Richard Vondrak FN’15

Richard Vondrak FN’15


Richard Vondrak

The professional exploration activities of Dr. Vondrak, FN’15, have focused on the Earth’s polar regions, particularly the upper atmosphere and the aurora, as well as on the exploration of the Moon.

His exploration of the Earth’s polar regions started in graduate school when he constructed a rocket payload that he successfully flew in 1968 from Ft. Churchill on Hudson’s Bay for pioneering measurements of the electrical properties of auroral arcs. After completing his doctoral dissertation on these data, he was a postdoctoral fellow in Stockholm Sweden developing a theoretical model of the aurora. Later at Stanford Research Institute he was project leader for ground-based measurements of the arctic atmosphere and ionosphere in northern Alaska. He also made four field trips to Greenland and to the geographic South Pole for scientific observations and for field testing of instrumentation. His final arctic field experience came in 2004 when he led a NASA group making an educational video on the Earth’s geomagnetic field, traveling to northern Canada to recreate Amundsen’s search for the geomagnetic pole.

His experience in exploration of the Moon started in 1971 when he was a postdoctoral researcher in the Apollo Science Operations Center in mission control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during the Apollo 15-17 missions. He was responsible for one of the instruments deployed on the lunar surface by the astronauts, working alongside the geologists directing the astronaut field activities. He reported the first measurements of the lunar atmospheric and plasma environment, as well as modification of the lunar atmosphere by human activities. In 2004 he was responsible for establishing at NASA Headquarters the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program that initiated the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Later at Goddard Space Flight Center he was the LRO Project Scientist, responsible for the scientific management of that mission, including the spacecraft operations in the Mission Operations Center at GSFC. He edited two books on the results of that mission.

Dr. Vondrak received a bachelor’s degree in Physics in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he met his wife Mary. He moved to Houston to pursue a doctoral degree in Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University. He has published 130 papers in scientific and technical journals and has presented more than 300 papers at scientific conferences. Vondrak is the recipient of the Presidential Award for Meritorious Senior Executives, numerous awards from NASA, and is a Fellow of the AIAA.

His personal avocation has been traveling in the paths of the early explorers, as well as reading their journals. As part of this personal interest, he is a member of the Washington Map Society and the Society for the History of Discovery. Now a retired emeritus scientist at NASA, he is assessing Amundsen’s data from his Gjoa expedition to determine why Amundsen had a difficult search for the elusive magnetic pole. He has always enjoyed the outdoors, successfully climbing the Matterhorn in Switzerland when he was 20.