Q&A with UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins

By Dave Perry

What does the OSIRIS-REx mission do for UArizona? For greater Tucson?

OSIRIS-REx and other space sciences efforts at the University of Arizona are great points of hands-on learning for our students. Many of our undergraduates worked on OSIRIS-REx, getting to do real-world science, engineering, and other experience with important impact on the success of the mission. The mission also has allowed the university to sustain the infrastructure and expertise built up over years of leadership in space exploration. 

Missions like these also create job opportunities for our engineers, researchers, analysts and more, right here in Southern Arizona. This is all on top of the incredible discoveries they generate, which is good for our greater Tucson region: what we learn from these missions will shape our future and benefit everyone.

Why was it important for you to be in the Utah desert when the sample arrived?

When I joined the university, the spacecraft was well into its journey, and the team had been working on the project for years even before the launch. It was one of the first things I heard about when I came here, and I have been eagerly tracking the progress of OSIRIS-REx ever since. Showing my support for the mission and the incredible team that made it all work has been a tremendous honor and it is an important part of my job.  

Being able to be there in the Utah desert when it arrived was something I would not have missed for all the world. It was a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity, and a cumulative moment for the university, and I wanted to be there to cheer on our mission team just as I would for our sports teams.

How did that experience compare to other highlights of your presidency? To a basketball or football moment? To the first College of Veterinary Medicine commencement?

In every triumphant moment of the University of Arizona, I tend to think this is the best moment of my time here. Every championship we win, every commencement, every lifechanging discovery we make, I am always thinking this is the highlight that makes it all worth it. And I honestly feel that I am right every single time because each of these moments is the fruition of years of work from incredibly talented and dedicated people. There are so many amazing things our University of Arizona community accomplishes every day because of the people here, and my job is to support them and the amazing work they do. We are always pushing the boundaries and redefining excellence, and I am constantly wondering how we are going to top this, but then we always do.

We heard a previous interview where you express surprise at the size of the Bennu sample. You thought it would be like “parading around with the Stanley Cup.” How do we parade it? How do we capitalize upon it?

I always like to joke about how I am not a rocket scientist, which is one of the reasons why I was picturing something of that scale. But I did not realize how much could be done with a relatively small amount. The sample they retrieved is going to fuel decades of scientific discovery. And we have already surpassed our sample collection goal of 60 grams.

As for parading, we have celebrated the mission—with events in Houston, Texas, and in Washington D. C. There also was a wonderful event in Downtown Tucson with Dante and the team and local leaders. But you also will see us continue to tell the story of this mission and all that it will enable for years. Our scientists and their peers from around the world will learn so much from that sample. While this feels like the final moments for a plan that’s been years in the making, Dante reminds me this really is just the beginning, which is why we have launched the Arizona Astrobiology Center with Dante at the helm. We will all be eagerly following the news for what we discover from the asteroid sample, as well as tracking the progress of OSIRIS-APEX, with the university’s Dani DellaGiustina as principal investigator. So, more to come!

What should our readers know about UArizona and its prominence in space? What should they do to ensure its future?

I think the first thing our business and community leaders need to know is that the OSIRIS-REx mission is not a fluke or a one-time thing. The University of Arizona has a very long tradition of excellence in leading in the field of space sciences and space exploration, and that tradition is only going to grow and expand in the future. We recently announced the Arizona Astrobiology Center, with OSIRIS-REx P.I. Dante Lauretta as center director. It will serve as a hub of scientific collaboration and public engagement. The Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab has begun work on the final mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the largest telescope when it is completed – and we are a founding partner. 

Of course, there is the university’s leadership roles in the James Webb Space Telescope, which has captivated the world, and last year we celebrated the grand opening of our new Mission Integration Lab, which accommodates balloon-borne astronomy, filling an important niche between ground-based observatories and space telescopes. These are just some of the stories, and I could go on, but the point is that beyond the things we all hear about there are many more scientists, engineers, and their teams – including students – working on world-leading projects right here, and we are continuing to invest because this is a point of pride and a point of excellence. 

Our business and community partners are essential in seeing these kinds of programs thrive, and as long as they are engaging with the university, finding ways to partner with the incredible people and programs that are happening here, and providing hands-on learning opportunities for our students, the University of Arizona’s prominence in the space sciences will continue to expand.

Pictured above – President Robbins applauding the landing of OSIRIS-REx in the Utah desert
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