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Radar Work Earns NASA Honor for UAF Leader

Mar 10, 2022 | Education, News, Science

Nettie La Belle-Hamer

UAF

NASA gave one of its highest national honors to UAF’s Nettie La Belle-Hamer for her work in synthetic aperture radar.

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The NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal is awarded to a non-government person “for sustained performance that embodies multiple contributions on NASA projects, programs, or initiatives.”

La Belle-Hamer directed UAF’s Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) from 2002 until earlier this year when she relinquished the position upon being named vice chancellor. She had been interim vice chancellor since May 2020.

“I am deeply humbled by this prestigious award,” La Belle-Hamer says. “When I read the email notifying me, I was so stunned I didn’t move for about thirty minutes. This is such a huge honor and reflects not just on me but also on the whole ASF team.

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“It has been a privilege to serve with the men and women of ASF for all these years,” she says. “I still believe in the mission as much as I believe in the team.”

A lifelong Alaskan, La Belle-Hamer received her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1985 and her master’s degree in space physics at UAF in 1988. She worked as a Geophysical Institute research assistant from 1987 until 1994, the year she earned her PhD in space physics from UAF.

Colleagues at UAF and NASA cited La Belle-Hamer’s more than twenty-five years of working with the space agency as a leader in developing a robust repository of data for researchers worldwide.

At ASF prior to becoming director, La Belle-Hamer led the ASF Science Center, which worked on development of the Earth Observing System Data and Information System. As ASF director, she focused on managing the NASA Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) for synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data supporting polar environmental processes.

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“In the 2000s, SAR data was considered very complex and difficult to use,” the nomination letter from colleagues reads. “Its adoption by the science community was limited in spite of the fact that SAR has significant science advantages.

“Dr. La Belle-Hamer took on several approaches leading her team at the DAAC to engage the community by making the data quickly accessible online, by assigning staff to work directly with the users to provide training sessions and by pulling together tools to make it easier,” the letter continues.

Colleagues also cited her effort to move SAR data to the cloud, allowing users to analyze SAR data faster. Under her guidance, the DAAC grew from a small system handling terabytes of SAR data to a system that supports over 13 petabytes of data and distributes more than 2 petabytes per month to users worldwide.

“She has been so successful at building an awareness of SAR data that users were eager for NASA to develop the upcoming NISAR satellite,” the letter reads, referring to the joint dual-frequency satellite mission of NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization.

“Her dedication in the role of a leader in SAR science data systems and curation will make a difference for generations to come.”

Drew Kittel, science operations manager of NASA Goddard’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS), praised La Belle-Hamer’s dedication to advancing synthetic aperture radar. ESDIS uses ASF and other DAAC centers to process, archive, distribute, and provide stewardship of data obtained from NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System missions and instruments.

“For the entirety of Nettie’s tenure as director of ASF and manager of the ASF Distributed Active Archive Center, she and her team have worked passionately as proponents of using SAR for the advancement of scientific research and applications capabilities,” he says.

“Nettie’s two-plus decades of drive, dedication, and lasting contributions to NASA’s mission and the broad community of SAR data users is the embodiment of public service and made her a natural and deserving nominee for NASA’s Exceptional Public Achievement Medal.”

The award is among several agency honors approved by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson for individuals and groups of individuals, both government and non-government, “who have distinguished themselves by making outstanding contributions to the agency’s mission.”

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