Whether it is planetary science, astronomy, meteorology, astrophysics, or life sciences, any study dealing with Earth’s atmosphere and the bounds beyond our planet is classified as space science. This broad area of study encompasses many disciplines and borrows theories and strategies of study from all scientific branches. Outstanding space scientists contribute to our understanding of the world, the solar system, and the true final frontier of space.
Perhaps most interesting about space science are those who participate in its progress. As a modern field that boomed in the second half of the 20th century and continues to grow today, space scientists come from all walks of life. Some of the work they do is theoretical, relying on mathematical models and space-age images of suns, moons, planets, and more. Others use vehicles, such as the Mars Rover, to conduct physical research wherein their primary responsibility is building and enhancing technology to conduct long-distance research. Ultimately, space scientists work to understand how the universe works.
Check out the stellar careers of these ten outstanding space scientists.
Table of Contents
Famous Astrophysicist: Stephen Hawking
In discussing outstanding space scientists, Stephen Hawking cannot be forgotten. His research as a cosmologist fundamentally built contemporary understandings of the universe and its governing laws. Moreover, his immense stamina to publish despite amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) made his contribution to society memorable and motivational.
Hawking earned his bachelor’s degree at University College, Oxford (part of the University of Oxford). There, he studied physics and took a deep interest in the theoretical elements of the field. He went on to study at Cambridge, earning his Ph.D. in applied mathematics and theoretical physics with a specialization in cosmology and general relativity. In addition to his school-earned degrees, Hawking received more than a dozen honorary degrees.
While Hawking’s published works about String Theory and the Big Bang Theory are for what he is best remembered, his career as a professor was extensive. He began as a Professorial Fellow with Gonville and Caius College. After, he held the title of Lucasian Professor at his doctoral alma mater. He also served as the Director of Research at Cambridge’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.
Ultimately, Hawking’s contributions to space science as a cosmologist emphasized the role black holes play in the universe. He and collaborator Roger Penrose developed theorems on gravitational singularity, general relativity, and black hole radiation. Moreover, he is credited as the first scientist to identify a cosmological theory uniting quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.
For his work, Hawking received numerous awards. Among these was the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Additionally, he was a member of several societies. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
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Outstanding Astrobiologist: Anna-Lisa Paul
A researcher in spaceflight experiments, Anna-Lisa Paul conducts her work between the University of Florida and the International Space Station. Her research studies fundamental plant development in the unique setting of a gravity-free environment, providing insight into plant behavior and structure. As an outstanding space scientist, her projects in biology invest in both Earthbound research and that of the cosmos.
Paul holds several degrees. She earned her B.A. in botany, as well as her M.S. in plant physics, from the University of South Florida, Later, she completed her Ph.D. in molecular genetics and epigenetics at the University of Florida. She went on to complete a post-doctoral program at both the University of Florida and Northwestern University in chromatin architecture.
As a professor at the University of Florida, she is part of the graduate faculty. Additionally, she is considered a research professor and conducts work beyond the campus’ lab. In addition to these responsibilities, Paul is also a member of the EDEN ISS project with the German Space Agency at the University of Bremen.
Paul’s research ultimately focuses on plant gene expression. Her work as a space biologist intends to identify this element as related to extreme environments. In particular, she takes interest in epigenetic alteration, chromatin structure, and genome organization in plants. She hopes to learn more about the origin of adaptive processes in terrestrial organisms.
Beyond her research work, Paul is active in the science community as a committee representative, editor, and author. Notably, she was the 2017-2018 president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research and currently serves on the NASA GeneLab Science Council. In 2015, she received a joint award for her work on the ISS for the most compelling results.
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Record-breaking Astronaut: Peggy Whitson
A record-breaking astronaut of the new millennium, Peggy Whitson is an outstanding space scientist. Most notable from her resume is the fact that she was the first woman to hold the position of Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office’s Station Operations Branch. Additionally, she was on Expedition 16 from October 2007 to April 2008 at the International Space Station, and she was the first female commander of such an expedition.
In addition to being a space traveler, Whitson holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice University. She began her education at Iowa Wesley College where she earned her B.S. in biology/chemistry.
She began at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate. Within the organization, she quickly promoted, serving in the Biochemistry Research Group at KRUG International, a medical sciences contractor with NASA, as a supervisor. Later, Whitson served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in the Department of Internal Medicine and Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics. Even as an astronaut, Whitson went on to teach at her alma mater, Rice University.
Whitson spent a total of 665 days in space. Her most recent expeditions were 50 and 51, which kept her in space from November 2016 to September 2017. WIth three expeditions and more than 2 years in the ISS, she holds the record of any astronaut for most time spent in space.
Beyond her record, Whitson holds several awards. She is an inductee to the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and one of Houston’s Most Influential Women. Additionally, she received the BioHouston Women in Space Award, the Russian Medal of Merit for Space, and the NASA Space Flight Medal.
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Stellar Space Scientist: Alice Gorman
A space archeologist, Alice Gorman’s research is unique. Space archaeology studies man-made objects discovered in space. Her work in space exploration has been published across numerous platforms including Archaeology Magazine, the Monocle, and National Geographic. Much of the research revolves around indigenous heritage management, and her links to space archeology make her an outstanding space scientist.
Gorman holds a B.A. from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D. from the University of England. She currently teaches at Flinders University in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Her curriculum includes undergraduate archeology courses and graduate seminars on cultural heritage management.
In addition to teaching, Gorman is a board director with the Board of the Space Industry Association of Australia. The organization promotes the extension of the space sector in the nation through the development of policy and strategy within the industry.
As an archaeologist emphasizing cultural heritage groups, Gorman is also part of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Additionally, she is a Councillor of the Anthropological Society of South Australia. Through these institutions as well as her academic role, she is able to specialize in Aboriginal use of post-European settlement glass and stone tool analysis.
Gorman holds several awards. Upon earning her doctorate, she was also a finalist in the Bridges to Reconciliation category of the Queensland Premier’s Awards. She has also been voted as a Lecturer of the Year twice. In 2017, she won the Bragg New South Wales Press Prize for Science Writing.
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Outstanding Space Scientist: Joey Neilsen
Outstanding space scientist Joey Neilsen is one of the members of the group that captured the first photographs of a black hole. He led the NuSTAR and Chandra analytics team within the Event Horizon Telescope Multiwavelength Working Group. His contributions to the field have only begun!
Neilsen is currently an assistant professor of physics at Villanova University. He earned a dual B.A. in Physics and Mathematics from Keyon College. Later, he achieved both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard. After his doctorate, he completed three postdoctoral fellowships. He was a Fellow with the MIT Kavli Insitute on the Chandra HETG project and the Hubble fellowship in Astrophysics and Space Research, as well as with the Boston University Astronomy Department’s Institute for Astrophysical Research.
His work as a space scientist focuses on X-ray spectral variability. Additionally, his research regarding black holes includes infrared observation and radio frequency use. Neilsen also studies neutron stars, focusing his work in the Milky Way galaxy. Moreover, his initial doctoral research emphasized the use of high-resolution X-ray spectra in understanding the behaviors of GRS 1915+105, a stellar-mass black hole.
In addition to his highly published contribution to the Chandra team for the first photos of black holes, Neilsen has numerous peer-reviewed publications. He also has several awards. His collection includes the 2012 HEAD Dissertation Prize and the 2011 AAS Rodger Doxsey Prize.
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Famous Astrophysicist: Alan Guth
An MIT graduate and professor, Alan Guth is a stellar physicist whose contributions to the field of space science are famous. Most of his work emphasizes the relationship of particle physics to the origins of the universe. Questions in his research revolve around the fundamental laws of nature, cosmology, and the history of the universe. His theories that answer these questions make him an outstanding space scientist.
Guth earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusettes Institute of Technology. After completing his initial education, he went on to hold postdoctoral positions at Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, and Stanford. In particular, at Stanford, he worked with the Linear Accelerator Center. Now, he is the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow.
Notably, Guth holds several awards. These include the 1992 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society, the 2004 Gruber Prize in Cosmology, the 2009 Isaac Newton Medal from the Institute of Physics, and the 2014 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. He is also an elected member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Currently, Guth’s research focuses on inflation and its impact on density fluctuations. His primary interest is in the “brane world” model, which theorizes the universe as floating in a higher-dimensional space as a 3+1–dimensional membrane. Ultimately, his contributions to space science span a 30-year career.
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Budding Astrophysicist: Ella M. Sciamma-O’Brien
Serving with NASA as a research space scientist in the astrophysics branch, Ella M. Sciamma-O’Brien is making waves in the field. While she began with plasma emission diagnostic tool development, her current research focuses on planetary science. Moreover, her interest is helping NASA understand the chemical and physical compositions of other planets, which would lead to a more thorough understanding of the galaxy.
Sciamma-O’Brien completed her M.S. in electrical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Universitaire de Lille in France. Later, she earned a Ph.D. in plasma physics and electrical engineering. That degree was a joint effort through the Université Paul Sabatier in France and the University of Texas at Austin. While earning her doctorate, she was awarded the Amelia Earhart Fellowship. After completing the degree, she held two fellowships: one with France’s CNES and one with NASA.
In her role with NASA, Sciamma-O’Brien is affiliated with the Ames Space Science and Astrobiology Division. There, she authors grants, serves on review panels, and contributes to scientific journals. Additionally, she is published in numerous forums. Notably, she is also a founding editor for AstroPAH. This monthly newsletter aims to collect abstracts and news materials pertaining to astronomical Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons.
For her work, Sciamma-O’Brien has earned many awards. Her collection includes the 2014 Nasa ISS Team Space Flight Awareness Award for involvement in OREOcube and the Outstanding Early Career Space Scientist Award from Ames’ Code SS.
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Stellar Space Scientist: Chloe Beddingfield
Outstanding space scientist Chloe Beddingfield works with the SETI Institute at the NASA Ames Research Center. Her research interests include geodynamics, geomorphology, icy satellite tectonics, and photoclinometry. Ultimately, she works in planetary science.
Beddingfield holds a B.S. in geosciences from Texas Tech University. She also has a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Tennessee. As a young researcher, her work in the field of space science is just budding. Nonetheless, her contributions to research into icy satellites like Uranus and Saturn thus far are stellar.
During her academic coursework, Beddingfield earned several awards. She was granted three separate travel grants in order to further her research. Additionally, she received the Best Poster Presentation awards at the 2010 Geological Society of America NC/SC joint meeting and an even in the Texas Tech Geosciences Department. She also earned the 2015 Best Graduate Teaching Assistant award at the end of her tenure with the University of Tennessee.
In addition to her academic awards, Beddingfield is a published scientist. Since publishing her doctoral dissertation in 2015, her bibliography has only grown. Many of her articles continue to focus on Uranus and Saturn. However, in conjunction with several teams, her work extended to research on Mars and moons for icy planets.
Lastly, Beddingield’s work with NASA as a scientist includes participating on the New Horizons mission. It has been extended to Ultima Thule.
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Outstanding Exobiologist: Brad Bebout
A research scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center, Brad Bebout is an exobiologist. His work as an outstanding space scientist includes researching how elements cycle in microbial and stromatolite communities. The significance of this exploration is its ability to determine the role played by significant life-giving elements, like nitrogen, in nutrient-poor habitats.
Bebout holds a B.A. in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also holds both an M.S. and a Ph.D. in marine sciences from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Additionally, he completed post-doctoral fellowships with Horn Point Environmental Lab in Maryland and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany.
In his work with NASA, Bebout runs his own lab as a research scientist. The Microbial Ecology/Biogeochemistry Research Laboratory connects astrobiology, space exploration, and green technologies. Researchers work on projects within each area of interest as well as on those linking them.
In addition to his collaborative efforts, Bebout publishes his findings frequently. He has authored or co-authored more than 20 peer-reviewed articles. With much of his work in microbial biology, he aims to discover the impact of microbial communities has on atmospheric elements. Moreover, his work helps to detect and interpret the biogenicity of biomarker gases that are vital to the search for extraterrestrial life. In other words, Bebout’s research contributes to the scientific understanding of the earth’s physical and chemical compositions as well as that of extraterrestrial research.
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Famous Space Scientist: Carl Sagan
Like the other big names in this list, Carl Sagan is an outstanding space scientist without whom much of today’s research would not be possible. His contribution to the field extends beyond hard data research or theoretical contributions; his work brought to the public clear, concrete understandings of the universe.
An alumnus of the University of Chicago, Sagan earned three degrees there. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees were both in physics. However, for his Ph.D., he switched to an emphasis in astrophysics and astronomy. Sagan completed his post-doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.
While Sagan’s initial research focused on planetary science, he quickly became interested in extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Although the field was controversial during Sagan’s life, much of the work he completed toward the end of his life was in astrobiology. Most of his fieldwork was with Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Sagan later founded the Planetary Society and was also its first president.
Although he is famous in the scientific community, he is also generally popular. Sagan published science fiction novels and other books as well as hosted a television series called “Cosmos.” In that series, he taught the world about space science, particularly astronomy and astrophysics. However, the unique element in this production was taking abstract concepts and delivering them in understandable soundbites that could be used in a variety of settings from classrooms to households.
Ultimately, Sagan earned many awards for his contributions to the scientific community. Notably, from NASA, he received medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and Distinguished Public Service and the Apollo Achievement Award. He also received the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award and the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award among others.
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