Steve Hawley, professor of physics and astronomy, former NASA astronaut
If there is life outside of Earth, Steve Hawley has been as close to it as anybody. Hawley, professor of physics and astronomy, is a former NASA astronaut who has flown five missions on the space shuttle. In a new KU YouTube video, he discusses his trips into space and how he relates orbiting Earth to teaching in a Kansas classroom.
Hawley draws on both his science and NASA backgrounds as a KU faculty member. His last job at NASA was director of space science at the Johnson Space Center. His research group worked with and curated NASA’s collection of moon rocks and Martian meteorites as well as other extraterrestrial samples recently returned to Earth by the Stardust and Genesis spacecrafts. Scientists from his group are active in Mars exploration with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the Phoenix lander.
Hawley teaches a class called The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life. His class examines topics such as Martian meteorites, the roles of stars, how planets form, whether there are planets outside of the solar system and what makes life possible on Earth and if there is potentially life elsewhere.
“There is a meteorite in our collection that we have determined to have originated on Mars, and within the meteorite we found some small, very very small things that appear to be morphologically like fossilized bacteria,” Hawley said. “So the speculation is ‘could that have been some sort of primitive life on Mars or was it some sort of non-biological process that formed these things?’ All of these discoveries I’m hoping to present to the students in my class this semester.”
Although meteorites and extraterrestrial life are fascinating topics, Hawley stresses in his class that findings are no more important than the scientific process used to make determinations about such issues. Many of his students will not go on to be scientists, but the critical methods scientists employ relate to all disciplines, as well as everyday life. Questioning assumptions and asking why we know what we do is just as important as the answer, Hawley said.
In addition to science and discovery, Hawley said he enjoys being in the classroom to show students that their goals are attainable. A Kansas native and KU grad, Hawley aims to show students their background can’t limit their future if they don’t let it.
“I was a KU undergrad, and I was born in Ottawa, and I grew up in Salina. I’m not a kid from a big town. I’m not a kid from the east coast,” Hawley said. “I’m a kid from Kansas that went to KU and then got a chance to do some cool things. I hope to convey that, just because you’re from a small town, or you’re an undergraduate at KU, doesn’t mean you can’t go on to do cool things. You have to work for it, but the opportunity is there.”