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Astronaut Jay Apt:  Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History

By R. Jay Gangewere

Following an extensive international search Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh announced the appointment of Dr. Jay Apt, a career scientist with NASA and an experienced administrator of science programs, as the 11th director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The appointment signals an exciting move for the museum towards a more visible role as a premier research institution devoted to Earth science.

Apt grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Shady Side Academy, before going to Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in physics. In 1976 he completed doctoral work in experimental atomic physics at MIT, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship in laser spectroscopy. In 1976 he joined the Center for Earth and Planetary Physics at Harvard, studying the weather on Venus in support of NASA's Pioneer Venus Mission.

As an administrator he served as assistant director of Harvard's Division of Applied Sciences (1978–80), before moving on to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the directorship of the Table Mountain Observatory in Pasadena.

At the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston he was a flight controller responsible for shuttle payload operations until 1985, when he was selected as an astronaut candidate. In 1986 Apt qualified as an astronaut and has flown in space four times, performing two space walks, and conducting experiments in physical science, engineering and biology. His more than 847 hours in space include the deployment of a giant observatory to study the universe in the light of gamma rays, a cooperative mission with Japan on the shuttle Endeavor, a dedicated mission to study the Earth, and the recent docking of the space shuttle Atlantis with the Russian space station Mir in September 1996.

His research has been published in more than 20 articles in professional journals and he has received NASA's Exceptional Service Medal twice, and its Group Achievement Award three times. His international honors include the Sergei P. Korolev Medal of the Federation Aeronautic International, and receiving twice the Federation's Vladimir M. Komarov Diploma. A distinguished photographer, he has published his images and knowledge of Earth in Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth. This 1996 publication of the National Geographic Society was written in conjunction with geographers Michael Helfert and Justin Wilkinson. He has recently won first and second prizes in the space category in the prestigious annual competition sponsored by Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine.

The head of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Board of Trustees, Arthur Scully, notes that Apt has seen the Earth—with its flooding deltas and burning rainforests—from the unique vantage point of space, and has a perspective on our global environment that few share. To hear Apt himself talk about the excitement of natural history research is to sense his own fascination with matters of space, time and scale—from entering the world of insects to understanding life in the age of dinosaurs. His photographs from space document centuries-old and present-day changes in the Earth's surface, from evidence of tectonic plate shifts to emerging volcanoes and changes in the levels of lakes and oceans, and the courses of rivers.

At age 48, after an acclaimed career as a scientist, Apt says he is ready for new challenges. "Every minute of the 21 years I've been part of the space exploration program has been fascinating. Now it is time to give something back to the people who sent me there. I am thrilled by the chance to return to Pittsburgh and lead one of the best museums in America into the next century. Providing an exciting environment for both families and scientists to learn about this planet is going to be the most challenging and interesting job I can imagine doing."

The appointment of Jay Apt completes the transition of four new museum directors into leadership roles at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in recent years.

Since 1994 President Ellsworth Brown has appointed Seddon Bennington as director of Carnegie Science Center, Richard Armstrong as director of Carnegie Museum of Art, and Tom Sokolowski as director of The Andy Warhol Museum. The head of the Carnegie Institute's Board of Trustees, Frank Brooks Robinson, noted on the occasion of the announcement that this fourth and final director means that we now have, metaphorically, "four new Clydesdales to really pull our weight" as a national institution.

The day after his appointment as director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Jay Apt spoke about this new direction in his career with the editor of Carnegie Magazine, R. Jay Gangewere.

What have other astronauts done after leaving the astronaut community? Most people can probably think of Senator John Glenn from Ohio as launching a successful career after leaving the service.

John Glenn actually had two careers after leaving the astronaut community. He made quite an impact on Holiday Inns as a businessman, and then later went into political life.  There was an early era when the community of ex-astronauts was so small that most of them went into the aerospace industry almost exclusively. But many have now done other things, and had the successes and failures you usually find in other work.

I can think of three astronauts who have gone into the museum field. The first was Mike Collins, who wrote two wonderful books—Carrying the Fire is the best known. He became the founding director of the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Second is a contemporary of mine—Dr. Kathy Sullivan, the first woman to do a space walk. She is the director of COSI in Columbus , Ohio—a major museum of science and industry. A third that I think of is Dr. Ed Gibson, the Skylab astronaut. He became the director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. But the financial problems were overwhelming there, a situation not revealed before he took the job, so he left that position.

So there is a record of crossover interests between the astronaut community and the museum field. But the word "astronaut" has such starpower, as they say, that it obscures other interests. If you were to describe yourself without using the word "astronaut"—what terms would you use?

I would say I have a intense interest in the Earth and how the whole universe is organized, ranging from how creatures evolve to how planets, and the universe itself, evolves. This has always fascinated me, and it cuts across disciplines.

After I took my degree in laser physics I went immediately into something totally different—planetary astronomy. There I studied atoms not in a laboratory but around one of Jupiter's moons, Eo. A cloud of sodium had been found around Eo—it turned out to be from volcanic activity on Eo, which shocked people.

There is no specific scientific discipline that encompasses all of my interests. In fact the natural history museum itself is the only institution that has a broad enough scope to encompass these interests.

The more I learned about your background, and then after I took a good look at your 1996 National Geographic Society Book, Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth, the more it seemed to me that a natural history museum had to be the right institutional fit for you.

I do have an intense interest in how the world works. And in this city the natural history museum and the science center can be complimentary in ways that no other city has the opportunity to have. The experience that people can get at these two institutions is unparalleled.

Carnegie Mellon University has a Robotics Center, the Science Center has a planetarium, Allegheny County has a famous observatory, and scientific researchers have access to the SuperComputer Center—there is a lot of scientific crossover and fertilization here.

Within the city of Pittsburgh, in a small physical area, there are more institutions with shared interests like this than in any other place in America. It's fascinating. You can walk across the ravine behind the natural history museum and find the best computer science folks in the world. You can go up to Allegheny Observatory and talk to George Gatewood, who is at the forefront of finding planets around other stars. You can go to the Science Center and see changing exhibits regularly that capture people's interests.

I considered all this before I decided to come here. Absolutely. I think that this environment of having all these resources available in Pittsburgh is almost unique in the country. The city is of my favorite places. My wife and daughters, who are eight and five, are extremely thrilled about moving to a safe city. This is a city with great cultural heritage, where they can walk around and visit the shops in the neighborhoods. It is just a great opportunity.

The announcements about your appointment suggest that you are at a turning point in your own life, at a time for "giving back" some of the knowledge you have gained. It is time for you to assess the meaning of things that you have seen and put your knowledge to some new use. My question is—what do you want to give back? What would you list as things that are important for you to tell people?

The primary thing to remember is that flying around the Earth is one way to capture how the Earth looks, as part of a system in the universe. But it is only one way to do that.

The resources available at this museum will let people capture a view of the Earth at any time in the past, and even something of the future. Here we can look at worlds that we don't have access to. We don't have an actual time machine. But yet the time machine is right here—in this building. And we can take people backwards and forwards. We can show them worlds that will just fascinate them, and they can walk in those worlds, right here. To me walking through the doors of Carnegie Museum of Natural History is every bit as exciting as sitting on top of a rocket waiting for a ride into orbit.

Is there a difference between "rocket science" and museum science—the world of paleontologists and anthropologists?

Sure there is. But we try to keep space voyages from being too exciting. We don't want a real exciting space voyage. I had one of those. We had a satellite that was broken, and we had to do an emergency spacewalk. We prefer a nice, boring spaceflight!

In science there is actually excitement around every corner. When I hear the kinds of things that people are doing in the laboratories of this building, I get goosebumps.

For example, this museum is at the forefront of opening up paleontology in the People's Republic of China. Incredible discoveries have happened right here that have pushed back the origins of primates—that family that contains us—to 35 million years ago. This is just about double the time in the past that primates were thought to have existed.  That was done by people right here.

Jim Richardson's wonderful work in looking at the garbage of people who once lived on the coast of South America, and from that uncovering a key to understanding one aspect of global climate change is another example. Such connections are only made in a place where people talk geology and anthropology over lunch, in the same breath.

This museum has a long history and a distinguished tradition of research. But it also struggles to finance some of its research and expeditions. Is fundraising going to be a special challenge for you?

My experience has included funding my own scientific research, and that of my group, and that of the various institutions I have belonged to. Funding is always tight. But in Pittsburgh if you have a plan that excites people you can get it to happen. That is our job here—to get people's attention riveted on the exciting ways that we can present to the public the wonderful information within these walls. By doing pilot projects, and showing people what can be done at the museum by using all our senses, we can move ahead. Now we have new technologies for presenting material—and this can be extended to a range of our exhibits. We have to look at what this is what is going to cost.

I personally think Pittsburgh is the best city in the country to fund projects like that. Ever since the time of Carnegie, Pittsburghers have thought, "Hey, that's a great idea—let's go for it!"

You are also going to work on a team—as part of a family of museums.

This is wonderful, a terrifically nurturing environment. There are opportunities for cooperation between all the elements of Carnegie Institute that are fantastic, unrivaled in any other city.

As a boy Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., saw the facade of St. Giles here, and finally ended up giving Fallingwater to the public. Fallingwater became an indirect legacy of his experience here. Your own growing up in Pittsburgh, and visiting this museum has the same sense of completing a connection.

I came here quite often. And I went to the Buhl Planetarium quite often. Both experiences were important to me. I met people at the Allegheny Observatory as well. It's great that today people know more fully how much science is done at this museum. There are new windows for the public to use in watching laboratory research in entomology. That's the kind of sharing we need to promote.

Are you going to push towards a lot of visitor interactivity, new technology, more hi-tech exhibits?

I think a lot of natural history processes are best grasped through all your senses, and looking at things with the new modern tools that are available. That's the kind of thing we will be looking at as part of the new strategic plan. There are many opportunities for incorporating new technology into the museum. First, you want to let people more fully understand the scientific facts being presented, and second, you want the opportunity to change things quickly.

We want to change things often enough to let people come back to the museum every month, to find out what's new in natural history. You will miss something if you fail to come to this museum once a month.