An Interstellar Career
UI Hall of Fame recipient John Norbury receives top NASA honor for space radiation research
Phil Deutchman will never forget the first time he talked to John Norbury.
It was the early 1980s, and Deutchman was put in charge of the University of Idaho’s Department of Physics for a week while the department chair went out of town. The physics professor used his time at the top to call that year’s successful graduate student applicants. Norbury, a doctoral applicant from Melbourne, Australia, was his first call.
“Very excitedly, I called John up, and he was in Australia,” Deutchman said. “The phone rang and I started talking to him and said I wanted to offer him a formal invitation to come to the University of Idaho. And he said, ‘That’s great — but it’s 4 o’clock in the morning here.’”
The phone call set the stage for more than 30 years of friendship between the two physics colleagues, and was a launching point for a stunning research career in space radiation for Norbury.
Norbury is the lead research physicist and leader of the Space Radiation Group at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. His work centers around calculating the radiation astronauts and spacecraft are likely to experience in space, creating a database of nuclear reaction models, and leading a space radiation summer school for graduate students. Understanding and being able to protect astronauts from radiation is a critical component of NASA’s goal to send a human mission to Mars.
On Aug. 24, 2016, Norbury received NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal, one of the highest honors given by the organization. This spring, Norbury will be inducted into UI’s Hall of Fame to honor his accomplishments.
Norbury, who has his master’s and bachelor’s in nuclear physics from the University of Melbourne in Australia, applied for his doctorate at UI because he was looking for adventure, and was interested in Deutchman’s physics research.
Deutchman was just entering the realm of nuclear theory, and was excited to bring Norbury to campus to explore the new area.
“He helped develop the theory and write the computer programs and do the calculations and make predictions before there was any data to compare it to,” said Deutchman, who retired in 2002 after 34 years at UI. “He was excited about every aspect of it. We wrote a paper together after he finished his thesis work and we got that published.”
Norbury graduated from UI’s College of Science in 1983 with his doctorate in theoretical nuclear and particle physics. He was hired as a post-doctoral researcher at NASA Langley, and returned to Australia briefly before coming back to the U.S. and entering a career in academia. Norbury was a visiting assistant professor of physics at UI from 1986-87. He joined the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 1992, moving to UW Milwaukee in 1997. Norbury had contracts with NASA throughout his time in academia and began working there full time in 2007 after earning his U.S. citizenship.
For the last three years, Norbury has run the space radiation summer school held at the NASA Space Radiation Lab in New York. About 16 doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers from around the globe are selected for the school each year. The program uses an accelerator to simulate the types of fast-moving radiation that appears in space. It includes a month of intense experimental study with 30 visiting lecturers and world experts in space radiation.
About Space Radiation
Space has three main sources of radiation: radiation trapped around the Earth, solar radiation and galactic cosmic rays, which come from exploding stars. On Earth, humans are protected from space radiation particles by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. But astronauts traveling to Mars will be exposed to galactic cosmic rays and solar particles. The nuclear physics models that John Norbury has helped create and catalog use what is known as a transport code to calculate how much harmful radiation an astronaut may be exposed to.
“If you know how much radiation is outside the spacecraft, a transport code enables you to figure out how much radiation is inside the spacecraft, and how much radiation an astronaut will receive, and how much each organ of the astronaut’s body will receive,” Norbury said.
The endgame is to protect astronauts, equipment and spacecraft from being damaged by space radiation.
“Once we make these predictions of the radiation environments, we try to reduce the doses that astronauts would receive,” he said. “The particles trapped around the Earth and the particles emitted by the sun, we can deal with them with current technologies, but particles emitted by supernovas, they are much more difficult to deal with. They penetrate straight through a spacecraft.”
Deutchman said he is in awe of the depths of Norbury’s work, and its importance in protecting astronauts.
“I’ve watched his progress with great amazement. I sometimes kid him that his resume is heavier than I am,” Deutchman said. “He’s been quite a good teacher and a great researcher and he’s very inventive.”
The two have remained close throughout Norbury’s career, and Deutchman and his wife traveled to Virginia to see Norbury receive his award from NASA.
“I had never worked with a person so closely that in the sense that if I had an idea, he had the next idea. It was a real back and forth communication link, which was just incredible,” he said.
Norbury said he enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of his work — which involves everything from mechanical and nuclear engineering to computer science, radio biology and physics. It’s a key area of study for those interested in being part of the colonization of the solar system.
“The whole area of space radiation is one of the two major stumbling blocks in getting to Mars,” he said. “The whole problem is not going to be solved overnight. The largest uncertainty is not nuclear physics — it’s how the human body reacts to the radiation found in space. We can’t do any experiments on humans with space radiation. So we use animal models and extrapolate to humans. That’s where the big uncertainty occurs.”
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing