help engage and train the next generation of robot designers.

* Steven Schneider, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, has developed and operates the nation's newest wind tunnel capable of running quietly at "hypersonic" speeds, which is critical for collecting data to show precisely how air flows over a vehicle's surface in flight. He and his students are involved in research to better predict "boundary-layer transition" for hypersonic vehicles under development. He also advises the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA on various hypersonic-transition issues. Schneider aided in estimating transition for the first shuttle flight following the Columbia disaster in 2003. He was part of the group whose advice led to astronaut Steve Robinson's dramatic spacewalk on Aug. 3, 2005, to remove "gap filler" protruding from the belly of the shuttle Discovery. Astronauts had never ventured to the underside of a shuttle during orbit or performed a safety-oriented repair during a mission.

* James Garrison, an associate professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is working with NASA and Exelis Inc., a global aerospace, defense, information and services company headquartered in McLean, Va., to develop a system that harnesses extraneous satellite signals to measure environmental data for a variety of applications, including climate modeling and agriculture. The NASA-funded research aims to develop a system to use common VHF signals that are already being transmitted by communications satellites - negating the need for a transmitter - to measure "root zone soil moisture," or RZSM. "We are using signals that ordinarily would be considered interference," he said. The "signals-of-opportunity" method exploits the VHF waves, which have a relatively low frequency compared to other satellite transmissions.

* Marshall Porterfield, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering, was named director of NASA's Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division in 2012. He has taken a leave of absence while serving in the post and oversees four program areas: fundamental space biology, physical sciences, human research programs and the International Space Station laboratory. He also acts as a liaison between NASA and the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

* Michael G. Smith, an associate professor of history, studies and teaches the history of the Space Age. His book, "Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight," will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014.

* Research by James Longuski, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and his students has been critical to a proposed privately financed mission to Mars. The Inspiration Mars mission was motivated by a rare 501-day free-return opportunity that was discovered in 1998 by Longuski and his then-student Moonish Patel. Longuski and two of his doctoral students, Kyle Hughes and Peter Edelman, have been working on studying the uniqueness of the Inspiration Mars 2018 opportunity as well as potential backup trajectories to give the mission a second chance if the 2018 launch date is missed.

* Kathleen Howell, Hsu Lo Professor of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, has worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create an "interplanetary superhighway," a method that enables spacecraft to travel through the solar system by taking advantage of the gravitational attractions of the sun and planets. The technique provides pathways that can slash the amount of fuel used by spacecraft. Howell and a graduate student designed such a pathway for NASA's low-fuel Genesis probe, launched in 2001 to collect samples of solar wind and return them to Earth. Her students have benefited from interaction with NASA and industry teams, gaining exposure to engineering strategies and contributing to solutions necessary to meet the science objectives of missions.

* Purdue's Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories is the nation's largest university propulsion laboratory. Founded in 1948, the labs have evolved into a complex of six facilities on a 24-acre site west of campus where engineers perform a wide range of propulsion-related research in rockets, jet engines and other internal combustion engines.

* Before the word "astronaut" was commonly accepted and used in the English language, four future "astronauts" walked the sidewalks and paths of Purdue heading to their engineering classes: Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Roger Chaffee. Grissom was one of America's first seven astronauts; Armstrong and Cernan were the first and last people, respectively, to step foot on the moon; and Chaffee was a crew member of what was designated as the first Apollo mission. Grissom and Chaffee were killed in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test on Jan. 27, 1967, at Cape Canaveral.

* William J. O'Neil, a 1961 graduate who received an honorary doctorate from Purdue for his work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was manager of the Galileo project that sent a spacecraft to Jupiter and its moons in 1995. He also had been a major player in missions to the moon and Mars. He was named an Aviation Week & Space Technology laureate for Project Galileo's delivery to Jupiter and received several NASA awards, including the NASA Group Achievement Award and an Outstanding Leadership Medal for his work as navigation chief of the Viking Project – the first U.S. mission to Mars.

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