The Drive-By Q&A
There may be no better-known face of UCLA’s space exploration research than Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the Galactic Center Group. In 2020, Ghez won the Nobel Prize in physics for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
When did space first spark your curiosity?
The first moon landings happened when I was 4. According to family legend, I announced I wanted to be the first woman on the moon, so my parents bought me a telescope. I grew up in Chicago, so there wasn’t a huge amount that you could see. But looking at the moon — where people had gone — and how far away it was got me thinking about the enormity of our universe, both in space and in time.
While doing the work that led to your Nobel Prize, when did you first realize just how significant your findings were?
The initial project was to discover stars at the center of the galaxy that were close enough that we could track their motions: a statistical approach to demonstrating the existence of a supermassive black hole. But with this initial phase, there was a lot of pushback from the community, and this is how science is constructive: We had to think about what we could do to move forward. It was quite clear — if there was a black hole, the individual stars would start to deviate from a straight line and accelerate from the gravitational pull of the black hole. Measurements of accelerations had never been made around supermassive black holes, but we got the telescope time, made the measurements and created a beautifully elegant proof. We showed that the shortest periods were on order of 10 years, so it was really worth getting into the next phase — these stars could lead to new tests of how gravity works in this unexplored regime. That was a really eye-opening moment and my favorite paper of all the papers we wrote. It’s interesting to realize that the first idea of what we were trying to do, which was only a three-year project, was initially turned down because people didn’t believe it would work. Not only did it work, but it worked far better than anyone anticipated.
What’s a discovery about space that you most hope someone makes in your lifetime?
I hope we get to the point where we understand what a black hole is. They are fascinating because they represent the frontier of our knowledge of fundamental physics — a breakdown in our ability to describe the physical world. This space is such an interesting arena, because so much of what we used to teach just a few years ago is actually inconsistent with the findings. We’re really rewriting the textbooks in so many areas.
The Bruin Pioneer
The first Bruin in space, Walt Cunningham ’60, M.S. ’61 died this past January. And what a life he lived: fighter pilot, physicist, entrepreneur, astronaut, explorer. The pilot of NASA’s first crewed flight in the Apollo program, Cunningham spent 11 days in space in 1968 and went on to head another major NASA program: Skylab, the first space station program in the U.S.
“America and Apollo 11 wouldn't have gotten to the moon without Walt’s courage and the Apollo 7 flight, wrote fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin in a 2023 social media tribute. “Their mission made possible every other Apollo mission. He is the definition of an American hero, a man of enormous heart. Godspeed, Walt.”
One of Cunningham’s favorite quotations came from the collection of messages left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts from the leaders of Earth’s free nations. The sentiment from the Australian prime minister at the time, John Gorton, summed up the astronaut’s own deepest beliefs: “May the high courage and technical genius which made this achievement possible be so used in the future,” the message said, “that mankind will live in a world in which peace, self-expression and the chance of dangerous adventure are available to all.”
Bringing Medicine to Mars
“Space is the final frontier, not just for medicine but for humanity as a whole. Our generation is about to undergo the largest expedition in human history: an expedition to Mars. There are so many discoveries that await us — space is a fresh start to ensure the survival of our species and take the valuable lessons learned in our centuries of life on Earth with us. It seems like science fiction, but it’s quickly becoming inspiring reality. I know we are capable of anything here at UCLA. This fellowship is a partnership between multiple departments and institutions within UCLA, built on a dream of establishing the first space medicine–trained physicians ready to support long-duration and interplanetary space travel. Go Bruins!”
—Dr. Haig Aintablian, who completed his residency in emergency medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and was chosen as the inaugural fellow of UCLA’s newly launched Space Medicine Fellowship. The first of its kind in the world, the fellowship seeks to train the next generation of flight surgeons to be prepared for space travel.
To Boldly Go …
It’s quite possible to explore the four corners of the universe without leaving the UCLA campus, whether you’re strolling through the UCLA Meteorite Collection (the largest on the West Coast), visiting the UCLA Planetarium or delving into the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Collection in UCLA Library Special Collections, housed on campus in the Southern Regional Library Facility.
Donated by the famed creator to UCLA, the latter is an intergalactic treasure trove of script drafts, shooting schedules, budget reports and, perhaps most fascinatingly, documentation of the exhaustive research that went into every aspect of the design of the original Star Trek television series. The series ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969 and remains one of pop culture’s most influential and enduring properties.
“The lengths the show went to in researching so they could make every detail, down to the labels on console buttons, demonstrates exceptional commitment to creating this world that is accurate technically, but also inspirational thematically,” says Miki Bulos, performing arts curator of UCLA Library Special Collections.
One file folder alone contains clippings of everything from a Newsweek article on military laser rifles to concept art of spacecraft used in U.S. Steel brochures — which, in turn, inspired the development of the show’s famous phasers, as well as the design of the Starship Enterprise itself.
“Our cultural connection across the 20th century was film and TV; it shaped our idea of who we are. For good or ill, our collective concept of space travel and our world’s future — even our language — have been massively influenced by Star Trek,” Bulos says. “So it’s important that we have an understanding of how this shared cultural fabric was created, especially when you see how deeply researched every single scene and aspect of that show is. I invite anyone who’s interested to come in and engage with this collection.”
Interested in visiting the Roddenberry archives? Begin your search here.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.