January 28, 2005

NASA Scientist’s Career Spans Agency History

A Goddard Senior Fellow, Dr. Mario Acuña is a long way from his native land. Acuña was born and raised in Argentina. He had not planned on a career at NASA; however, a series of events and political turmoil in Argentina eventually brought him to America.

Acuña’s research began with the very beginning of the space program, before satellites were put into orbit. Much of the early space research was related to the ionosphere, cosmic rays, and radiation belts. The available research tools were rockets and balloons, which had to be launched from various places around the world. Argentina was one of the places, and that was where Acuña had his first contact with NASA. In 1966, Argentine universities were “intervened” by a military dictatorship, and Acuña decided to leave the country.

Acuña received undergraduate degrees in the humanities and economics and a master’s in electrical engineering while attending the Argentine National University of Tucumán. From 1963 to 1966, Acuña worked as a foreign research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Greenbelt, Md. in sounding rocket and balloon programs. 

He moved permanently to the U.S. in 1967. He continued working at GSFC as a contractor for engineering and science support. In 1969, he became a civil servant, and he worked in sounding rockets until 1970. In 1971, Acuña moved to the Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics as a staff scientist, where he is today. His work at GSFC centered on aerospace instrumentation, experimental investigations of solar system magnetic fields and plasmas.

As Principal Investigator, Co-Investigator, Instrument Scientist and Project Scientist, Acuña has played a crucial part in many NASA missions, including Explorers 47 & 50, Mariner 10, Pioneer 11, Voyagers 1 & 2, Viking, the mission to Comet Halley and many other programs.

In 1986 Acuña was selected as Principal Investigator for the Mars Observer Magnetic Field Investigation, later replaced by the Mars Global Surveyor Mission. It arrived at Mars in September 1997. It is in orbit around the red planet making fundamental discoveries about planetary magnetism.

  Acuña has published more than 140 papers dealing with planetary exploration, magnetic fields and plasmas in the solar system and instrumentation for space research. NASA and other organizations have honored him with numerous prestigious awards including the Schneebaum Memorial Award for Engineering Excellence, the John C. Lindsay Award for Space Science, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the Exceptional Service Medal and the Award of Merit.

He received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest honor, in recognition of his contributions to engineering, physics and space research. In 2003 he received a Presidential Rank Meritorious Award for his service to the U.S. government.

Acuña advises young people, “…to believe in themselves and think less about money as a career goal. Above all, education, in particular math and science, gives you the freedom to choose what you do, rather than being told what to do.”

For information about NASA and agency programs on the Internet, visit: http://www.nasa.gov

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