From Studying Math to Helping NASA Find Earth-Sized Planets
By Malinda Inthirath
Two hundred and eleven light years away from Earth is the first planetary system in the world named after a university. It is comprised of three planets and nicknamed UGA-1785. When it was discovered in 2012, the light from the system’s star had been traveling to earth since 1801- the same year that classes began at the University of Georgia. This system was discovered and fondly named by UGA alum, Roger Hunter.
Roger, Associate Director of the NASA Ames Research Center, graduated from the University of Georgia in 1978 with a degree in Mathematics. As a kid, Roger enjoyed learning about science and space, but never imagined that he would be a part of one of the most important and exciting NASA projects in decades.
Growing up, Roger was a science buff. He dreamed of one day becoming a scientist or doctor. He also loved learning about space as a kid and followed the Apollo mission very closely.
“When I was a kid growing up, Apollo was experiencing its ‘heyday’ and I remember standing in my parent’s front yard one morning, waiting to see one of the Apollo test capsules come screaming across the sky before it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean…I was fascinated by it and thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool to work for NASA?’ and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d be working for them one day.”
In college, he knew he wanted his studies to be science-related; he also knew he wanted to serve his country. He decided to study math because it is foundational to science and guides critical thinking skills. Along with mathematics, he was a part of the ROTC program at UGA.
After graduation, he was commissioned as an Air Force officer and moved to Colorado. Through the Air Force he had the opportunity to further his education, where he was able to delve more deeply into his interests in space. Roger received master’s degrees in Space Operations, Space Physics, Political Military Science and Airpower Studies. He worked in satellite development and the Air Force Space Command’s largest satellite constellation, the Global Positioning System, in providing precise positioning, navigation, and timing data for Earth.
Out of this World
After twenty-two years with the Air Force, Roger retired from the military to pursue an offer made by Boeing — the world’s largest aerospace company. With Boeing, he worked on global positioning development, which was similar to projects he lead in the Air Force. When asked about his transition from the Air Force to Boeing, he says it was “different.”
“In the military there was one thing for sure, you didn’t have to worry about what you were going to wear the next day. Working for Boeing, was an entirely different environment. From military to corporate, there is some of the same group dynamics. There is a group dynamic in which you have a mission you’re focused on: what is it your group is trying to do, who is the established leadership and what are the relationships that you have to develop to make the group successful so that your company succeeds.”
After more than seven years with Boeing, he received an unexpected call from NASA.
His childhood dreams were coming true: they asked him if he was interested in working on the Kepler Project, a mission to do a census of the galaxy to find Earth-like planets. Presented with an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he couldn’t say no.
Roger calls NASA the most high-functioning group he’s ever been a part of, consisting of some of the brightest, most driven and laser-focused people that he has met. The relationships and partnerships that NASA establishes have purpose. They always tie back to where they think the company should be in five, ten or thirty years.
“I thought the Air Force and Boeing were laser-focused, but I find that NASA is an entirely different animal — and I mean that in a good way.”
He finds his work to be refreshing and interesting. NASA has given him the opportunity to meet and work with world famous scientists, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sylvia Earle. He says that it is fascinating to learn from people from different scientific backgrounds and cultures.
Roger worked on the Kepler Mission as the project manager for six years. He was responsible for the operations of finding Earth-like planets in habitable zones and discovered that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy. It was during his time here that his team discovered UGA-1785.
After Kepler, he transitioned to a position as an Associate Director at the NASA Ames Research Center. He leads the efforts to coordinate the design, development, testing and conduct of science missions using small spacecraft technologies.
Some Advice for You
When it comes to making decisions, he believes you should stick to your principles. Stick to what you believe in and don’t conform to situations or decisions just because you think that’s what someone else wants. Be true to yourself and believe in what you stand for.
“Do your damndest and do the best you can.”
Another key piece of advice he gives is to mind your network and your reputation. You don’t get to create your reputation yourself, but you do get to shape it. Always take the opportunity to learn something. It doesn’t matter who it comes from, what their economic, social or cultural status is; you can learn something from anyone you meet.
Roger is the Associate Director of Programs and Projects for the NASA Ames Research Center. His work revolves around small spacecraft satellites, so they can function the same or better than larger spacecrafts. He’s highly involved at UGA, having been a TEDxUGA speaker in 2014 and will be speaking at UGA’s ‘Return to the Arch’ seminar in April.
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With Spring Break season ahead we are taking a little hiatus. We’ll be back in two weeks with a story about a Senior Correspondent for a major digital media company who got her start covering ‘American Idol’. Stay tuned.
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