Columbia’s NASA Connection

Goddard Space Institute occupies floor above Tom’s Restaurant

By Casey Davis

When students walk by the corner of 112th Street and Broadway, it is the semi-famous restaurant, Tom’s, that catches their eye. The Seinfeld restaurant! However, located in the same building directly above Tom’s is something just as interesting. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) was established in 1961 to do space science research, opting to establish itself in New York City in order to draw from the resources of nearby universities and facilitate an interest in NASA programs among their students. In 1966, the institute doubled down by moving into the space above Tom’s, what is now Columbia’s Armstrong Hall. It is part of the Earth Sciences Division of the NASA’s Goddard Flight Center. One of its major focuses: climate change research. They combine paleogeology (the study of the solid Earth’s past); global datasets; and global models of the land, atmosphere, and sea in order to analyze past climate change and predict future changes. In their mission statement, GISS emphasizes that they study “natural and man-made changes in our environment that occur on various time scales.” This means that they address anything from the temporary effect of volcanic eruptions on the climate to the destructive tendencies of carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution. These studies create a comprehensive understanding of the habitability of our planet as well as conducting similar studies to look at the habitability of nearby planets.

Branches of NASA often act independently from their location, but the Goddard institute makes a point to do the exact opposite with its active involvement in New York City. Research at this institute is done in collaboration with Columbia and other universities in the area. It joins and supports graduate programs. For both researchers and students, this is a win: the graduate programs get additional resources from NASA and NASA gets dedicated and talented students to be part of their projects. Additionally, NASA offers summer internships to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students who live within a 50-mile radius of the Goddard Space Studies Institute at Columbia. These internships often turn into year-round work in which teams of student and faculty work for the Climate Change Research Initiative.

Illustration by Yotam Deree

Steve Cohen, the director of the Earth Institute, regularly laudes the achievements done by the Goddard institute. He says researchers Allegra LeGrande and Matt Pearce are working to “collaborate with leadership from multiple formal and informal education institutions throughout the NYC metropolitan area on the development of a high school and undergraduate STEM education program to provide authentic research and mentoring experiences to minority and underserved populations and STEM educators.” Mr. Cohen is an adamant supporter of using science in order to educate and help those less fortunate.

The Goddard Institute works together with the Columbia Department of Earth and Environmental Science, as well as SEAS and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in order to offer a graduate program in atmospheric science. This works because GISS acts as both a laboratory for NASA and as a unit of the Earth Institute at Columbia. Funding and research is shared between both of these groups. Often it is the earth sciences division of NASA that decides on certain topics and problems that are important. From there, scientists and graduate students at the Earth Institute delve more deeply and come up with research on the subject. Additionally, many of the employees at Goddard are also employed by the Earth Institute.

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