Lodewijk van den Berg

Lodewijk van den Berg is a naturalized American chemical engineer born in the Netherlands whom was rather dedicated to crystal growth and also rode aboard as a payload specialist on the 1985 Space Shuttle Challenger mission.

He was born in Sluiskil, Netherlands on March 24, 1932. He worked to get his Engineer’s degree in chemical engineering at the Delft University of Technology in Netherlands from 1949 to 1961. After moving to the United States, Van den Berg continued his education to get his MSc degree and his PhD for applied science in 1974 at the University of Delaware.

With his degree, Van den Berg was presented with a job as a crystal growth researcher with EG&G Corporation Energy Measurements, a defense contractor that dealt with complex information in partnership with the US Government, in Goleta, California. Because of the sensitive information that Van den Berg was around, in 1975 he became an official American citizen. After his naturalization, he was free to go about his research of the growth of certain types of crystals under specific constraints. His researches lead him to become internationally renowned for his efforts with “vapor growth techniques” and their application in gamma ray detection. Because of his fascination with the patterns of the crystals, he had asked officials at NASA to allow him to compare the effects of earth’s atmosphere and those effects of space on the growth of crystals.

After many strenuous hours of research and redesigning, Van den Berg and his peers at EG&G created the Vapor Crystal Growth System (VCGS) machine. This was to be used on the flight in which the crystals’ would be studied. Because of its complicated operating system, this machine needed a special operator that had experience with the device to ride along on the mission. Because of this slight speed bump, a list of probable candidates had to be found in order to find the perfect operator to join along on the mission. EG&G and Van den Berg were to find eight people that had a chance of being the Payload Specialist and among those eight names, Lodewijk van den Berg was one of them.

There were three selection rounds while trying to find the Payload Specialist. The first was a few questions about the nature of the mission; only things that the most qualified people would be able to answer correctly. Because of his extensive knowledge of the machine and the fact that this mission was proposed by Van den Berg, this round was quite easy for him.

The second round is a physical training and mental challenge round where each candidate is tested to the ends of their abilities in strength, both intellectual and corporeal. Because of the other candidates’ heart problems combined with his own capabilities, Van den Berg was in the final two. NASA traditionally trains two astronauts for the same mission in case the first choice astronaut is unable to carry out the mission. Van den Berg was chosen as the first choice trainee and was decided to be the Payload Specialist for the Challenger mission. This came to a shock to Van den Berg and his peers seeing as he was not only the first Dutch-born astronaut but also he was 53 years old at the time, leading him to be one of the oldest rookie astronauts to date.

After meeting all qualifications, Van den Berg was sent into space on the STS-51B Challenger on April 29, 1985 from the Kennedy Space center, Florida as the Payload Specialist. The Spacelab-3 mission was the first of its kind as the seven crew members went through experiments regarding the crystals growth among other things. Van den Berg took control of all the crystal growth portions of the VGCS tests because of his background designing and working with the machine and the Fluid Experiment System (FES) programming. After 110 orbits of Earth totaling 2.9 million miles in 168 hours, the Space Shuttle Challenger returned to Earth on May 6, 1985 at the Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Even though the mission was complete, Van den Berg’s passion for crystals never seized. Once back in California at EG&G, he was head of the material science department then later the chief scientist of the Constellation Technology Corporation. There he grows crystals that are used to detect nuclear radiation for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

His life’s work was so passionate that he was chosen as the subject of a 2004 documentary entitled The ‘forgotten astronaut’. He even had the main belt asteroid 11430 (9560 P-L) named in honor of him on September 28, 2007 and is now called the 11430 Lodewijkberg.

He now resides in Florida with his wife as the head of the Constellation Technology Corporation located there.

Image Caption: Astronaut Lodewijk van den Berg. Credit: NASA/Wikipedia