NASA chief visits Brown to tour planetary research that contributes to the U.S. space program

On the Brown University campus, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson met with researchers and students engaged in nation's planetary science exploration and STEM education efforts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a special visit to the Brown University campus, the head of NASA toured the home of Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and met with planetary scientists, scholars and stakeholders engaged in NASA-funded research across Rhode Island.

On Thursday, June 29, as part of a visit to Rhode Island led by U.S. Senator Jack Reed, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson toured the Lincoln Field building, where Brown’s planetary science program is based, and met with Brown faculty, students and University President Christina H. Paxson about NASA-funded projects led by Brown researchers and students.

During the visit, Nelson visited a number of labs and spoke with Brown scientists about their research, including the measurement of planetary materials like asteroid samples, projects contributing to the Curiosity Rover mission on Mars, and both previous and ongoing lunar research that could influence upcoming missions to the Moon.

“Our partnership with universities and other governmental agencies and the private sector is absolutely invaluable for what we’re doing,” Nelson said. “Senator Reed and I just attended a laboratory where they were actually taking samples from the Moon and examining them for water content … that’s just amazing. It’s been an eye-opening experience.”

Nelson, a former astronaut and U.S. senator, is the 14th NASA administrator who has been leading the U.S. space agency since 2021.

After the tour, Brown held a public event for Nelson to discuss projects in Rhode Island that contribute to the U.S. space program and efforts that promote careers in STEM. He and Reed were joined by Brown faculty, local scholars, students, teachers and STEM leaders from around the state for a wide-ranging discussion about NASA and STEM education in Rhode Island.

The visit was hosted by the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium, which encourages and supports undergraduate and graduate students to explore NASA-related science and engineering, and provides seed grants for NASA-relevant research in Rhode Island. The consortium has been housed at Brown since 1991.

Reed helped convene Nelson’s visit to the Brown campus as part of a state tour to meet with NASA suppliers, local students, teachers and researchers from Rhode Island schools and universities.

During Nelson’s tour of Brown, he spent time in the NASA Reflectance Experiment Laboratory, spoke with NASA-funded researchers and students and learned about the community outreach happening through the Consortium’s Planetary Education and Outreach Center on the first floor of the Lincoln Field building.

The Reflectance Lab, called RELAB, has been housed and operated at Brown for more than 30 years. The lab is home to two spectrometers that scientists can use to measure extraterrestrial materials returned from NASA missions. Recently, Brown scientists at the lab analyzed a tiny chunk of the asteroid Ryugu in an effort to better understand the early history of the solar system and also studied volcanic glasses returned from the Apollo 15 and 17 lunar missions to learn more about the Moon’s interior.

Nelson also praised the community education conducted through the Planetary Education and Outreach Center, from professional development courses for local teachers to opportunities for college students in Rhode Island to work on NASA-related projects.

Overall, the visit highlighted the leadership and impact of the planetary science community at Brown and beyond through the work of the R.I. Space Grant Consortium.

“People are kind of surprised to hear that for a small state, we have an awful big footprint in NASA activities — and we’re very proud of that,” said Ralph Milliken, a planetary scientist at Brown and the program director for the consortium. “We hope that it keeps going for the next 50 years and more.”