UI senior attends rocket launch in Florida

After using a telescope to study at the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn when he was younger, University of Iowa senior Zachary Luppen was set on the path to becoming an astrophysicist.

On Wednesday, Luppen witnessed the SpaceX Falcon-9 launch in Florida, one of 40 people NASA selected to attend the launch. NASA specifically looked for people with large social-media followings when selecting the attendees.

Luppen told NASA he could use the UI social-media platforms, and with 108,000 Twitter followers, that was enough to be selected, he said.

“I was flabbergasted to find out that I was selected by the NASA social group, because I put my application in three minutes before the deadline,” Luppen said. “I found out I was asked to come down to Florida for a rocket launch, and I had a week and half to prepare for that.”

The launch Wednesday was one of the Falcon-9 Block 5 rockets. The goal of the Block 5 rockets is to make them reusable up to 10 times, Luppen said.

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Earlier in the week, there was another launch; that rocket had been launched three times previously this year, he said.

The launch was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed until Wednesday because of moldy mouse food aboard the rocket, Luppen said. Also aboard the rocket headed to the International Space Station are 62,000 worms being used to study muscle degeneration in zero gravity, he said.

In the past, Luppen said he has watched many live streams of rocket, shuttle, and Falcon-9 launches. On Wednesday, he had the privilege of witnessing the launch from 3.4 miles away.

I think having participation from the UI in the NASA environment, it confirms that we’re an important player in space research”

— Robert Mutel, UI physics, astronomy professor

UI physics/astronomy Professor Robert Mutel described Luppen as enthusiastic and highly motivated.

Witnessing the launch is a great motivator for Luppen, Mutel said. The launch shows what the research scientists are doing is meaningful, and Mutel said witnessing it may help Luppen produce similar research.

“I think having participation from the UI in the NASA environment, it confirms that we’re an important player in space research,” Mutel said about Luppen attending the launch. “It shows we’re training the next generation of new students.”

The UI tries to involve undergraduate students at an early stage, and having an undergraduate student attending the launch demonstrates that, Mutel said. The physics/astronomy faculty encourage undergraduates to be involved with research.

Physics/astronomy Associate Professor Cornelia Lang described Luppen as “possibly the most enthusiastic student we’ve ever had in the department.”

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The experience he had at the launch is more in the area of science communication, something Luppen has potential to succeed in, Lang said. If he has an interest in public outreach and engagement or science communication, the use of social media to broadcast the launch will be beneficial to him, she said.

Luppen is preparing to graduate from the UI with degrees in physics and astronomy on Dec. 15. He plans on attending graduate school next year, although he is currently unsure which institution he will attend.

“What puts him apart from other students is he has a natural ability,” Lang said. “It’s very unusual, to show so much enthusiasm for science.”

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