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NASA veterans’ papers give boost to Vanderbilt Special Collections

Posted by on Monday, March 21, 2011 in Articles, Winter 2011.

The space race was built on the names of myth and legend—Saturn, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. But the real-life discoveries made through the study of outer space have changed life on Earth.

Three NASA veterans have included Vanderbilt in their resumes and in their legacy by donating their papers to Vanderbilt.

Physicist Rick Chappell worked at NASA for almost a quarter century, including time as a payload specialist, and later served as the chief scientist for the Marshall Space Center. Taylor Wang was the nation’s first Chinese-American astronaut and flew on Challenger’s first operational Spacelab mission. Astronomer Charles O’Dell was the project scientist for the Hubble, securing support and funding for the space-based telescope.

“Donations like these allow us to get an inside look into important developments in our history,” says Juanita Murray, director of Special Collections for the library. “You can use these papers to learn firsthand what one person’s experience was. These are invaluable for primary research.” The library is cataloging Chappell’s papers, which encompass his work at Marshall, including outreach for NASA and GLOBE, a Clinton-era initiative on environmental issues.

Wang fulfills childhood prophesy

Taylor Wang celebrates after his space shuttle mission.

When Taylor Wang was 3, he fell from a ship into China’s raging Jialing River. He grabbed onto a floating bamboo pole and by chance, a fisherman down river hauled him back to safety. There is an old Chinese saying if one survives such a disaster, good things will happen to him. And good things did happen­—he married the love of his life and he was chosen as the first ethnic Chinese to go into space.

As a scientist, Wang, now Centennial Professor, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt, designed innovative drop dynamics experiments in zero gravity. His work drew NASA’s attention and resulted in him being chosen as the nation’s first Chinese-American astronaut in 1985. He and another payload specialist were responsible for conducting 12 key scientific experiments aboard the Challenger STS-51-B space shuttle flight, the first operational Spacelab mission.

Wang’s personal experiment initially failed, and he pleaded with NASA administrators to give him extra time to fix it. When NASA refused, he said in total desperation, “If you guys don’t give me a chance to repair my instrument, I’m not coming back.” Supported by his fellow astronauts, Wang was eventually given extra time by Mission Control. Working around the clock, he repaired the equipment and the experiment was a success—it continues to contribute to his current research interests in fighting diabetes.

Wang became an American citizen after immigrating to the U.S. from China in the early 1960s and earned three degrees at UCLA. He was directing a lab at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., when he was picked for the seventh Challenger space shuttle flight that lifted off in April 1985. Upon his return to Earth, Wang received many awards and recognitions, including the NASA Space Flight medal, and was recognized on Oct. 11, 1985, with “Taylor G. Wang Recognition Day” in Washington, D.C. He also addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

In 1988 Wang joined Vanderbilt as the Centennial Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Microgravity Research and Applications. In 1992 and 1995, scientists aboard shuttle flights successfully carried out his experiments on compound drop dynamics in zero gravity and encapsulations for living cells, respectively.

Wang chose to donate his papers to Vanderbilt because of his dedication to students. “I demanded the best from my students, and they responded,” he said. “What better place to leave my lifelong work?”

Wang’s novel encapsulation system of living cells has practical applications in the fight against hormone-deficient diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and others. The encapsulated pancreatic islets can deliver insulin through nanopores without the need to use powerful immune-suppressing drugs. The treatment has proved successful in trials transplanting the cells into diabetic mice and dogs. Working with doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Wang says current results with primates are equally promising, and he is hopeful that human trials will be allowed by the FDA within the next two years.

Wang hopes that researchers use his papers to help them follow their natural curiosity. “I changed my research many times,” he said. “If you follow your interest, not your training, you will have an exciting career.”

Fascination with the ‘what might be’ charted course for his career

Rick Chappell, research professor of physics and consultant for space science in Public Affairs, came to Vanderbilt’s campus as a freshman in 1961 determined to carve out a career in space exploration. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics followed by a Ph.D. in space science at Rice University, he took a job in 1968 with Lockheed Missile and Space Co., studying the magnetic fields and plasma particles (electrified gases) found in space far beyond the Earth.

“Conventional wisdom said that these particles originate in the sun and are carried to Earth by the solar wind,” Chappell says. “Our satellite-based research has shown in contrast that most of the particles come from Earth’s upper atmosphere and flow out into Earth’s high-altitude magnetic field, called the magnetosphere. It’s important to understand the correct origin of these particles, which cause the aurora and which can disrupt radio communications and satellite operations.”

Rick Chappell (bottom center, holding on to floor) trained with fellow astronauts aboard the famous “Vomit Comet,” a parabola-flying aircraft which simulates the weightless environment of space. Many of the participants who fly on the aircraft develop motion sickness, leading to the airplane's nickname.

After six years with Lockheed, Chappell spent the next 24 years with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he eventually became the center’s chief scientist. During that time, he trained to be a payload specialist, a scientist/astronaut who conducts scientific experiments on the space shuttle. Because of the 1986 Challenger accident, Chappell’s shuttle training lasted seven years and he served in the payload operations center during the 1992 mission.

In 1996, at the request of then-Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt, Chappell returned to Vanderbilt as a Freedom Forum First Amendment Scholar. Chappell and Jim Hartz, former host of The Today Show, collaborated on a Freedom Forum study about communicating science through the media to the public. The resulting study, called “Worlds Apart,” led to the creation of an interdisciplinary major at Vanderbilt, called the Communication of Science and Technology. Graduates in this major have taken up careers in such fields as public health, science writing, pharmaceutical sales, law and medicine.

From 2002 to 2009 Chappell also served as executive director of Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. During this time, he led Dyer’s renovation both inside and out and helped transform it into a community outreach facility with space camps for students and science programs for schoolteachers. Chappell helped create the popular Bluebird on the Mountain singer-songwriter series as well. Thanks to all of these initiatives, the number of annual visitors to Dyer increased from 500 to 11,000 during his tenure, and the observatory received government science outreach grants totaling more than $300,000.

Chappell has followed his personal goal of “living in the what might be” from his student days at Vanderbilt to his return to the campus 14 years ago. His donated papers follow that path, covering his Marshall Flight Center years, including space shuttle development, his NASA outreach work and later environmental projects. Chappell is also donating the papers of his father, longtime Huntingdon College history professor Gordon Chappell, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Vanderbilt, which are mainly focused on Alabama and Tennessee history.

Grade-school assignment leads to future among the stars

Bob O’Dell, Distinguished Research Professor of Astrophysics, recalls a sixth-grade assignment to write an essay on what he hoped to be doing in 25 years. “I said I wanted to be an astronomer observing with a 200-inch telescope,” says O’Dell, who was already building his own small telescopes by the time he was in the eighth grade. “At the time the Palomar Mountain Observatory had the biggest telescope in the world. I’m sure I learned about it in My Weekly Reader.”

Little could he have imagined that he would one day be the chief scientist for a telescope located in outer space—the Hubble Space Telescope.

In 1971 NASA began studying the feasibility of the space-based telescope and asked O’Dell, then a full professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago, to join its advisory group of elite astronomers and engineers. The following year O’Dell left Chicago to become NASA’s chief scientist for the project. His first task was to persuade Congress to fund the telescope and major research institutions such as Harvard, Chicago and the California Institute of Technology to participate in the project rather than concentrating on ground-based telescopes. The funding process took six years.

Bob O’Dell with an image of the Orion Nebula.

“It was clear that Hubble was going to be the most powerful telescope of my generation, if not my lifetime, and that has proven to be the case,” O’Dell says. “That’s why I was willing to gamble on leaving Chicago to work for NASA.”

Construction on Hubble began in 1978 and was completed eight years later, but several delays, including the postponement of space shuttle flights after the 1986 Challenger explosion, prevented its launch until 1990. Once in orbit, Hubble transformed the way scientists look at the universe. The numerous discoveries made through its lens have resulted in almost a thousand new papers published each year using Hubble data.

O’Dell’s work on Hubble is the focus of his donated papers. “I expect that my papers will be of greatest interest to those interested in the enormous change in the practice of astronomy that began with the start of the ‘space age,’” he said. “This should be particularly true for those interested in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

After construction of the telescope neared completion in the early ’80s, O’Dell returned to academia at Rice University. In 2000 he came to Vanderbilt, where his focus has been studying the Orion Nebula and planetary nebulae via Hubble. The Orion Nebula is the closest center of massive star formation—a stellar nursery that reproduces the conditions in which our own sun formed some 4.5 billion years ago. O’Dell is the author of the 2003 book The Orion Nebula, Where Stars Are Born.

“I’ve been working on Orion for not quite half a century,” O’Dell says with a wry grin. “You’d think I’d have it figured out by now, wouldn’t you?”

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