Feature Stories

NJIT Researchers Help NASA's Space Program

NJIT's Louis Lanzerotti has made major contributions to America's space program.

Louis Lanzerotti has made major contributions to America’s space program, both as a policy expert and as a scientist.  And one of his largest policy contributions was in deciding how to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor of physics in the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research at NJIT, chaired a committee that advised NASA on how to save the Hubble -- the $1.5 billion space telescope.  Launched in 1990, the Hubble had provided astronomers with stunning images of the cosmos, revealing what the Universe looked like in its earliest years.  But over time the Hubble started to age – among other problems its batteries weakened and its gyroscopes failed. The question became how to repair it: Should NASA send a robotic mission or a manned mission to do the job?

Lanzerotti’s committee urged NASA to send a manned mission, concluding that a robotic mission was too risky.  At first, NASA officials disagreed, saying that a manned mission would endanger the astronauts. But the engineering analysis in Lanzerotti’s committee report argued that having astronauts make the repairs was the safest option.  NASA eventually agreed.

Rescue the Hubble

Therefore, in 2009 a manned mission on shuttle Atlantis visited the Hubble. In five days of space walks, astronauts added two cameras to the telescope, repaired two more cameras and upgraded its electronics and insulation. NASA called the repair mission a “spectacular success” that turned the Hubble into a “new state of the art telescope.”

Lanzerotti’s advice to NASA rescued the Hubble, which ever since has provided astronomers with increasingly clear images of the cosmos. Lanzerotti, though, gave the credit to the astronauts.

“It was an amazing, professional and skilled repair and upgrade by the shuttle astronauts,” he said, “and they deserve much applause.”

Honored by NASA

NASA, however, has honored Lanzerotti’s contributions to science.  The agency has awarded him the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Medal as well as, on two occasions, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal.   He is also a member of the International Academy of Astronautics.

The awards recognize his role as principal investigator or co-investigator on several NASA missions including Voyager, Ulysses, Galileo and Cassini.  The latter three missions were all launched by space shuttles.  On the missions instruments he worked on were affixed to spacecraft.  And those instruments gathered data that helped scientists better understand the cosmos.

“One of the instruments I worked on went into space and measured particles trapped in Jupiter’s radiation belt,” says Lanzerotti. “And another of my instruments measured the charged particles, cosmic rays and galactic cosmic rays in the polar regions of the sun.  I was happy to be involved in these space missions.”

NJIT Research for NASA

Lanzerotti, as well as other NJIT researchers, are still doing NASA research.  Last year, NJIT researchers have more than $4.8 million for 18 NASA-funded projects, the largest of which is Lanzerotti’s effort to develop a solar radiation satellite.

Additionally, researchers at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research download and study data from NASA’s solar space missions.  They use the data to understand the magnetic activities of the sun -- mainly solar flares and coronal mass ejections.  The researchers also develop tools to monitor, evaluate and forecast solar activity.

Asked to comment on NASA’s future, Lanzerotti said the space agency, in his view, should concentrate on returning to the moon.  He’d like NASA to establish a lunar base on the moon, from which scientists could study the effects of people living and functioning on the moon.

“I’m disappointed that the U.S. doesn’t have a better plan for human space flight, “he says.  “But I think there is hope and that mankind will figure out what to do next with human space flight.”

Biomed Professor Studies Astronauts

Bill Van Buskirk first became infatuated with aeronautics when he was a cadet at West Point.  It was the early 1960s, and the space program was in its inspired infancy.  Rocket scientists and astronauts regularly visited West Point to lecture the cadets about space exploration.  Van Buskirk recalls the day that Wernher von Braun, the brilliant rocket scientist and NASA Space Flight director, addressed the cadets about NASA’s plan to send a man to the moon.  And John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit earth, came to West Point to discuss space flight with the cadets.  

Excitement about the space flight was infectious at the time and Van Buskirk, now chairman of the Biomedical Engineering Department and a Distinguished Professor at NJIT, caught the space bug.  After he graduated from West Point and spent time in the Air Force, he enrolled at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering.

As a young research professor, he studied the effects of space flight on the human body.  He tried to understand why and how astronauts suffered from space sickness.  Particularly, he studied the bio-mechanics of the inner ear and how it helps the human body orient itself.  He published scholarly papers on what happens to the orienting mechanism of the inner ear when man enters space. 

Helping the Space Program

“Writing those papers helped scientists better understand the motions and mechanisms that cause astronauts to become disoriented,” says Van Buskirk. “That was my main contribution to the space program.”

Van Buskirk now teaches biomechanics classes at NJIT and he often talks to his students about his aeronautical research -- how exciting it was to be connected to the space program.  The biomechanics of the human body is still his main interest, as it was when he was a graduate student, so his career has come full circle, he says. 

He’s reading about the Shuttle Atlantis in the news and looks forward to its return to earth.  He’s disappointed, though, that the Shuttle program is ending and that the space program seems to be in a lull.  

“America had plans to go to Mars and to see the space program come to this point is painful for me,” Van Buskirk says. “Perhaps when another country such as Japan and China enhances its space program, America we’ll once again get excited about space exploration.”

(By Robert Florida, Office of Strategic Communications)