Feature

Nobel Replica Returned After Space Venture
08.11.10
 
John R. 'Jack' Dailey (left), Dr. John Mather (center), Piers Sellers (right) NASA scientist and Nobel laureate John Mather, center, and NASA astronaut Piers Sellers, right, presented a replica of the Nobel Prize for Physics medal to John R. "Jack" Dailey, left, director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The replica flew aboard shuttle Atlantis during its STS-132 mission in May. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers
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On Tuesday, July 27, 2010, the first-ever Nobel Prize flown into space by NASA's STS-132 space shuttle crew was returned to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C., where it will sit as a testimony to space exploration and the history of our universe.

Passing through white gloves to prevent fingerprints and corrosives on the replica, NASA astronaut and STS-132 mission specialist Piers Sellers, who was a scientist in the Laboratory for Terrestrial Physics at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., from 1982-1996, commended Dr. John Mather, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 for his ground-breaking research of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is the name for the incredible early conditions of the expanding universe.

"When we did this, we discovered something about the beginning of the universe and therefore our own history, how human beings came to be able to live here on our planet," Mather said about his work with NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which studied the pattern of radiation from the first few instants of expanding universe.

Nicholas White, director of sciences and exploration at Goddard, initially made the suggestion to Sellers that the replica be flown on space shuttle Atlantis' last scheduled flight with the STS-132 crew.

"I thought it was important because it is the highest achievement in science and earned for COBE, an experiment made in space,” White said. "It was very symbolic to have the medal fly in space where it was earned and it seemed to make sense."

Originally, Sellers requested that one of the replicas held in the lobby of building eight at Goddard be flown, but amidst confusion, the medal was sent to Sellers still in the plastic display encasement that was too large to fly on Atlantis."It was the size of a coffee table," Sellers joked.

Fortunately, a more portable replica of the medal was in the care of Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Division of Space History at NASM. She and her team worked tirelessly to get the medal to Sellers at a time when the entire city was shut down by the February 2010 blizzard.

"This particular artifact is now much more significant because it's the only Nobel medal that has gone into space and come back," Mather said. "It's one of the few Nobel medals that's related to the space program, and I'm the only NASA civil servant that has been a recipient."

Mather also reflected on future exploration at NASA. "We don’t know what will come next but it is certainly a tremendous accomplishment for our agency and a great item of pride for everyone that worked on the project."

After the medal was returned, the STS-132 crew talked to a group of students from NASA's Summer of Innovation program, created to stimulate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. The crew members discussed their mission to the International Space Station to deliver an integrated cargo carrier and a Russian-built mini research module.

"I think that science is fun, science is interesting. It's good for the kids to see science with real people," Sellers said about talking to the students. "When I was a kid I really didn’t know what scientists did day-to-day, how they spent their time. The more we can show kids that, I think it peaks their interest and encourages them to study more."

The space shuttle Atlantis, carrying the crew of STS-132, was cleared for landing in Florida on May 26, 2010 at 8:48 a.m. EDT. This was the 34th space shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

For more information about STS-132, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/sts132/

For more information about NASA's Summer of Innovation, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/programs/national/summer/
 
 
Christina Coleman
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center