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Life in space - and on campus

January 15, 2009

Tom Vonder Haar signed on with Colorado State shortly after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. Although Vonder Haar hasn't known the thrill of a lunar stroll, he's created his own strong legacy in atmospheric science over the past 40 years.

After 28 years as director of the University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, an organization he helped create and launch to international renown, he left that position in August to resume his role as a researcher.

Atmospheric changes & weather

He was at CIRA’s helm when research projects and collaboration agreements were developed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Defense, and NASA.

His teams of Colorado State scientists, with federal research partners, have won awards from those organizations for their research products, which help scientists around the globe understand atmospheric changes that affect weather and climate.

“CIRA is a place with very high scientific standards that applies research to practical problems,” he says.

Although he’s been responsible for bringing in more than $200 million in research dollars to the University over his career, he’s modest about his accomplishments, including being named to the National Academy of Engineering.

Historic, nerve-wrecking moments

Vonder Haar, a University Distinguished Professor, is one of a few university professors worldwide who have led NASA Earth science missions – and he remembers some challenges clearly. In October 1984, he was at Cape Kennedy watching Sally Ride’s historic second flight on the Challenger shuttle. On the flight was the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite that Vonder Haar and his team designed with NASA, the first satellite Colorado State sent into space with the agency. For a few seconds high above Earth, Ride couldn’t open the solar panels on the satellite to make it operational. She shook the mechanical arm holding the satellite, and the panels popped open.

“I had heart palpitations,” Vonder Haar says with a laugh.

Fittingly, Graeme Stephens, who led CSU’s second satellite mission with NASA, is Vonder Haar’s replacement as director of CIRA. Stephens is principal investigator on CloudSat, which was launched April 2006 in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA honored CIRA with a Public Service Group Achievement Award for processing data that is critical to getting CloudSat’s information on the characteristics of clouds to the international science community.

Immeasurable contributions

“Tom’s contributions to the Department of Atmospheric Science and the University are immeasurable,” Stephens says. “Not only has Tom participated as a faculty member teaching and advising students, but he also created and nurtured CIRA into one of the leading cooperative institutes that serves wide-ranging goals.”

Vonder Haar points out that CloudSat, which measures how much precipitation is in clouds, is now being used in occasional Coast Guard rescue missions or to divert commercial airlines away from severe storms. The radar looks at the base of clouds so rescuers can use it to “see” objects through dense cloud cover.

That’s the kind of research that’s making a difference at CIRA. And it’s the type of science that Vonder Haar is getting back into – at least for the foreseeable future. After another four or five years, it might be time to put a few more fishing lines in the water or spend more time hunting, hiking, or gardening, he says.

“I’m most proud of the ability to create research partnerships – to match CSU’s capabilities with the needs of different research agencies,” Vonder Haar says.

“The biggest impact we’ve had is in the legacy we create in the scientists and students who move on. I feel good about creating opportunities for people."

- by Emily Wilmsen

Orignally published in Colorado State magazine, Fall 2008.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336