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Crouch receives university's Distinguished Achievement Award

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 31 - May 21, 1998

Physics alumnus Roger K. Crouch, who realized the dream of his lifetime when he conducted scientific experiments in the low-gravity environment aboard the NASA space shuttle Columbia last year, received the 1998 University Distinguished Achievement Award at Commencement May 9.
Crouch also presented to university officials the Virginia Tech pennant that flew with him into space.
He was being honored by the university, not only in recognition for having achieved his dream of being an astronaut, but also "in tribute to his outstanding professional career and in appreciation for his extraordinary contributions to Virginia Tech and indeed all of humankind."
Crouch earned his undergraduate degree from Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in 1962. He later pursued graduate studies at Virginia Tech in cooperation with NASA Langley's graduate-studies program, earning a master of science in physics in 1968 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1971. He served as a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979-80.
Crouch has demonstrated exceptional leadership and extraordinary service to his country. He helped organize and served as co-chair of bilateral Microgravity Science Working Groups between NASA and the European Space Agency, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. He has co-chaired the International Microgravity Science Strategic Planning Group and the International Microgravity Laboratory Science Working Group. He has served on several governmental interagency panels on materials science, including the team assessing the potential for collaborative efforts in materials science between the United States and China.
Crouch found his way into space through his scientific research. A recognized expert in materials science and fluid physics, he served as the chief scientist of the Microgravity Space and Applications Division of NASA, where he was responsible for assuring that the flight program's experiments in materials science, fluid physics, low-temperature micro-gravity physics, combustion science, and bio-technology achieved the highest levels of scientific results.
After serving as program scientist on the ground for several Spacelab missions and co-principal investigator on an experiment that flew on one mission, he trained as the alternate payload specialist on the First International Microgravity Laboratory flight in 1992. Finally, in spite of the colorblindness that had thwarted his original plans to be a pilot, he made his first space flight in April 1997 as payload specialist aboard Columbia.
Columbia carried 33 scientific experiments in micro-gravity designed to study processes that are masked by the force of gravity on Earth. When the April mission was cut short by a fuel-cell problem on the shuttle, Crouch thought his time in space had ended. However, for the first time ever, NASA sent the same crew back into orbit in July to complete the experiments begun in April.
The investigations done aboard Columbia that will probably have an impact on Earth most quickly, Crouch said, are the three studies of ways to grow protein crystals. The experiments may lead to better understanding of the structure of protein and ways of growing protein crystals that could allow scientists to design more effective drugs for use in the war against such diseases as cancer, AIDS, or diabetes.
The scientists also performed investigations into combustion that may help reduce pollution, control the spread of unwanted fires, and reduce deaths caused by carbon monoxide. In materials science, the Columbia investigations produced data that could have an impact on the production of semi-conductors, non-corrosive metals, or high-performance alloys.
On July 4, 1997, the Columbia crew wished America "Happy Birthday" from space while the Mir space station and the Mars landing were also in the news. Crouch described that time as almost a throwback to the 1850s. The Columbia mission was akin to the settlers going West in covered wagons. The Mir space station, pushing the envelope of technology, represented those who had ridden horses West ahead of the settlers. The landing of Pathfinder on Mars was like opening up new areas of exploration in the Northwest.
"It seemed to me sort of astounding," Crouch said. "It's 150 years after those times, but we're lucky enough to be involved in the development of new frontiers. It was an interesting week in terms of the history of humans and where this planet is going to wind up."
Crouch continues to have a role to play in determining the new frontiers of America's space program. Since his space mission, he has taken a position as lead scientist for NASA's Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications. That office is responsible for the science and technology development programs in NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) enterprise. The office selects and funds the science done on the shuttle and the science that will be done on the International Space Station, which will begin construction in space this fall. These results will serve as the portent for further exploration of the moon and Mars, research in space, and the commercialization of space.