A man who’s considered a giant in the field of space exploration will be honored this weekend at the University of Iowa. Astrophysicist Don Gurnett has been teaching at the UI for 50 years.
He has no problem identifying the biggest milestone of his career. “That was the Voyager I and II spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. We spent several years building the instruments for that,” Gurnett said. “This space mission was once called the grand tour. It went to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — four of the outer planets, all in one flight.”
Just a couple years ago, the instrument on Voyager I built by Gurnett let the world know that the NASA spacecraft had entered interstellar space — farther than any man-made vehicle has ever flown.
Gurnett says he feels lucky to have been involved in the Voyager program. “Such a flight can only be accomplished about once every 180 years and I managed to live in the right time when we could do that,” Gurnett said. A symposium is being held Saturday to honor Gurnett for his five decades of teaching and research at the UI.
The event runs all day and is free and open to the public. The 75-year-old Gurnett plans to keep on working for many years to come. “I have no immediate plans for retirement. I enjoy teaching,” Gurnett said. In addition, there are still many questions about outer space that Gurnett hopes to help answer.
“Our civilization now is heavily reliant on various space assets, a crucial one being GPS, which you can use for navigating your car,” Gurnett said. “Weather satellites provide pictures for people predicting weather, so it’s important for us to understand the environment out there and how it affects us.”
One of the speakers at Saturday’s symposium is Jim Green, who directs all of NASA’s planetary missions. Green studied under Gurnett at the University of Iowa.
Gurnett got his start building spacecraft instruments as an undergraduate at the UI in 1958, under space pioneer James Van Allen.