NASA leader's accomplishments advance exploration beyond Earth

May 15, 2017

Richard Vondrak, on an expedition to the North Magnetic pole, measures the magnetic field in northern Canada on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Lisle, Illinois ~ Richard Vondrak, Ph.D., has overseen many pivotal advancements in space exploration throughout his career — from the study of Earth’s magnetic field and the creation of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), to the ongoing search for life in the solar system.

But no matter how far out of this world his scientific interests have taken him, he doesn’t easily forget the launch pad where his career first took lift.

“My experience at Benedictine and the values I learned here have been essential to my career and to my life,” Vondrak said.

Vondrak grew up on the South Side of Chicago and came to Benedictine (then St. Procopius College) where he studied as a Physics major from 1961-63.

“I had a strong curiosity, liked to solve puzzles and was good at math,” Vondrak recalled. “For these reasons, Benedictine was attractive because it had an excellent Physics department, mainly due to its proximity to Argonne National Laboratory where several science faculty members worked.”

“One of the most important things I learned at Benedictine was that if you work together, you can accomplish change. Benedictine provided opportunities for development of leadership skills that I would have never received at a larger school.”

In 1963, he left Benedictine to broaden his horizons outside of the area. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of California, Berkeley where he met his wife, Mary, and then moved to Houston to pursue a doctoral degree in Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University.

After completing his doctoral research measuring the electrical currents of the aurora borealis with a rocket experiment, a professor at Rice University presented him with an exciting offer to help him conduct research on the Moon. He worked inside mission control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, now the Johnson Space Center, during the last three Apollo Missions. Using his professor’s equipment that astronauts had previously placed on the Moon, Vondrak monitored the exhaust from the lunar module and its effects on the lunar atmosphere.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)“We worked side-by-side with the geologists who were guiding the astronauts during their lunar explorations,” Vondrak said. “I also participated in some astronaut training exercises and their post-flight debriefings when they returned. It was exciting to be so closely connected with the first human exploration of our nearest neighbor in space and a wonderful opportunity not only to broaden my research interests, but to share in the excitement of the Apollo program.”

In 1974, he began his career at Stanford Research Institute as a physicist in the Radio Physics Laboratory where he led several projects involving auroral and ionospheric measurements with radar, satellites, rockets and ground-based instrumentation for the National Science Foundation, NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

For this research, he traveled to many polar locations, including the geographic South Pole and the North Magnetic Pole.

He was then hired to work as a leader of electrodynamic processes in the Space Sciences Laboratory at the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory where he was eventually promoted to director of Space Physics. In 1995, he joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as chief of the Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics.

He went on to organize the Solar System Exploration Division at Goddard and became its first director, helping to execute a major research goal for NASA by overseeing projects focused on the search for life in the solar system beyond Earth. Some of these projects included the construction of an instrument that is now seeking organics (carbon-based molecules that are ingredients to life) on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover and the development of a high-technology laser to measure the topography of Mars, the Moon and Mercury.

A more recent project he led — the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter — has captured the sharpest and most detailed views of the Moon NASA has ever recorded.

“With seven advanced sensors, the LRO observations are so comprehensive and complete that we are creating the essential guidebook for all future lunar explorers and scientists,” Vondrak said.

“We are rewriting textbooks by showing that the Moon is not a dead object. It has had recent volcanism and geological activity, and we have excellent evidence for the presence of water and other volatiles in the lunar polar regions which might be a resource for future explorers.”

All told, Vondrak has published more than 130 papers in scientific and technical journals, and has presented more than 300 papers at national or international scientific conferences.

He is the recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award for Meritorious Senior Executives and has received numerous awards from NASA, such as the Distinguished Service Medal, the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal and 29 Group Achievement awards for various mission accomplishments. In 2016, he was recognized by Benedictine with the Visionary Award.

Now retired, Vondrak serves as an emeritus scientist at NASA, assisting and guiding others who are leading major projects while contributing research for the development of innovative instruments and missions.

“I continue to be curious and eager to learn about science,” Vondrak said. “There are still many questions to which I would like to know the answers. The biggest is: ‘How much water is contained in the polar regions of the Moon and what is its source?’”

And while many fantasize over a manned space flight to Mars in the near future, Vondrak predicts that the Moon will be the testing ground necessary for such a mission.

“Mars is distant, so it is very expensive,” Vondrak said. “The Moon is an attractive nearby neighbor where we can learn to work and live on a planetary surface as well as learn about the history and workings of the inner solar system.”

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 9,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 21 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the sixth consecutive year in 2016. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.com). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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