My Day at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Disk Detective Milton Bosch stopped by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center this month to meet with some of the science team and see the James Webb Space Telescope being built.   What ended up happening that day we never could have guessed!  Here’s the story, in his words.

My Day at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

by Milton Bosch    Nov.20, 2015

Greenbelt, Maryland has always held a special place in my heart and mind. I met and courted my wife there and lived three wonderful years in a unique New Deal era city in suburban Maryland outside Washington, DC. It has a lake and even camping at Greenbelt Park, part of the National Park system.  Best of all, NASA in its wisdom had chosen Greenbelt as the site
for its first Space Flight Center. NASA Goddard opened on May 01, 1959. We had it all.


Shambo Bhattacharjee (left), Milton Bosch (center) and Steven Silverberg (right) at Goddard Space Flight Center, with the James Webb Space Telescope, under construction.

I’d always look at the guarded entrance across from our shopping center, and wonder, What is going on inside those gates? Really cool stuff, no doubt. That was in 1981; I was in medical school and there was almost zero chance I’d ever be invited there. Even after moving to California for residency training and  my career in internal medicine, my NASA Goddard
memories were kept alive whenever I had a faint recollection. When a good friend named Willy got a job at Goddard as a machinist in 2010, the connection deepened a wee bit. I could picture myself inside if Willy could get permission to bring a visitor. That snippet of hope left when Willy left NASA Goddard after a couple years.

Fast forward: It’s now November 04, 2015 and I’m on a Google hangout call with the science team of Disk Detective, a citizen science project run by NASA. Months earlier, a NASA email arrived announcing a new citizen science project on January 30, 2014 , with a grant from The Zooniverse. Disk  Detective’s goal was to locate protoplanetary disks – very early solar
systems – around young stars, and debris disks around more mature ones. I thought, “Discover new solar systems and planets and help learn how they form? I’m in!” I thought “in” was just doing classifications of objects, using the Disk Detective flip-book to triage them into two basic categories: a good candidate, or flawed (and reasons why). After doing many classifications came the invitation to become a superuser from principal investigator Marc Kuchner. As such, I learned how to navigate the astronomy catalogs, and choose promising objects for the main spreadsheet and hone my classifying skills.  Step by step, with lots of mentoring and greater responsibilities, I was eventually asked to join the science team and here I was, sitting at my computer on November 5th for our weekly Google hangout with the science team.

I mentioned to Marc that I had won two free concert tickets to Madison Square Gardens for Nov. 7th, and would be staying near Greenbelt in Crofton, MD. Then Marc asked if I’d like to drop by on Nov. 6th for a tour of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Two days later I fulfilled my dream. What came later was a big surprise for everyone.


Milton Bosch and Shambo Bhattacharjee in Marc Kuchner’s office at Goddard Space Flight Center.

We started out with meeting everyone on the Disk Detective team at NASA Goddard. It was  great finally meeting Marc Kuchner, PI, and graduate students Steven Silverberg and Shambo Bhattacharjee.  We did a quick tour of the ground level, and then visited the offices of each. Then, upstairs to see the world’s largest clean room, where the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is under construction. We exited the elevator to discover a VIP tour in progress, and it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp. She was not just any US Senator; she was a senator I liked and had supported her campaign. I whispered to Marc that I knew a bit about Senator Heitkamp, so he asked me to ask her a question about citizen science. I said, OK, and waited for my opportunity.

Just when it seemed like the right moment would never appear, I saw a raised hand asking if we could talk about citizen science.  Senator Heitkamp walked over and introduced herself to each one of us, asking our names, where we lived, what our jobs were, and what we did before coming to NASA Goddard. She was pleased to meet a supporter from Napa, California. She wanted to know my journey from organic chemist, to medical doctor, to having to go on full disability, to finding and joining Disk Detective. So I told her my story of today being the fulfillment of a 34 year-old dream, all made possible by joining Disk Detective almost two years earlier, and a 1:20,000 chance of winning 2 free concert tickets to Madison Square Gardens.


Milton meets Center Director Chris Scolese. Senator Heitkamp and Shambo Bhattacharjee are in the background.

While we talked, the cameras were snapping away and all-in-all, I think we got to spend 15 minutes on Disk Detective and citizen science. It was an unlooked-for opportunity to get the word out about Disk Detective and citizen science with one of our U.S. Senators and it could not have gone better. We were glowing for the rest of the day from the encounter.

Then the room cleared, and we got to see what we had come upstairs for: the James Webb Space Telescope under construction. (One of the goals of Disk Detective is to find targets to propose to observe with this telescope.) We could see the frame, the folded wings, and folded arm for the secondary mirror. On catwalks 80 feet above the crew sat a row of flat dewar flasks, each containing one hexagonal mirror. Launch date is less than 3 years away –  October, 2018. Giant rolls of shrink wrap were placed all about for final sealing before JWST’s journey to the launch vehicle. I looked at everything in the room visible from our vantage point and then went downstairs and peeked through an entrance door window. No photos are allowed through that window, nor inside either.

Next stop was one of the “testing rooms”; though I’m sure it has a formal name. It had an 8 story high egg-shaped metal container, filled with liquid nitrogen for starters. Inside that was another cryogenic container filled with liquid helium. Every single piece, every instrument, every device must survive that environment before it can be trusted for launch. After all, they must function at extremely low temperatures. But more terrors awaited the equipment and instruments that go into space.

Nearby was a huge room with a centrifuge that dwarfed a blue whale. It was like the room where the centrifuge scene from The Right Stuff movie was filmed, but this centrifuge has a different purpose. In order to test equipment properly (not people), the centrifuge reaches up to 15 G’s of acceleration, helping insure against failure in the most stressful environments imaginable. Steven said it would tear a human to pieces.

Next door to that was a huge acoustic testing room with a 7 or 8 foot “tweeter” and a 12 foot “woofer” with a maximum combined sound intensity of 150 decibels. No humans are allowed inside that lethal chamber. An adjacent room held the machinery that powered the 150 decibel monster. A six inch hose for pressurized nitrogen powered the tweeter, and emitted so much of the simple asphyxiant that there is no admittance during testing. We paused our tour for a relaxing lunch in the cafeteria, and then filled time while Marc had teaching duties. Those duties now completed, we all met in Marc’s office, where all the Google hangouts take place (with other scientists joining from Adler Planetarium, The Space Telescope Science Institute, University of Oklahoma, and more).


Milton and Senator Heitkamp study a poster about the James Webb Space Telescope, while the cameras click.

We spent an hour discussing ways to improve our sound recordings and other technical issues, as well as more important problems, like finding a replacement llama doll for Marc’s very young son, should he lose his beloved cozy-coze. Then I was presented with a highly coveted Disk Detective coffee mug, and we took photos of a poster where my name appeared as co-author, alongside the names of five other citizen volunteers like myself. Then it was time to go.

It was a truly great day, full of the unexpected, and a real pleasure meeting some of the science team in person. Never give up on your dreams! Disk Detective will take you as far as you want go and has all types of support while you navigate the learning curve…all the way up to co-authorship of scientific papers.


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