Local space explorer wins national award
March 1, 2018
Our little speck of the solar system is home to the planetary scientist who has the grand distinction of leading the exploration to places the furthest distance ever from Earth. Niwot resident Dr. Alan Stern is the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission, a 3.8 billion mile, $880M undertaking that began over 25 years ago and is still underway.
This month Stern was awarded the 2018 National Award of Nuclear Science and History for his leadership on this project and other astronomical endeavors.
Bestowed by the National Atomic Museum Foundation, the National Award of Nuclear Science and History acknowledges a foremost group or individual having an impact in the nuclear field.
According to The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History’s website, “The award celebrates the wide scope of achievement and commitment to furthering scientific endeavor made by individuals in areas of military leadership, medical technology, public policy and government, energy sciences, education and space exploration.”
Stern was selected for this year’s award because of “his work in planetary and near-earth research with the NASA Hubble space telescope and other deep space observations and discoveries in astrophysics and planetary science,” according to a press release from Southwest Research Institute, where Stern is employed.
Journeying to Pluto, the plutonium-powered NASA New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, has enabled the mission to produce images from historic distances which will be instrumental in researching the geological activity of Pluto, its five moons, and objects still farther out in the solar system. Although Pluto was once thought to be sedentary environment on the outermost reaches of the solar system, the mission returned indubitable data demonstrating that Pluto is a dynamic planet.
The powerful photos sent back during that flyby proved Pluto was more complex and active geologically than anyone expected. The images captured by the spacecraft and the expectations for the rest of its voyage through 2021, are captivating the world’s attention, renewing awe, admiration and confidence in space exploration.
In July 2015, the New Horizons mission reached a public crescendo when the rocket came within 8,500 miles of Pluto. On-board instruments collected historic images including Pluto’s iconic “heart,” sweeping ice mountains, flowing glaciers and dramatic blue skies. The spacecraft is now seeing the sights, exploring and returning data within the Kuiper Belt in the farthest reaches of the solar system.
“As often happens, an award is given to the leader of a team,” Stern said, referring to the award. “In this case, the team started out with over 2500 people working on the New Horizons’ project when we built it, and now has a flight of 150 members who in effect, are all winners of this award.”
Past recipients of the award include Sen. Harrison Schmitt, the last man to walk on the moon, and Dr. Murray Gell-Mann, who received the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the quark.
Over his career, Stern has received numerous honors for his contributions to space exploration, including the Carl Sagan Memorial Award in 2016. That same year he received the highest civilian award given by NASA – The Distinguished Public Service Award. TIME magazine has twice named Stern one of the 100 most influential people of the year.
Stern earned his doctorate degree from the University of Colorado in 1989 in astrophysics and planetary science. He has served as NASA’s chief of all space and earth science programs, directing the $4.4 billion institute in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 Stern began his own aerospace consulting firm and has worked with clients leading the charge in commercial space exploration, including such luminaries as Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin).
Stern’s credentials and list of positions are lengthy and touch on many major space exploration projects in the 21st century. He has been the principal investigator on more than a dozen space missions beginning in the 1990s.
Since 2009, Stern has been an associate vice president and special assistant to the president at the Southwest Research Institute, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary research and development organization that serves governmental and industrial clients. In 2011, he co-founded World View, a near-space ballooning company based in Tucson, AZ.
Stern has been on many colossal adventures himself, leading a research expedition to the South Pole and flying aboard a variety of high performance NASA aircraft such as F-18 Hornets. He is presently in training for his next voyage in 2019, when he will be flying on several suborbital space missions aboard Virgin Galactic vehicles.
Fellow Niwot and Gunbarrel residents, Drs. Dan Durda and Cathy Olkin — also with the Southwest Research Institute — will be on the spacecraft too where all three of the scientists will perform research.
Stern’s third published book, Chasing New Horizons, Inside the Epic Mission to Pluto, is due out in May of this year. In addition, he has written nearly 350 technical papers and articles, and is also a distinguished speaker.
“I am extremely proud of what our team accomplished on New Horizons,” Stern said. “I am also very proud of having been father to what are now six highly successful planetary ultraviolet spectrometer instruments which have taken over that market place in the last 20 years. “
In 2007, the Stern family moved from the Boulder area (where they had lived since 1994) to Washington, DC while Stern was working as NASA’s head of all space science. The married father of three promised that when job ended, if they wanted, the family could move back to Boulder. The decision to move back to Colorado was unanimous, and in 2009 they settled in Niwot.
How does such an illustrious career begin?
“I was inspired as a boy by the very first missions to the moon and the planets, and all I ever remember wanting to do was to be involved in the exploration of space and space science,” Stern said. “Even as a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a part of that. I think my parents thought I'd grow out of it, but I never did.”
His passion has not waned. Stern’s current projects involving the study of comets and asteroids, remaining at the helm of New Horizons’ expedition, and his involvement with commercial space flights continue to propel him to the leading edge of space exploration and beyond.