Montana State University

MSU education student contributes to NASA outreach efforts

November 1, 2011 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Montana State University education student Ryan Hannahoe, left, and Radford Perry, contamination control engineer at NASA, examine a primary mirror segment for the James Webb Space Telescope this summer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Photo courtesy of NASA/Chris Gunn.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University education student spent the summer teaching others about the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble telescope that is designed to unravel the mystery of how the universe grew from a big bang into galaxies, stars and planets.

As an intern on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) mission at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center just outside of Washington, D.C., Ryan Hannahoe helped coordinate JWST's role in various educational and public outreach events, such as an astronomy night on the national mall and an informal exhibit at a D.C.-area museum. Hannahoe also developed educational content, trained educators and worked with others, such as celebrity Bill Nye the Science Guy, to bring information about the telescope to the public.

"The internship was probably the best thing I've ever done," said Hannahoe, 26, who is originally from Pennsylvania. "By working with JWST, so many doors have opened."

At the National Air and Space Museum, Hannahoe helped revise an informal exhibit that incorporates hands-on science activities related to JWST. Through that exhibit and other interactions with museum visitors, Hannahoe taught visitors that, among other things, larger telescopes collect more light and allow observers to see greater detail; larger telescopes allow astronomers to see farther into space; and the JWST views the universe in infrared light. Over the course of the summer, Hannahoe worked with nearly 1,800 museum visitors, he said.

And, in those interactions and in others throughout the internship, Hannahoe said the skills he learned as an education student at MSU served him well.

"In terms of how I write lesson plans and the level of detail I write those, I definitely carry some of those aspects over from MSU to working at NASA."

Hannahoe landed the internship through the lead optical designer of the James Webb Space Telescope, Joseph Howard, whom Hannahoe had met at a conference about a decade ago. The two kept in touch over the years, and Howard invited Hannahoe to NASA for the internship, which the Montana Space Grant Consortium funded.

A highlight of the internship was meeting and working with smart, accessible people, Hannahoe said.

"At NASA, you could just go into somebody's office and just sit down and talk with them," he said. "It was very humbling."

Hannahoe also learned how much of a team effort a project like the JWST is.

"At any given time, 1,200 people are working on that mission to make it happen," he said. "Working with such a large team was something I haven't experienced before.... Having that atmosphere to bounce ideas around and talk to those people was so productive."

If all goes according to plan, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest mirror ever placed in space, measuring three stories high over a base the size of a tennis court. It will be launched into space on a rocket, but because it is so big, the only way the telescope can fit into the rocket is to fold it up like origami. Once it is in space, the telescope will then unfold.

First known as the "Next Generation Space Telescope," the James Webb Space Telescope is named after James Webb, the head of NASA from 1961-1968 who is known for his role in the Apollo moon program and for establishing scientific research as a core NASA activity. The JWST was supposed to launch in 2014, but the project now needs additional funding and time - a request that has resulted in Congressional scrutiny in recent months. Pending funding, it is now slated to be launched in 2018.

Hannahoe said delays and additional funding needs are part of the process when working on such an enormous project.

"When we build an instrument like this, we don't know how to build it until we try," he said. "It's so much of a giant leap forward in technology that people don't understand how much it's actually going to cost until it's developed."

The JWST will orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or four times farther than the moon. Its infrared detectors will allow it to see through space dust that obscures our view of the universe.

Hannahoe believes that it's important instead to focus on the knowledge that can be gained with the JWST.

"We want to see to the beginning of the galaxies formed," Hannahoe said. "Our galaxy is one of billions and billions of galaxies out there. We also want to study the formation of solar systems and earth-like planets. In our lifetime, we can never travel to an earth-like planet. But at least we can study them. That's why you need an infrared telescope, and a big one."

Several individuals who worked with Hannahoe at NASA this summer said he was a valued member of the team.

Joseph Howard, JWST's lead optical designer, said Hannahoe contributed greatly to the project through his outreach efforts.

"He amazed us with his enthusiasm and ability to get things done on a large scale with little or no supervision," Howard said.

Peter Detterline, a teacher with whom Hannahoe co-authored lesson plans, noted that Hannahoe worked on a wide range of projects, all while exhibiting tremendous skill.

"I was impressed by his ability to take initiative, and to handle these projects with attention to detail," said Detterline, who also serves as the director of the Boyertown Planetarium. "He has a good sense of how things should go together. He picks up information quickly and is proficient in getting results."

And, Lynn Chandler, NASA public affairs officer for the James Webb Space Telescope, said Hannahoe was a "tremendous" asset to the outreach team.

"He came through the door ready to do outreach and really hit the ground running," Chandler said. "Through his efforts, Ryan reached out to Bill Nye, the National Air and Space Museum, SPIE [the international society for optics and photonics], teachers and students, as well as many other audiences. I feel Ryan's ties to the astronomical community were extremely beneficial to our organization."

Now, Hannahoe is spending the fall semester completing a practicum experience in a Bozeman-area school's 4th grade classroom. This spring, he plans to student teach and then graduate.

And, next summer, if funding and other considerations work out, Hannahoe said that he may accept an invitation to head back to NASA for a second internship.

"To have the ability to take my background in astronomy and education, and to basically design my own internship -- to pursue what I wanted to pursue -- was awesome," he said. "I would love to do it again."

For related stories, see:

"MSU student selected for NASA Space Science Student Ambassadors Program," Oct. 5, 2010

"MSU student shares knowledge, love of astronomy with elementary students, community," April 19, 2010

Contact: Ryan Hannahoe,