Howard Named 2019 AGU Fellow, Discusses His 50-Year Space Science Career

Russell Howard, head of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Solar and Heliospheric Physics, Flight Projects Section, received recognition as an American Geophysical Union Fellow in 2019 in commemoration of his more than 50-years of service and many contributions to the scientific community.

Howard has broad responsibility to conduct research in solar physics, solar-terrestrial physics and related areas at NRL. Most recently, he formed an international team to respond to NASA’s proposal opportunity for the Solar Probe Plus mission, renamed the Parker Solar Probe in 2017. In September 2010, NASA accepted his team’s proposal for the Wide Field Imager (WISPR) instrument for the mission, which launched in 2018.

Looking back at the past five decades, Howard cited his passion for physics and engineering as the foundation of his success and contributions to the field of astrophysics. With plans to retire soon, he reflected fondly on his career at NRL, which stretches all the way back to 1969, the tail end of the space race.

Russell Howard, Ph.D., head of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Solar and Heliospheric Physics branch, received recognition as an American Geophysical Union Fellow in 2019 in commemoration of his more than 50-years of service and many contributions to the scientific community.
(U.S. Navy photo by Jamie Hartman)

How do you feel about receiving this award?

This is an award that’s coming from the community, which is really nice. It’s sort of an affirmation that you’ve done something right. It’s an affirmation of this internal feeling that, “Well, I’ve done good here.”

Do you often reflect on your career and how far science and technology have advanced?

It’s just amazing how technology has really changed. On our first mission, we didn’t even have computers that displayed the image. We had to print out the image on a piece of paper then color and draw isophotes around the image. We did develop a display system, which built up an image on a Polaroid camera. We still have some of those pictures. Then the idea of the displays came out and became much easier. Who knows what it’s going to be like in 10 years.

Did you ever imagine you would be at NRL for 50 years?

No way, especially compared to the younger generation now. Kids change employers every few years, and my own kids have done that. But at NRL over the years I’ve kept doing different things that are really exciting. The science is always different, and I’m not doing exactly the same thing I did 50 years ago. You’re changing, you’re evolving—and that’s what NRL has enabled us to do. It’s been very exciting and rewarding.

What did you end up doing at NRL once you joined?

Toward the end of my postdoc at NRL, I was asked to join a spacecraft group that was launching a new mission. Now, the NRL experiment on this mission had a photoelectric detector to image the solar corona, and they needed somebody to help out. The satellite launched at the end of September in 1971. In December of that year, they observed an eruption from the sun. That turned out to be what we now call a coronal mass ejection. It was a totally unknown phenomenon at that time and has become extremely important to the Navy. We then proposed a mission to fly the flight spare of that coronagraph, which had been a NASA mission, having reentered the earth’s atmosphere in 1974. We proposed to fly it on the DOD [Department of Defense] Space Test Program.

Was that second experiment just as successful as the first?

This second experiment we conducted was called SOLWIND, and it was a satellite launched by the DOD Space Test Program. It launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1979. With that experiment we saw a number of really important things for the first time. We observed and tracked a coronal mass ejection as it headed toward the earth. That showed us that these things are not just planar structures. They are really large things, and that had not been thought of or predicted. We modeled it as an ice cream cone. We were also able to establish the relationship between these coronal mass ejections and space weather events.

What’s been your secret to success?

Just not accepting the general opinion about something. Just saying, “Well, this doesn’t make sense. Let me explore this a little bit more.” With the coronal mass ejection, there were theories saying it was due to an impulse in the corona, and that all we were seeing was an impulse of a wave being generated. We didn’t think that was right. It probably was an impulse, but the main characteristic wasn’t simply a result of an impulse to this complex corona but was real mass being thrown out from the sun.

Now that you plan on retiring next year, are you trying to wrap up any long-term projects?

It’s time for others take over. I’m not retiring from science, but I do feel that I have to step down as the principal investigator for all these different instruments and let somebody else take over. But there is one project I’m still following. The LASCO [Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph] experiment on the SOHO research satellite, which has become the de-facto instrument that NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] uses to observe coronal mass ejections and predict their geomagnetic impact.

What’s happening with LASCO?

Well, what LASCO does is tell us when there’s an event on the sun that’s going to impact Earth. But now NOAA has finally been approved to put up a replacement mission for LASCO, which was launched in 1995, and they’re building it here at NRL. It’s called CCOR, which stands for Compact Coronagraph. This fall I’m going to Europe for some meetings to talk to people about collaborating on a new mission located 60 degrees off the sun-earth line. The experiment probably won’t get launched until 2025 or 2026.

What words of advice would you give to the next generation of science talent in terms of finding their way into the workforce?

When I graduated from college, there were not many jobs available in the same discipline. But if you waited a little bit, one would come. Nowadays I don’t know if it is so easy. I know that some people, if nothing was available, they would go back to school so they didn’t have to change their field. I didn’t even consider a job when I graduated and went straight to graduate school. With that being said, depending on your situation, be motivated by enjoying what you do in your career – do what is interesting and fun.

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