Impresario for Science
By Dwayne O'Brien
Published: December 12, 2008
P erched atop one of the highest and most picturesque mountaintops south of Nashville, Tennessee, Rick Chappell sits among a crowd of 700 listening in the stillness of the late summer twilight as a heart and soul are poured out to the gentle strumming of an old six-string flat top guitar. The singer sees closed eyes and nodding heads in the audience and knows that the words have hit home. Songwriters live for such magical moments. Chappell smiles; the concert was his brainchild.
More remarkable than the songs is the setting, a nine-acre clearing amid towering oaks and hickories with the white dome of Vanderbilt University's Dyer Observatory as a backdrop. The mountaintop is the home of highly successful concert series such as Bluebird on the Mountain, a showcase of Nashville's best songwriters sponsored by Dyer and the famous Bluebird Cafe. For nearly 40 years, the observatory was a place to explore other worlds. Now, it's a place where different worlds rub shoulders — where scientists and musicians, astronauts and artists meet to share their portion of human discovery with the fascinated public. It's a special place, and Rick Chappell is its director and impresario.
Chappell's unassuming demeanor and disarming drawl have their roots in the Deep South. Raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Chappell had a childhood filled with the stick horses, cowboy games and hero worship so typical of postwar America. Hopalong Cassidy was a favorite, and he liked Roy Rogers, though he always pulled for underdogs. Not surprising that he was a Boston Red Sox fan.
Chappell's parents met at Vanderbilt while undergraduates and went on to be educators. His father taught history at Huntingdon, a small Methodist college in Montgomery. His mother taught English literature. Learning was valued and honored in their home.
That value was not universally shared in the 1950's America of baseball and apple pie, which left Chappell searching for purpose and meaning. Unsuccessful at sports, his strengths were science and math. "I could do science,” he says. "It made sense to me. My self esteem came from science because I wasn't good at the other things.”
Inspiration literally came out of the clear blue sky. "When I was 14, the Russians launched Sputnik. For the first time, I heard my country comment on science and the comment was 'Oops, we got whipped!'”
Chappell was a senior in high school in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He was inspired by President John F. Kennedy's challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. "Kennedy spoke at Vanderbilt in 1963 and I was there. America told me that science and engineering were important.”
As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Chappell majored in physics. He began graduate school in physics at Rice University, but quickly switched majors. "The space science majors were shooting off rockets. The physicists were in the basement.” Chappell earned his doctorate in space science in 1968.
That year, Chappell married and went to work for Lockheed Missile and Space Company in Palo Alto, California. The newlyweds drove to California down Route 66 in Rick's brand new Corvette with the wedding gifts stuffed in the back; their honeymoon was spent camping in places like Los Alamos, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Later that year, son Christopher was born. The 'vette was the family car. Chappell drove it for 27 years.
Chappell studied the earth's plasmasphere while Lockheed was building Big Bird, the National Security Agency reconnaissance satellite whose mirror technology is now being used on the Hubble Space Telescope. The family enjoyed California and often took trips around the state, he says, ""but we felt a strong pull to come home to Alabama.” In 1974, Chappell went to work for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he eventually became chief scientist.
At Marshall, Chappell was involved in developing ways to conduct science on the new space shuttle. "Together with the European Space Agency, we built Spacelab, which flew in Columbia's cargo bay in December of 1983.” Soon after, NASA decided to fly a portion of that mission again. He was one of two new payload specialists selected to train for that mission. His training began in December 1985.
In January 1986, the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger put the United States' manned space program on indefinite hold. Chappell's one-year training program ended up taking seven years to complete. Due to international considerations, the other payload specialist was selected to fly the mission. He was disappointed, but says, "It was a wonderful experience. I had never thought of myself as an astronaut. I looked at the Mercury 7 astronauts and never thought that I could do that. I was lucky to live at the point in history when humans were leaving the Earth.”
The end of that mission marked the beginning of a new, personal mission for Chappell. His expertise and familiarity with the shuttle and the Spacelab mission, combined with his talent at public speaking, led to his making appearances on the BBC, ABC's Nightline, and live remotes on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel to cover the shuttle's launch from Kennedy Space Center and landing at Edwards Air Force Base. Those experiences convinced him that there were serious problems communicating science to the public. "I was doing a lot of public talks about space exploration, and it was clear that the public just didn't know what NASA was doing,” he says.
On a visit to Vanderbilt, Chappell met Chancellor Joe Wyatt and discovered that Wyatt shared his concern about the dysfunctional relationship between science and the news media. Wyatt helped arrange a fellowship at Vanderbilt's First Amendment Center that allowed Chappell to study this subject in collaboration with former Today show co-host Jim Hartz. In 1997, they produced Worlds Apart, a study that analyzed this science/media relationship and proposed measures to improve it.
"Most journalists never studied science, and most scientists don't trust journalists to cover their stories accurately,” Chappell says. "The result is a widening gap between science and journalism at a time when issues of science in public policy are more important to America's future than ever.” Chappell returned to his alma mater after taking an early retirement from NASA. His new mission was to implement the measures to improve science communications identified in his study, including the initiation of a communication of science degree program at Vanderbilt.
The interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program seeks to bridge that gap from both directions by equipping Vanderbilt's cadre of future scientists and engineers with the tools and experience necessary to better communicate their work through speaking, writing and multimedia while also educating future journalists in the culture of science and the scientific method. It is a method with which Chappell is very familiar and through which he has made his share of advances.
His scientific research explores the nature of the atmosphere starting 100 miles above the Earth's surface and extending outward to the very edge of the magnetic envelope known as the magnetosphere. In a recently published paper, Chappell and his colleagues announced they have found a previously unidentified region of the magnetosphere that they've named the "warm plasma cloak.” This region contains plasma, a gas made up of electrically charged ions and electrons. Though the evidence for the new region was there all along, it wasn't until Chappell's team studied the data from previous satellite observations covering a period of 30 years that all of the pieces came together. It was the culmination of a lifetime of research and embodies the thrill of discovery that Chappell feels is one of the greatest things about science: being the first to know something new. "There's great satisfaction in making a contribution to knowledge.”
Chappell also knows the importance of self-esteem in life. "People want to feel that what they're doing is making a difference.” To that end, he has spent his tenure as the director of Dyer Observatory transforming the former research facility into a vibrant center for a host of science outreach programs. In addition to the Bluebird on the Mountain concert series, Dyer hosts public viewing nights where hundreds get their first glimpse of wonders such as Saturn's rings and Jupiter's red spot through its 24-inch Seyfert telescope. Regular presentations by astronomers, astronauts and other explorers introduce students and townspeople alike to new discoveries in science and space exploration and are often standing room only. Teacher workshops equip and inspire local science educators to make their classrooms and curricula more fun and exciting for their students.
Perhaps the most far-reaching of the programs and those for which Chappell's passion is greatest are the summer camps for kids. Designed for middle schoolers, the camps give young people an experience that is virtually out of this world. Students build mock satellites, take the controls of flight simulators and fly simulated shuttle missions on genuine NASA software. Teams of kids work as mission controllers, pilots and mission specialists to retrieve, repair and return a satellite to orbit. Campers design, build and launch water-propelled rockets high into the air and run gleefully to retrieve them after they come crashing to the grass.
All of this is done to encourage those kids whose strengths lie in science and math to recognize the value of those talents and to consider scientific careers. "America is slipping in science. We need to stop slipping. We need our best students to go into science,” Chappell says. "There are great challenges that America is facing in energy, the environment and space exploration. Those challenges can be used to inspire and draw young people into science. It becomes a point of national pride.”
It may be that a child who has left a footprint in the grass of Dyer Observatory will one day leave a boot print in the dust on Mars. That's hidden in the uncertain future. But this much is certain: it is more likely that humans will go to Mars and the United States will lead the way because of places like the Dyer Observatory and people of purpose and mission like Rick Chappell.