Monadnock Profiles: A love of space and passion for the sciences

  • Rick Harnden of New Ipswich splits a board on a saw in his home workshop. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Rick Harnden of New Ipswich. XXXStaff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Rick Harnden of New Ipswich. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Rick Harnden of New Ipswich. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/7/2021 3:47:15 PM

There’s a book on a shelf in Rick Harnden’s New Ipswich home that he first read at the age of seven.

“Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Space Ships” by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt was published in 1951, a fantastic look at the then-unknown future of space travel, grounded in science. Like most kids in the 1950s, Harnden was fascinated by sci-fi movies that dramatized the idea of space exploration and he just couldn’t get enough. It ignited a passion deep inside that would eventually become his life’s work.

He was in the fourth grade when discovered his love of math, sparked by a baseball game that featured multiplication.

“Turned out I was pretty good at math and science,” he said. “I just remember always loving it and I still do to this day.”

He took calculus in junior high school, remembering the thrill of learning there was something beyond geometry and trigonometry. He scored a perfect 800 on his math achievement test and knew he wanted to further his studies in the sciences. While his father Frank Harnden Sr. (Harnden’s given name is also Frank but has always gone by Rick) was a Harvard grad, Harnden took his educational journey to Yale University’s physics department. The idea was always to go to grad school for nuclear physics – but something happened the final semester of his senior year. He was introduced to the theory of x-ray astronomy and it altered the focus of his studies.

After growing up in the Dallas area, moving there at six months old from the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Harnden returned to the Lone Star State to study astrophysics at Rice University. As Harnden remembers, the space program was just getting underway as he embarked on his higher education with the first moon landing taking place during his days at Rice.

As Harnden dove deeper into the world of astrophysics he became fascinated with what else was out there in the universe. There was so much unknown about what lied beyond the earth’s atmosphere and the ability to be on the cutting edge of discovery was just about the most exciting thing a scientist could dream of.

Harnden said that for so long astronomy was about the light that was visible from distant objects.

“Visible light is what we’re familiar with,” he said. Yet it’s only one part of the electromagnetic spectrum. “But by looking at the entire spectrum, you get a more comprehensive view of what’s going on out there. It’s a way to get a broader view, complete view of what’s out in our universe.”

Harnden called the discoveries around x-rays fascinating because there were so many questions about what was truly “visible” in space.

“And we were actually answering those questions,” he said. “The answers are so satisfying and it was the perfect time to be involved in all of this.”

Harnden was inspired by the likes of Herbert Friedman, who spent nearly his entire professional career at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C, and had a vision for an X-ray telescope on the moon “which we have not done,” Harnden said, along with Italian astrophysicist Riccardo Giacconi.

During his second year at Rice, Harnden was part of an experiment that launched a high-altitude balloon carrying a high-energy X-ray telescope from Palestine, Texas. Along with two bush pilots, Harnden tracked the balloon across the southern part of the country until its landing in a pig farmer’s field in Georgia. The data collected by the telescope was actually transmitted by radio, but someone had to gather the payload. It was the first of a dozen balloon flights that Harnden took part in around the globe, with his work taking him to places like Argentina, Japan, China, Germany, Italy and England.

After finishing up his studies, Harnden was a senior scientist at American Science & Engineering, Inc. for two years. Then at the urging of a professor, he applied for a job at Smithsonian Institution, Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard.

“I didn’t look for the job, it fell into my lap,” he said. While his career took him to other locations in the field of astrophysics, Harnden was tied to the Smithsonian Institution, Astrophysical Observatory for 34 years until his retirement in 2008. He spent two years as a Visiting Senior Scientist at NASA Headquarters from 1995-97 and as a High Energy Astrophysics Discipline Scientist in the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters for the final four years of his work.

It was at Rice where Harnden’s passion for the universe took on a new dream of actually donning a spacesuit and being sent into space.

“The space science department really got me keyed into NASA,” Harnden said.

In 1977, Harnden was among 12,000 applicants for NASA’s Mission Specialist Program. He was selected as one of 200 finalists and went through a battery of physical and psychological tests. Ultimately though he was eliminated from consideration.

“I was not meant to go into space,” Harnden said, who chalked up not being selected because of his eyesight. It was a defeating moment for Harnden and it led to what he described as a month-long depression. But it didn’t derail his passion for space and all the questions that still needed to be answered. He has authored and peer-reviewed hundreds of scientific papers on the topic of astrophysics.

While at the Smithsonian Institution, Astrophysical Observatory, Harnden was part of so many missions in a quest to learn more about the presence of x-rays in space. He worked to develop instruments for sounding rocket projects for data collection, taking part in multiple launches from White Sands, New Mexico.

Some of his prized work was when he landed opportunities to be part of three satellite launches. The Roentegen Satellite (ROSAT), a German X-ray observatory built in collaboration with the United States and the United Kingdom put into orbit in 1990. It was named for German scientist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who first discovered x-rays in 1895. The High Energy Astronomical Observatory-2, also known as the Einstein Observatory, was the first fully imaging X-ray telescope put into space, whose scientific outcome completely changed the view of the X-ray sky. He even designed the analysis system for the Einstein Observatory.

“I literally soldered components that went into space,” Harnden said.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory, a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes was launched in 1999 and is still working today.

“The cool thing about Chandra is that its orbit is unique,” Harnden said, which is about one-third of the way to the moon.

Eventually “I got kicked into management,” Harnden said, so his hands-on work with projects took a bit of a back seat.

Harnden and his wife Virginia first moved to New Ipswich in 1998. While he was still working in Cambridge at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, they were in search of a getaway within about 90 minutes of Boston. As a lover of the outdoors, having climbed the Boy Scout ranks all the way to earning the honor of Eagle Scout, the four-acre property with a log cabin and a private lake surrounded by conservation land was perfect.

They slowly started to spend more time at their spot in the woods and when Harnden retired in 2008 it became their full-time home.

In search of something to fill his time, as Virginia had found her passion as a board member at the Hampshire Country School in Rindge, Harnden helped found Monadnock At Home, a nonprofit membership organization serving seniors of the Monadnock Region with the support and practical means to live and thrive in their homes and communities. His mom had come down with Alzheimer’s and spent time in a nursing home and his father had a stroke, so the mission was close to his heart.

“I just thought anything we can do to help with that stage of life is worth doing,” Harnden said. He is the former chair of the board and still continues to volunteer, helping with odd jobs around people’s homes and assisting with teaching technology. As the vaccine rollout began, Harnden helped some with setting up their appointments.

“It is very, very satisfying and rewarding,” he said. “And as I learned as a boy scout, it helps you to.”

The reason he retired at just the age of 63 was to spend more time with his and Virginia’s children and their grandchildren.

“I was afraid I was going to miss things,” he said.

He fills his time in the workshop on his property, having built a dock for the lake. He loves to fix things because as he puts it “problem-solving is my thing.”

Harnden is still fascinated by space, evident by still owning the first book he ever read about it. He has a pair of high powered binoculars that allows him to see star clusters, the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter. The best place for viewing on his property is in the middle of the lake.

“Now I’m just an observer,” Harnden said. “But what a trip it’s been.”


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