By Amanda Siegfried and Paul Bottoni
Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the Spring 2016 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
UT DALLAS geoscientists have trained Apollo astronauts to spot interesting geology on the moon and have analyzed lunar samples that came back. Our space scientists have designed and built equipment to explore Venus, Mars, the moon and Halley’s comet. Studies of the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere have for many years provided valuable insight into our planet’s interaction with the sun.
Since our founding, space sciences and astrophysics have played a key role in the University’s research enterprise. The earliest efforts through the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest and the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (UT Dallas’ precursor institutions) launched balloons and rockets and designed space-based instruments to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Top specialists in the field of relativity and mathematical physics from around the world joined the center as it grew into a hub for international experts to visit and conduct research. As the center transitioned into a university, physics, mathematics and geosciences formed core departments in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Building on these early research strengths, a cadre of cosmologists and astrophysicists today are engaged in a wide range of studies. From black holes and collisions of galaxy clusters to dark energy, dark matter and the conditions that gave rise to the universe, experts are tackling some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos.
Here are a few snapshots that chronicle how UT Dallas’ interests in space sciences — and the people behind the work — have reached across space and time.
Lloyd V. Berkner
President, Graduate Research Center of the Southwest
Lloyd V. Berkner was a leading figure in the American scientific community when, in 1961, he joined the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (GRCSW), which ultimately became UT Dallas. Government grants for space research helped fund the institution as it grew, and Berkner’s involvement opened doors. He also attracted top-caliber faculty members, among the earliest of whom were space scientist Francis S. Johnson and relativist Ivor Robinson. Berkner’s ties to U.S. space interests began during the buildup of the space race with the Soviet Union. He acted as a champion for space exploration and as an intermediary between the scientific community and the U.S. government. In 1966, NASA gave Berkner its highest civilian award, the Public Service Medal, for his contributions to U.S. space programs. At the time of his death in 1967, Berkner was conducting a study for NASA on the history of the atmospheres of Earth and Mars.
Dr. Francis S. Johnson
Executive Dean of Graduate Education
Francis S. Johnson, who earned the Bronze Star while serving as a weather operator for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, afterward designed instruments for testing German V rockets that had been seized by Allied forces at the end of the war. He was manager of space physics research at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. when Lloyd V. Berkner recruited him to join the Graduate Research Center in 1962. Johnson was an expert on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and was asked by NASA to design experiments to detect the existence of a lunar atmosphere.
The instruments flew on Apollo flights 12, 14 and 15. In 1973, NASA awarded Johnson its Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal to recognize his part in the Apollo program. When the center became UT Dallas in 1969, Johnson was selected as acting president until 1971. He continued to teach and conduct research at the University, and served as executive dean of graduate studies from 1976 to 1979. He retired in 1989 and died in 2009.