Thomas Wdowiak, UAB astrophysicist and scientist who worked with the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, passed away at age 73Wdowiak was best known as a co-investigator with the Mars Athena mission. The mission landed dual rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on the Red Planet in January and February, 2004. He operated the Mössbauer spectrometer, a device that measures how gamma rays are changed by the iron atoms of the objects they strike, on the rovers and analyzed the data. The Athena mission identified hematite, a common mineral believed to only be found near water, which enforced theories that water existed in the past on Mars.
“Personally, I've known very few people with the talent he held for bringing together a wide range of scientific endeavors for a common cause,” said Perry Gerakines, Ph.D., a research space scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and former UAB astrophysicist. “Ultimately, he got to live his dream and touched another world by working in the Mars program. Professor Wdowiak was a person who believed in the power of science to change the world for the better, and he tried to instill that passion in each of the many students he taught at UAB over the years.”
It is estimated Wdowiak taught astronomy to 10,000 students during his 30 years at UAB. He taught Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D., a member of the space shuttle Columbia crew, and the first optometrist in space, who is currently director of UAB’s Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE). He also taught Luther Beegle, Ph.D., who is one of only three surface sampling scientists working on Curiosity, the latest U.S. Mars probe.
“Tom was a friend and colleague for whom I had great respect,” DeLucas said. “He was an out-of-the-box thinker with innovative ideas for many of NASA’s exploration goals. This rare quality combined with his in-depth knowledge of physics and optics led to multiple collaborations with NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Ca. He was selected as one of a number of scientists to operate the Mars Rover via the remote operations facility at the Jet Propulsion Lab. I will never forget his excitement. He commented that he felt like he actually ‘touched the surface of Mars’ by commanding the robotic arm to crush a Martian rock. Tom was also a superb teacher. He understood the importance of stimulating youth to pursue careers in science and engineering.”
Wdowiak became a scientist at the age of seven and had built and launched his first rocket by high school. He believed firmly in reaching young scientists early, and for several years had a column for children that appeared monthly in Saturday editions of The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Post Herald called Tommy Test Tubes, which was the name his childhood friends gave him. The opening sentence of his article entitled Building your own laboratory captured his sense of humor and his desire to make science accessible to all: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to have a real scientist’s lab.”
Written By: Kevin Storr