Hampton Satellite Launch is First by Historically Black College

Hampton University's Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere project uses a satellite to study high-altitude ice. Len McMaster, Hampton's Program Deputy, talks with Farai Chideya about the project's recent successful launch, and the role Hampton is playing in the search for greater understanding of climate change.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Len McMaster knows a thing or two about space - outer space, that is. He is program deputy for Hampton University's Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere Program. That's a mouthful. It's called A-I-M, AIM for sort. The program is dedicated to studying clouds at the edge of outer space. Those clouds are changing, and AIM wants to find out why. So McMaster helped Hampton become the first historically black university to launch a satellite into space last week.

NPR's Farai Chideya recently talked with McMaster about the program and what in the world the word aeronomy means.

Professor LEN McMASTER (Hampton University): Aeronomy is this science that deals with physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere of planets. In this case we are studying ice crystals in the upper atmosphere of the Earth's atmosphere.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So this is the first time that a historically black college or university has launched a satellite into space. Are folks excited?

Prof. McMASTER: Absolutely. We had a little celebration at launch. Launch was from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, but all of the launch was Web cast back to the university in Hampton, Virginia, and we had a lot of students and faculty and staff there to watch the launch and help us celebrate the success.

CHIDEYA: So how does this relate - there's a space mission for NASA and competition to get into the program. Tell me about that.

Prof. McMASTER: Well, all of NASA flight missions like this are competed. And so Hampton University, back in 1998, '99 initially proposed this experiment and it was, like many missions, the first time around rejected. But in 2001, the proposal was resubmitted and against competition with 44 other schools, including Stanford.

Seven were selected for further study, and after that further study, Hampton actually won the right to fly this mission, lead this mission. So I think it's a great feather in the cap for Hampton University and their Center for Atmospheric Science.

CHIDEYA: Why is it important to a college or university to have outreach like this where you can really work with professionals?

Prof. McMASTER: Well, I think that it's a great opportunity for students not only to get involved in the day-to-day operation of a satellite. And in this case the data center for the mission is going to be housed at Hampton University. So once the instruments are up and running, the data coming in, the students will have an opportunity to help catalog that and distribute it to international scientists worldwide.

So they get that involvement in the natural space mission, and also they get an opportunity to work with the data. We are hoping to have several students - graduate students actually help in analyzing the data. They will have an opportunity to interact with a scientist worldwide who will be coming to Hampton University to get this data. It - it's just a win-win for all of us.

CHIDEYA: How long is this project going to go on? How long will the satellite be in space?

Prof. McMASTER: Well, the mission is initially designed for two years, but historically NASA will continue to fund a mission like this if it continues to return good data. So if the instruments and spacecraft are healthy at the end of two years, there's no reason that we wouldn't expect to continue going for another two, five - I mean I've been involved in missions that have gone as long as 20 years. So let's hope the instruments continue to work and give us a real opportunity to understand how these clouds are evolving and changing.

CHIDEYA: Well, we wish you well on your project. Len McMaster, thanks so much.

Prof. McMASTER: Glad to be with you.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Len McMaster. He is program director - program deputy for - we'll get it right this time - the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere Program at Hampton University. On April 21st, Hampton became the first historically black university to put a satellite into orbit.

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