NASA's Cosmic Ice Laboratory Takes Hudson Out of this World

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Reggie Hudson at NASA
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NASA was founded in 1958, around the time that Dr. Reggie Hudson ’74 started attending school. The first spaceflight to land humans on the moon happened less than a year before he finished high school. Hudson was fascinated by the dawning of the Space Age, and by the time he enrolled at Pfeiffer, he was already “a scientific person interested in astronomical things.”

His professors at Pfeiffer encouraged his interest.  Among other things, they offered star-gazing sessions at night and a rigorous teaching of mathematics and chemistry by day. These experiences helped plant the seeds for Hudson’s current career: He’s the Lead Scientist in the Cosmic Ice Laboratory of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Hudson, a native of Virginia, grew up near Pfeiffer’s Misenheimer campus in Albemarle, N.C. He majored in mathematics and chemistry at Pfeiffer, and in 1978, he earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Tennessee.

Hudson’s area of interest is astrochemistry, which examines the makeup not only of the earth, but also of other planets, the solar system, and objects like meteorites and comets. Among other things, Hudson has researched the chemistry of the outer solar system, and he has studied the organic chemistry of meteorites – both daunting in their intellectual rigor. Hudson has responded to these and other challenges in impressive fashion, having authored or co-authored at least 100 publications during his time at the Cosmic Ice Laboratory.

Just as impressive is his ability to convey his knowledge with enthusiasm and in plain language. This emerged during a recent interview when he described the earth as “the odd ball” in the universe.

“That doesn’t make the earth bad or anything like that,” Hudson said. “It just means that the earth is to be treasured. It’s odd in the sense that it has ordinary oxygen and liquid water, while in most places in the universe, you have these ices. Things are so cold in many places in space that they are just frozen, and you don’t have the liquids like the ones that you and I drink or have inside our bodies.”

In space, planets, suns, and stars formed and are located in the middle of gas clouds. When you get to the clouds’ outer regions, where the stars have little effect, you find these permanently cold parts in which big, icy comets have formed.

A comet begins to “evaporate and sublime” and “grows these big, long tails and halos” as it comes around the sun, Hudson said. For students of the earth, it’s the next best thing to a fossil.

“If we know what a comet is made of, we know something about what the earth started out as,” Hudson said. “We know something about its original chemical composition.”

Another way to appreciate the earth’s outlier status is to compare it with Venus and Mars. Venus is closer to the sun than the earth is, and it’s too warm for plant life. So, all the carbon dioxide that Venus started with is still there.

“Venus is hot as blazes,” Hudson said. “It’s hot enough to melt lead, things like that. That’s why NASA has never landed a spacecraft on Venus; if it did, things would go bad very quickly.”

On Mars, where a spacecraft (the Perseverance rover) did land recently, it’s “too darn cold” for plants to grow. So, the atmosphere of Mars is mostly carbon dioxide.

“If you go to Mars, it would be good to take some plants with you and keep them warm,” Hudson said, chuckling. “Plants would take the carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere and help generate oxygen for people to breathe.”

Hudson began working full-time at NASA in 2009 after first dividing his time between that agency and Eckerd College, a liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he taught chemistry from 1978 to 2008.

Toward the end of his tenure at Eckerd, he secured more than $1 million in grant funding from various NASA programs. The funds enabled him and his students to research the complex sulfur chemistry of Europa, one of the four large moons around Jupiter; to study the atmospheric chemistry of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn; and to study the amino-acid formation in meteorites.

Hudson last taught part-time as a lecturer in the Department of Astronomy of the University of Maryland. He says he misses teaching, but he’s more than satisfied with his current work environment, which he finds stimulating.

“I get to work with some very bright people, and that’s very exciting,” Hudson said. “My colleagues have interesting, often original ideas that kind of spur you on. And, when you have questions about your own work, there are usually people around to bounce ideas off.”

He’s excited about the future of astrochemistry and the role it will continue to play in space exploration and in answering one of science’s oldest and most significant questions, namely “What is everything around us made of?” Such optimism wasn’t always a given: Hudson notes that when he began his studies at Pfeiffer, it was thought that space was too hot, too cold or too empty for many interesting organic molecules to form, especially ones related to biology.

“There was a feeling that little of chemical interest was going to be discovered,” Hudson said. “We’ve since learned that the chemical inventory of the universe is much greater and more diverse than anybody thought possible.”

The chemistry of meteorites, comets, and interstellar space, which Hudson has researched, illustrates the trend.

“You now find literally hundreds and hundreds of different chemical compounds in meteorites, comets, and interstellar space,” Hudson said. “But, when I was a Pfeiffer student, you probably couldn’t list more than a dozen different chemicals. We’ve now found that amino acids, sugars, and even components of DNA can form in extraterrestrial environments.”

Astrochemists will continue to play a key role in the exploration of planets.

“In our laboratory, we try to do things that will help NASA predict what will be found when a spacecraft lands at a place, just as we did with Mars,” Hudson said. “With this information, we can change the technology on a spacecraft to look for certain things, making sure, of course, that we protect a planet from human contamination. When you go to Mars, you don’t want to find garbage that you’ve carried along with you.”

This is all pretty heady stuff for a guy who grew up in a small city near a small college he eventually attended. The professors at Pfeiffer helped position Hudson to thrive on one of the biggest stages in science. He says he is thankful for his former professors of chemistry, including Drs. Don Jackman and Mike Riemann and the late Dr. Joe Echols. Hudson remembers the late Dr. Harold Stephenson as the influential physics professor who provided the star-gazing sessions. He credits Drs. Wade Macey, Jean Mobley and Delmas Petrea ’58 (all deceased) for a solid foundation in mathematics.

Hudson is also thankful for two humanities professors for their influence: the late Dr. Dayton Estes (German) and the late Dr. Melicent Huneycutt (English).

Estes’ teaching was so ausgezeichnet (“excellent”) that Hudson became the only one of about 20 students to pass the German exam for the University of Tennessee’s doctoral program.

“I feel so indebted to my Pfeiffer professors,” Hudson said. “Both figuratively and literally, they prepared me for a career that has been out of this world.”


Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.​