University of Florida faculty members with a wide range of expertise in space-related research are coming together to form the UF Space Mission Institute, with $2.5 million in support from UF President Ben Sasse’s strategic funding initiative.
The institute, managed by UF Research, will be a hub in which scientists and scholars from across UF – including those from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, the College of Pharmacy, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – can collaborate, conduct research, and innovate.
“Imagine a hub that brings together experts from across UF to revolutionize the way we approach space travel and exploration,” Sasse said. “The Space Mission Institute will be an incredible resource for UF, and it will help us work closely with the brightest minds of our time to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. As the state of Florida’s flagship university, UF has an important role to play in this sector.”
UF has nationally recognized faculty leaders in all the major National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fields, as well as more than 100 faculty members conducting space research.
“UF has a long and distinguished history of research in space – from low-Earth orbit to the moon and Mars and beyond, but this new institute will provide a vehicle for a diverse group of researchers to collaborate in new and exciting ways,” said Rob Ferl, Ph.D., assistant vice president for research and a distinguished professor in IFAS, who has conducted decades of research on plants in space. “This will position UF to play a more prominent role in space exploration research in the state, the nation, and the world.”
Ferl said the strategic funding initiative will support interdisciplinary seed projects that will propel UF’s capabilities to the forefront of space research visibility, and it will help recruit world-class leaders in space science and technology to the university.
Below are some examples of current UF space research:
- Rachel Seidler, Ph.D., a professor of applied physiology and kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance, is looking at how the human brain reacts to traveling outside Earth’s gravity. Recent findings suggest astronauts should wait three years after longer missions to allow physiological changes in their brains to reset.
- Geology Professor Amy Williams, Ph.D., is helping to search for life on Mars as a member of the Perseverance rover team. Williams has also served on the Curiosity rover team since 2009.
- Ferl and colleague Anna-Lisa Paul, Ph.D., a research professor of horticultural sciences and the director of the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research, are studying whether plants can grow in lunar soil, as part of efforts to return Americans to the Moon this decade. They have also conducted plant experiments on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
- Astronomy Professor Sarah Ballard, Ph.D., hypothesizes that one-third of the planets around the most common stars in the galaxy could be in a Goldilocks orbit close enough, and gentle enough, to hold onto liquid water (and possibly harbor life).
- Mechanical and aerospace engineers are developing precision instruments for spacecraft navigation and studying ways to prevent collisions between space debris and the International Space Station.
“Our vision for this hub of space exploration sees experts from many colleges at UF working together on the most demanding questions related to space exploration, development, and commercialization,” said UF Vice President for Research David Norton, Ph.D., whose office is committing additional support to the initiative.
Ferl said institute members will work to enhance existing relationships with Space Florida and the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center, and seek new partnerships with the International Space Station National Laboratory. The institute will also work to leverage UF’s proximity to the growing commercial space ecosystem in Florida. Throughout the next five years, the total economic impact of the commercial space industry in Florida is expected to be more than $5.3 billion.
In addition to working with the aerospace industry, the institute will seek closer ties with the United States Space Force to join space science with defense goals, and provide new opportunities for students in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.
“The Space Mission Institute will cultivate an entirely new generation of researchers who study terrestrial analogs of important space problems,” said Forrest J. Masters, Ph.D., interim dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. “It will create new pathways for these researchers to advance spaceflight, planetary and space exploration, and the search for answers to the most fundamental questions known to humankind.”
David Richardson, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, looks forward to watching this groundbreaking space initiative come to life.
“This new venture into space science is an exhilarating addition to our college portfolio,” Richardson said. “We are excited to contribute our expertise in planetary science, astronomy instruments, and more, further enriching the institute’s capabilities.”
The institute will open “a new frontier in studying how microgravity affects human biology and drug development in space,” added Peter Swaan, Ph.D., M.Pharm., dean of the College of Pharmacy. “Exploring these uncharted territories in precision health can provide significant advancements to support long-duration space flights and improve health care on Earth.”
Support for the UF Space Mission Institute comes from the $130 million in new funding that UF received from the Florida Legislature. Sasse established that, for the first time, more than half of the funds would be directed to units for special strategic projects. A total of $24 million was delivered to deans to report back on their uses of the funds, and another $50 million was made available across all colleges and administrative units. UF received more than 250 submissions and 40 proposals were selected – each one aimed at enhancing the student experience and advancing interdisciplinary scholarship.
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