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Kulcinski awarded NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal

February 24, 2011 By James Beal

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Engineering associate dean for research and Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Gerald Kulcinski one of its highest honors for non-governmental employees. NASA Director Charles Bolden awarded Kulcinski the Exceptional Public Service Medal to recognize Kulcinski’s leadership on the NASA Advisory Council from 2005 to 2009.

The NASA Advisory Council provides the NASA administrator with advice on programs and issues of importance to the agency. The council consists of nine committees: aeronautics, audit, finance and analysis, commercial space, education and public outreach, exploration, information technology infrastructure, science, space operations, and technology and innovation. Each committee conducts sessions throughout the year in an effort to gain a broad understanding of current NASA issues and future mission implementation plans. The committees then bring their proposed observations, findings and recommendations to the full council for deliberation and final decision on whether to send forward to the NASA administrator.

The council deliberates on topics raised by each committee in public sessions and presents its observations, findings and recommendations to the NASA administrator. In particular, Kulcinski advised on nuclear power in space and chaired the committee on human resource issues regarding education and attracting a younger age group to the NASA workforce.

Kulcinski says serving on the council was an intense commitment, taking up to two months over the course of each year. During that time, he and former astronauts, military, academic and industry leaders investigated issues and conducted site visits to NASA labs and facilities before reporting back to the NASA director. He says his service provided him with a wide-ranging and in-depth view of the inner workings of NASA and its facilities.

“It was a win-win situation for the administration and the technical staff,” says Kulcinski. “The staff might want to tell us things that they wouldn’t want to say directly to their boss, and administration could talk to the council in ways it wouldn’t want to talk to the troops.”

This is Kulcinski’s second award for service from NASA. In 1993, he received the NASA Public Service Medal for his research on capturing helium-3 as an energy resource. Helium-3 is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. It is rare on Earth, but abundant on the moon, embedded in the upper layer of regolith by the solar wind over billions of years.

Kulcinski’s work with NASA dates back to 1986, when he and others helped the agency found the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) at the UW–Madison. An interdisciplinary research center, WCSAR has for more than 20 years developed specialized manipulators and end-effectors, telerobotic systems, and man-machine interfaces for applications specified by NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and commercial companies. WCSAR-developed payloads have successfully flown 10 missions on the U.S. Space Shuttle, one mission on the Russian MIR space station, and three missions on the International Space Station.

Kulcinski says he has enjoyed his interactions with NASA, which also reflect the principles of the Wisconsin Idea. “Public service is a part of our job at the university. Most people don’t realize this,” Kulcinski says. “Education is very obvious, research is next to obvious — but people don’t realize that when industry and government want advice, they will draw very often on universities for our objective analysis.”

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