NASA honors former researcher, W&M professor

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as an independent agency of the executive branch of the federal government. It had a distinctly civilian, rather than military orientation.

The mission of NASA was the peaceful applications of science in space. Since its establishment, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA. Those included the Apollo Moon landing missions, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and many manned and unmanned spaceflight programs.

During NASA's history, fame and public recognition for achievements went to pioneering astronauts such as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and others. The scientists and engineers at NASA who put the astronauts into orbit and brought them back home alive have been little known to the public. Not until recently, when the critically acclaimed movie, "Hidden Figures," described the untold story of three brilliant African-American women, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, called "calculators," that shed light on the critical role of people working in the shadows at NASA.

Another NASA researcher, Joel Levine of Williamsburg, spent 41 years as a senior scientist at NASA, and now serves as research professor at the College of William and Mary's Department of Applied Science.

According to a college news release, Levine applies his NASA experience in a number of situations, including teaching an undergraduate course, Planetary Geology, with Chuck Bailey, chair of the university's Department of Geology. They organized students into teams and assigned each to plot out "field trips" for potential use by the first humans to land on Mars.

Levine's legacy at NASA, notes the release, includes developing numerical models of the upper atmosphere of Mars for the Viking Project. Working on the Viking 1 and 2 Mars Orbiter and Lander Mission and being selected as guest investigator on the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory Copernicus to measure and monitor the density and distribution of atomic hydrogen, the major gas in the upper atmosphere of Mars.

From 2007 to 2009, Levine was detailed to NASA headquarters as program scientist for the Mars Scout Program, Mars Exploration Program Science Mission Directorate. He was selected as co-chair of NASA's Human Exploration of Mars Science Analysis Group, whose work formed the basis of the book, "The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet." Levine and Harvard astronomy professor Rudolf Schild edited the book.

Although Levine retired from NASA in 2011, he remains active with the organization. He is currently the organizer and co-chair of NASA Workshop on "Dust in the Atmosphere of Mars and its impact on Human Exploration."

No wonder that Jackson, Johnson, Vaughan and Levine were recently induced into Langley Research Center NACA & NASA Hall of Honor, four of a total of 18 inductees. The Hall of Honor was conceived to pay tribute to those individuals "who built exemplary careers at Langley, persevered against the status quo when required, and achieved or supported achievement in revolutionary understanding and progress on the frontiers of aerospace and science."

The introduction of the Class of 2017 honorees, only the second group to be installed, states, "The Hall of Honor formally recognizes those persons whose contributions have had the most sustained and far-reaching influence on the leadership, direction, mission and capabilities of the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory and NASA Langley Research Center, or whose work at Langley enabled or supported unprecedented and fundamental advancements in either scientific or engineering field to make significant contributions to the United States' aerospace industry for aircraft or spacecraft, or to the atmospheric sciences."

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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