2 NASA employees win significant federal award for first-of-its-kind asteroid deflection mission

Two National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees won a top federal award on Oct. 17 for an asteroid deflection mission, according to NASA. (NASA)

HOUSTON – Two National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees won a top federal award on Oct. 17 for an asteroid deflection mission, according to NASA.

Brian Key and Scott Bellamy received the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal on behalf of their mission team during a ceremony at the John. F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The award celebrates employees with skills that benefit the nation, and it was created to inspire people to work for the federal government.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission (DART) that received the award showed how NASA could protect us from an emergency in case an asteroid was headed for Earth.

“That mission could not have gone more flawlessly, (Key and Bellamy) agreed. Launched in November 2021, the DART spacecraft traveled to more than 6.8 million miles from Earth with one simple goal: to intentionally impact into Dimorphos, a 492-foot-diameter asteroid, at roughly 14,000 miles per hour, thus altering its orbit around its much larger parent asteroid, Didymos. DART’s collision with Dimorphos altered the asteroid’s roughly 12-hour orbit period around its parent by about a half-hour,” NASA said.

Related: ‘Solid as a rock’: First asteroid sample collected in space by NASA touches down on Earth

The NASA center in Houston also supported the mission.

Key and Bellamy were the program and mission managers for DART. They worked in the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Their team received the honor in the Science, Technology, and Environment category. “DART was a first-of-its-kind mission that marked a watershed moment for planetary defense. The DART team members are some of the very best of NASA, and we are so excited to see Brian Key and Scott Bellamy recognized for their contributions and leadership,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “Brian, Scott, and the entire DART team have shaped the course of human space exploration, inspiring people around the world through innovation. Thanks to their dedication and hard work, NASA is better prepared to defend our home planet and will be ready for whatever the universe throws at us.”

For this initiative, Key oversaw the budget, staffing and their schedule. He also worked with DART spacecraft developers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“I’m elated to see our team honored with this award and hope it will bring more attention to the valuable work NASA does to defend our home world,” said Key.

He also manages the agency’s $2 billion portfolio that includes several programs that are learning more about the planets, moons, asteroids and more.

Bellamy was also an essential leader and helped organize the team, so they could carry out the mission. “We’re just the managers,” Bellamy said. “Our role has been to serve the team, keeping things moving forward as smoothly as possible to enable them to do the actual hands-on, pencilwork-to-hardware that brought this mission from concept to reality.”

He recalled how the team felt during the mission.

“I don’t even have the words to describe the release of emotion in the control room when we got confirmation that DART had impacted,” Bellamy said. “The whole team went from nail-biting suspense to unbelievable excitement in a matter of seconds.”

NASA and its partners are working on other projects to follow-up on this mission. The European Space Agency is going to launch another mission to look into DART’s impact on Dimorphos. NASA is also working on the NEO Surveyor mission so the agency can learn mor quickly about asteroids and comets that are close to Earth.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory managed the DART mission. The following organizations were also involved: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

About the Author:

Cynthia Miranda graduated from UT Austin and is a proud Houstonian. She is passionate about covering breaking news and community stories. Cynthia previously covered elections, the historic 2021 Texas winter storm, and other news in East Texas. In addition to writing, she also loves going to concerts, watching movies, and cooking with her family.