The Music of the Spheres:
God's handiwork is evident to Calvin alums involved in space-related research
by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85
From analyzing plasma around comets to designing medical equipment aboard space shuttles to developing lunar cameras and testing materials which support the shuttle program, Calvin College alumni certainly are making their mark in space.
The relationship between alumni and space has been an ongoing one since at least the mid-1960s when George Kuipers '39, as an employee at Eastman Kodak Co., became involved with the lunar orbiter project.
"It was very exciting at that time," said Kuipers. "We were just at the beginning of the space program."
Kodak received a government contract (1963-67) to develop a camera and processing system to take pictures of the moon.
"Russia had already launched a beeper that orbited the earth in 1957 and in 1959 sent a camera which took a crude picture of the far side of the moon," said Kuipers, "so there was a lot of pressure to get our program going quickly."
Five successful Lunar Orbiters photographed virtually the entire surface of the moon and in places detected objects as small as one foot across.
"This was just prior to the Apollo program and we needed to know where we were putting people down," he said. "It was very exciting to get the pictures back."
As a colleague at Eastman Kodak, Chuck Spoelhof '51 was involved with Kuipers on the same project.
"When the first pictures were relayed to earth it was thrilling," said Spoelhof. "We had never seen such detail before, a thousand times finer than what had been seen from the earth through the biggest telescopes."
Spoelhof was called in a on second project in 1969--the handheld lunar camera. "It was used by astronauts on one of the first lunar landings to get stereo close-up photos of the soil on the moon," he said.
A third involvement occurred after he had retired from Kodak and served on a NASA board to investigate the serious optical problems the Hubble Space Telescope was experiencing in 1990.
"Our task was to find out what went wrong and why it occurred," he said. "We determined that the large 94-inch primary mirror was made incorrectly by a few millionths of an inch."
Spoelhof was at the launch site in 1993 when astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavor were sent up to repair the spacecraft.
More recently at a launch site was Dan Scheeres '85, who was at the launch in February of the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendevous (NEAR) spacecraft.
As an employee of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scheeres works in the navigations and flight mechanics division.
"My job is to navigate space missions," he said. "When we launch a spacecraft say to Mars, we launch it in the general direction of Mars. But it's like a car--you can point it straight down the street but you can't expect to steer itself straight there. Our job is to determine how off-course we've gotten and how to burn the engines back on course."
Scheeres was at the launch of NEAR, which is scheduled to reach the asteroid Eros in 1999.
"The highpoint of my career so far was the launch at Cape Kennedy," he said, "but I don't know anything yet that has been as exciting as it will be when it gets to the asteroid and starts sending back information."
The purpose of the mission is to better understand the solar system and specifically asteroids, he explained.
"We will try and determine what it (Eros) is made of, how heavy it is, whether it's one big rock or a pile of smaller rocks," Scheeres said. "The research is in part just for the science that gets done, but it also is done because as we study more and more we realize that the earth has been struck by asteroids fairly frequently. (It happens every couple of thousand years.) We would need to know the properties of such a thing if we going to attempt to deflect it or blast it away from the earth."
This may sound a bit too much like Star Trek for some, but in actuality space research can help us understand earth and its properties better, said Ken Klaasen '68.
Klaasen has been at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1973 and most recently is working on the Galileo project, which reached Jupiter in December and will spend two years studying the planet's atmosphere, satellites and surrounding magnetosphere.
Enroute, Galileo passed by two asteroids and Venus.
"Its images of the second asteroid showed that it had its own little moon," said Klaasen. "We never knew whether asteroids did or didn't have moons and that was very exciting."
In fact, it's discoveries like this which make the field so exhilirating.
"Sometimes it's a long wait, (The Galileo project began in 1977 and was launched in 1989.) but the idea of being one of the first people to ever have seen an asteroid or planet close-up is a real thrill," he said.
Using information from an instrumented probe from Galileo and data yet to be gathered, scientists hope to learn much about Jupiter's atmosphere: how it circulates, what it's made of, how the climate changes. Some of which can be applied to what we know about earth.
"The goal really is to learn and explore our solar system--what it is, trying to understand its history and using these observations to understand our earth better," said Klassen.
Matt Heun '89, also an employee at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained it this way: I spent some time in Africa while I was in college and I never learned more about U.S. politics than when I was in Africa. It gives you another perspective. If you only knew about earth, you would be very limited.
Heun is involved in the development of planetary aerobots, which are being designed to fly into the atmospheres of other planets.
"They are considered to be the next generation of exploration vehicles beyond probes," he said.
His current project is expected to head to Mars in 2001 and will focus mostly on atmospheric study.
"We're interested in things like what causes the greenhouse effect and how the atmosphere filters sunlight, which can be applied to things like the ozone depletion here on earth," he said. "At Calvin I developed an interest in globally significant problems that affected the world and I'm glad I'm able to pursue things related to that here."
In fact, Heun sees all of his job as a "huge present."
"The whole business is about unwrapping it and discovering what is out there," he said. "When you see the diversity and creativity that went into this and you know there is a Creator behind it all, it's amazingly challenging and tremendously interesting. When you realize that our atmosphere is completely different from Mars' and Jupiter's and Venus', it makes the Creator that much greater."
Tom Ackerman '70, an atmospheric scientist at Penn State, works from the philosophy: This is my Father's World.
Ackerman, who spent ten years working for NASA as an atmospheric scientist looking at other planets as well as the earth, said that learning about the creation has only increased his faith.
"We believe in God revealing himself in nature," he said. "The sad part of the church is that many times there is a fear of science. Science is some times seen as a great enemy of the the Bible and religion and it should not be seen that way at all."
"If we really do believe in God the Creator, then there is nothing to be afraid of in looking at the world and figuring out how it was put together," added Scheeres. "If you have the conviction that nothing can shake your faith, then no matter what you find it will only be faith strengthening."
In fact, many of God's acts can be defined as a "natural process," he said. "When Moses crossed the Red Sea, God doesn't just snap his fingers part the water. The Bible says that the wind blew all night creating a dry path to cross on. It shows that God is not a magician who just snaps his fingers and makes everything pop out of a hat."
Thus attempting to date the universe or search for evolution and changes in the universe should not be a problem, said Klaasen.
"I don't personally have any problem with an old universe," he said. "I don't think there is any conflict in saying that God created things millions or billions of years ago and that non-biological evolution took place. Our role is to make observations about the universe."
And those observations only get more and more complex, demonstrating a more and more powerful and all-knowing Creator.
Only recently have computers advanced enough to apply modern numerical equations to certain happenings in space, said Darren DeZeeuw '88.
DeZeeuw's speciality is computational fluid dynamics and recently his research has involved applying computational approximations to plasma around comets.
The application for the field is to better predict weather in space.
"Satellites can be knocked out and if we can better predict the flow around planets and comets we can reroute the satellites and get a better feel for protecting them," he said.
For Paul Vanden Bout '61, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a discovery of a galaxy that has molecules in it some years ago was a highpoint in his career. "It was interesting because it was so far away," he said.
For Vanden Bout, like many others in space or astronomy careers, his interest grew after getting into the field.
"I never had a telescope as a kid," he said. "I have trouble finding the constellations and if you would have told me in 1961 that I would be going into radio astronomy, I would have been amused. I woudn't have known what radio astronomers did."
Jim VanderPloeg '72 also got into the field in a round-about way. VanderPloeg, who now owns the Center for Aerospace and Occupational Medicine in Houston, Texas, specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery after medical school.
"My research interest is primarily the inner ear and particularly the vestibular system and the way in which the body perceives motion," he said.
This interest led VanderPloeg to NASA in 1980 where he studied the way in which a human adapts to weightlessness and became a Crew Surgeon (the chief flight surgeon for a shuttle flight resonsible for the medical care of the astronauts on that flight).
In the early 1980s, he was also responsible for determining what's in a medical kit aboard a shuttle spacecraft.
"That was challenging because it has to be very compact and lightweight," said VanderPloeg. "Also with the need for various pills, I had to design a dispenser bottle, because otherwise if you opened the lid, they would all float away. Also, if for some reason an astronaut would need an I.V., there had to be a pump system because in space it's not going to just drip down. There are many unique factors that need to be taken into account."
Taking those unique factors into account is also what Joel Slenk '87 does every day.
As a mechanical properties test engineer at Rockwell International Space
Systems, Slenk develops methods to determine the strength and durability of a wide variety of materials and designs used on the shuttle.
He has been involved with tests at -420F degrees and at 1500F degrees. One of his first assignments was to develop an automatic method to test the bolts that are used to attach the external fuel tanks to the space shuttle.
"Because there is always a goal for lighter and less expensive and bigger satellites, there are always new materials being manufactured and our job is to test them," he said. "Many new ideas are put to the test in our lab. Our favorite motto in the lab is 'One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.'"
A real feeling of accomplishment is a successful shuttle launch, he said.
Another satisfaction Slenk has realized is being able to apply so much of his Calvin experience to his current position.
"I have had to opportunity to test the thermal conductivity of insulating blankets used on the shuttle," he said. "My education at Calvin was very beneficial because I had to use an apparatus known as a guarded hot plate. When I took Heat Transfer at Calvin, I did a design project for Dr. Van Poolen using a guarded hot plate. I never could have imagined that eight years later I would pull that paper from my files and use it in real life."
Others pointed towards the emphasis on good writing at Calvin as well as the broad, liberal arts curriculum.
"When I first started at JPL, we were divided into small groups and asked to sell our program to the average taxpayer," said Heun. "I was one of the few people that could actually do that. I think there are a lot of people who are so involved with the details that they either don't know or don't care about the big picture. Calvin taught me about the big picture and how things fit."
And how do they fit?
No one can say it better than Maltbie Babcock did in 1901:
This is my Father's World, and to my listening ears
all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world; I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas--his hand the wonders wrought.
Lynn Bolt Rosendale
is the Managing Editor of the