Space Science

By The Editors / November / December 2000
October 24th, 2007

Geoffrey Alan Landis ’88 Ph.D.

A fundamental problem with sending spacecraft to distant planets is for them to generate enough power to get there and transmit information back to Earth. Because most conventional fuels are heavy, solar-powered spacecraft are usually the best bet—thanks in part to the work of NASA scientist Geoffrey Alan Landis.

An experimental solid-state physicist, Landis was the principal investigator of an experiment on the 1996 Mars Pathfinder mission that measured how quickly dust settles on solar collectors and cuts into their efficiency. Landis’s experiments have had a major impact on the practicability of space travel, as well as on the design of solar cells on Earth. Landis is also a NASA leader in designing such deep-space innovations as plasma shielding for interstellar probes and the transmission of power using laser beams. Landis has even been featured in Discover magazine as a major figure in theorizing about faster-than-light travel.

Landis is also a science fiction writer who’s received top awards for his short stories, poetry, and essays. His first novel, Mars Crossing, is due out in December.

Thomas O. Paine ’42

Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind was the result of millions of hours of work done by thousands of people—much of it under the supervision of Thomas Paine. As chief administrator of NASA from March 1969 until his resignation in September 1970, Paine was the top man at the agency during the first seven Apollo missions. He stood at mission control while twenty men orbited the earth, fourteen traveled to the moon, and four walked on its surface.

After receiving his Ph.D. at Stanford in physical metallurgy in 1949, Paine went to work at General Electric and was later manager of TEMPO, the company’s research center in Santa Barbara, California. In 1968 he joined NASA as deputy administrator and was named acting administrator nine months later.

A tireless advocate for space exploration even after leaving NASA, Paine was chosen by the White House in 1985 to chair the National Commission on Space and prepare a report on the future of space exploration. The report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, called for the United States to “make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.” Paine died of cancer at his Los Angeles home in 1992.

Byron Lichtenberg ’69

Even before there were astronauts, Byron Lichtenberg wanted to fly in outer space. In 1983 he got his wish when he became a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia, the only Brown alum to become an astronaut and the first civilian to fly on board the shuttle.

After Brown, where he joined ROTC and majored in aerospace engineering, Lichtenberg spent four years as a U.S. Air Force pilot. But he became disillusioned with the military and returned to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from MIT.

While he was still working on his doctorate, Lichtenberg and some colleagues proposed a space-shuttle experiment studying inner-ear function under weightless conditions. NASA accepted the experiment, and Lichtenberg was on his way to becoming a payload specialist.

“I trained for four years to go on that flight,” he says. When the day arrived, Lichtenberg happily became a guinea pig for his own inner-ear experiment. As a payload specialist he ran what he calls the “Chinese menu” of experiments conducted aboard SpaceLab One. He worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day under weightless conditions.

His second space shuttle flight, aboard the Atlantis in March 1992, provided more time for reflection and sightseeing. “On the second mission,” Lichtenberg says, “I spent a lot of time dayside looking at the Earth and taking photographs. It was an incredible experience to know that in ninety minutes I had circled the entire world.”

During that flight Lichtenberg also studied the northern lights and observed how freon and other chemical propellants help break up the earth’s ozone layer.

After returning from his second shuttle mission, Lichtenberg joined a group of astronauts and cosmonauts to form Space Explorers, a discussion group for space travelers. “We’ve found it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is,” he says. “Space flight is a very humanizing experience. You really see how we are linked together on this planet.”

Now a captain with Southwest Airlines, Lichtenberg also works for the X-Prize Foundation, an organization that promotes an altogether new frontier: space tourism.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2000