Vassar Today

Shooting for the Stars

By Beth Trickett

In 1878, Maria Mitchell, Vassar’s first astronomy professor, and several female Vassar students battled July’s intense heat as they journeyed over 2,000 miles by train to Colorado to observe a solar eclipse firsthand. Other astronomers traveled from around the world to witness the event, but except for a few of their wives, the Vassar crew was the only group of women. Mitchell, who also discovered a comet, was the first professional woman astronomer in the U.S.

Perhaps it was this anecdote that initially sparked Claire Webb ’10 to do a sixth-grade research project on Maria Mitchell. After spending nights peering at the heavens through her own telescope, Webb eventually set her sights on Vassar, where a campus job at the observatory reaffirmed her love of astronomy. Then, last summer, Webb was presented with her own unique opportunity — the chance to don a space suit and work on a mission with NASA.

Webb, an astronomy major, first learned of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as a first-year student in Astronomy Professor Deborah Elmegreen’s Life in the Universe class. Intrigued by the nonprofit’s research and partnership with NASA, Webb applied for an internship the following year and was accepted. “It was amazing to be a part of this experience,” says Webb, adding how impressed she was to work one-on-one with Jill Tarter (the movie Contact was based on her work). Webb spent the summer in California working with SETI. But just as the internship was coming to an end, another opportunity came her way, and Webb was asked to be part of a SETI airborne campaign. This meant that Webb and a crew of scientists would fly over Tahiti to observe and film the ATV-1 Jules Verne, an automated transfer vehicle, as it re-entered and burned up in the atmosphere, an event similar to a meteor shower.

“I felt so lucky to be a part of this mission, and it was so exciting to work with scientists from all over the world,” she says, explaining how the mission began on a base near Los Angeles, where they worked on the DC-8 airborne laboratory that would be used for the mission. “It’s basically a gutted plane and you wear a headset to talk to each other.” All the seats on one side were taken out and filled with imaging equipment and cameras.

One of the two youngest members on board, Webb went through her own NASA initiation of sorts. “They had me up on a cherry picker, 60 feet from the plane, and we were communicating on walkie-talkies,” she says, explaining how she had to point lights and filters at each window to calibrate the instruments. “They told me it would take an hour, but it ended up taking five.” After all the tweaks were made, the crew set off for Tahiti.

Just as Maria Mitchell had traveled across the country to gaze at the nearly three-minute-long eclipse, Webb’s crew had spent months preparing for four minutes of Jules Verne footage. “There was such a feeling of anticipation as the plane took off that night,” recalls Webb. “All the instruments had to be in a cold environment, so it was freezing in there”—and pitch-black. “We could only hear each other,” she says, “because in order to block out the light, we put flame-retardant black cloths up. I had a video headset on and a high resolution spectrometer that we pointed at the object. Everyone was thrilled as it finally came over the horizon.”

According to Webb, this mission, and the previous summer she spent studying a massive black hole through Vassar’s observatory as part of a project for URSI (Undergraduate Research Summer Institute), “really confirmed that astronomy is what I want to do.” Webb, who dreams of working as an astronaut, is now one step closer, having worn a flight suit and earned mission badges. “My classes made it easy to gain an appreciation for an event like this,” she says. “Learning from professors who are working astronomers instills a sense of excitement, and then to actually be able to work in an observatory and do a mission, is the manifestation of everything I’ve learned.”  

— Beth Trickett

This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of What’s Happening at Vassar?

Have comments about this article? Email