By Tiffany Acosta

From discovering planets to working at NASA, the NMSU community has made legendary contributions to the space domain and continues to test the limits of what is possible. 

For a third generation Aggie like John Mulholland ’86 ’95, working in space was destined from a young age.  

“My passion for this industry started when I was six years old watching the first moon landing,” he says. “At that time, being that young, it just seemed unreachable. I remember going outside at night, looking at the moon and being amazed that there were people there.”

Technical and Horticultural Scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Jacob Torres and his team are researching how to grow crops in space. One of the crops, New Mexico chile peppers, will make its first appearance in space in early 2020.

Mulholland, who has 30 years of experience in the industry working at NASA and Boeing, is leading Boeing’s development of the Commercial Crew Space Transportation system called the CST-100 Starliner. The effort is a return of domestic crew launch capabilities. The first Starliner is expected to launch by the end of 2019, and will be the first American-built crew capsule that will land on land. Two of the landing zones are at the White Sands Missile Range.  

“Boeing’s Starliner will revolutionize how people travel to and from space in the same way we led the commercialization of air travel around the globe,” says the Boeing vice president and program manager. Boeing is planning to offer low Earth orbit passenger flights to international and corporate astronauts, scientists, researchers, educators and tourists. 

“It’s exciting to be a part of a program that is shaping a new industry in space,” says Mulholland, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and master’s degree in mechanical engineering at NMSU. 

While Mulholland focuses on the travel aspects, Jacob Torres ’14 is working on feeding astronauts. Torres, technical and horticultural scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and his team have been researching how to grow crops in space and in extraterrestrial environments like the moon and Mars. One crop his team is growing is New Mexico chile peppers. After testing a large number of varieties, New Mexico chile is slated to be sent to the International Space Station in early 2020. 

“Ultimately, the one that served our purposes was the Española Improved from the NMSU Chile Pepper Institute,” says the mechanical engineering technology graduate. “It’s a cross between the New Mexico Sandia pepper and Española pepper. It’s a nonpartisan variety.” 

Torres says it will likely be several years before the astronauts can consume the peppers, which will be the first fruiting plant grown on the space station.

“The first grow outs will be pure science and technology demonstrations in the Advanced Plant Habitat,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to supplement the astronauts’ diet, but right now we are trying to figure out our ABCs.

“The biggest challenge we’ve had was deciding on a single variety to send up.”

As a horticulture professor at Texas Tech University, Ellen Peffley led a team for NASA’s Advanced Life Sciences program to provide onions as a sustainable fresh food supply for astronauts.

While engineering led Mulholland and Torres to the field, NASA sought out Ellen Peffley ’77 ’81 ’85. As a professor of horticulture at Texas Tech University, in the early 2000s she led a team for NASA’s Advanced Life Sciences program to provide onions as a sustainable fresh food supply for astronauts on extended missions. 

“When you grow plants in elevated carbon dioxide and provide them the requisite light requirements the plants just grow like gangbusters,” she says. 

Peffley and her team’s work provided the basis for in-house NASA researchers to conduct water studies, which resulted in the onion variety “Purplette” making it to space more than a decade ago. 

“We were told the astronauts love to have the green things around them, and they love to be able to see something that’s not a piece of machinery,” says Peffley, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in horticulture at NMSU along with a Ph.D. in agronomy. 

NMSU’s history in space also includes the well-known astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the then ninth planet Pluto in 1930. From 1955-1973, Tombaugh was an NMSU faculty member who helped establish the astronomy department at NMSU. 

While many NMSU alumni have worked in the space industry, one way students can gain research experience at NMSU is through the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. The organization has been a member of the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program that NASA has administered since 1989. NMSU is the lead space-grant institution in the state of New Mexico. 

From astronomers to engineers to horticulturists, numerous NMSU alumni, faculty and students have studied and made a career involving space. And just maybe there’s a six year old future Aggie looking at the sky and dreaming of an incredible adventure.

John Mulholland (right), vice president and program manager of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Program, gives Vice President Mike Pence (center) and NASA astronaut Bob Behnken a tour of Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida.

John Mulholland (left), vice president and program manager of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Program, and Steve Stitch, deputy program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, watch a boilerplate spacecraft attached to a giant balloon lift off from Spaceport America for a test of the Starliner’s parachute system.

An NMSU faculty member from 1955-1973, Clyde Tombaugh helped establish the astronomy department at NMSU. He discovered Pluto in 1930.

Observatory NMSU operates ranked second in nation

Apache Point Observatory, operated by NMSU and owned by the Astrophysical Research Consortium, is ranked second by Collegerank.net among the top 35 college observatories in the country. The No. 1 ranking goes to Haleakala Observatory at the University of Hawaii.

Nestled in the Sacramento Mountains, Apache Point Observatory operates four telescopes including the Astrophysical Research Consortium 3.5-meter telescope, which is used for a wide variety of astronomical research.

Others among the top 35 include Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, Palomar Observatory at California Institute of Technology and Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

APO, located in Sunspot, New Mexico, about 18 miles south of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains, is home to four telescopes: the 3.5 meter ARC telescope; the 2.5 meter Sloan Foundation telescope; the 0.5 meter Small Aperture Telescope; and NMSU’s 1.0 meter telescope.

“Apache Point Observatory’s mission is to provide low cost, low downtime, high quality astronomical data efficiently as possible while providing economic and social benefits to the community and New Mexico as well as educating the public and providing a facility conducive for higher education astronomical learning,” says Mark Klaene, site operations manager for more than 10 years. 

The observatory sits on a mountain 9,200 feet above sea level. The night sky seen from APO is among the darkest in the U.S.

Amanda Adame ’19