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Retired Picatinny Engineer Teaches West Point Cadets The Practical Value of Astronomy

Netcong STEM Students
Lucian Sadowski is known among West Point cadets for his energy and fervor
as a lecturer in observational astronomy at the United States Military Academy.
Sadowski retired in January 2020 as a mechanical engineer at Picatinny Arsenal.

The use of Global Positioning System technology is so widespread that its availability is almost taken for granted. However, there may come a time when using GPS is not an option.

In such a situation, an Army officer who took a course at West Point in observational astronomy would have other ways to determine his location--thanks to Lucian Sadowski.

Sadowski, an engineer who retired from Picatinny Arsenal in January, offers cadets a lecture called “How our Sun Affects you on the Battlefield,” in which he explains how modern military equipment, often used with GPS systems, can become inoperable under different weather conditions.

By understanding the Sun and stars, as well as their locations, Sadowski describes how learning astronomy can help prepare warfighters for such issues and thus help to ensure warfighter safety.

The observational astronomy course at West Point consists of two parts. The lecture portion is taught by a lab technician and Paula Fekete, an associate professor at the Academy's Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering.

Sadowski helps to teach the observational labs. This team-teaching setup is not unusual. Many observational astronomy labs in college often have several instructors and assistants. The bi-annual class at West Point is for upperclassmen. It consists of lecture, homework assignments, and labs at the Open Air Observatory, which includes a 16-inch telescope and observatory terrace.

Fekete said many cadets were reluctant to take the course, thinking that “observational astronomy meant looking only at stars” and thus “it will be an easy class.” However, some cadets may be unaware that modern observational astronomy requires special technical skills. The observation aspect is more rigorous and hands-on than one may believe. Among the aspects that Sadowski teaches cadets are how to conduct photographic and binocular and telescopic observations of the night sky.

But he also emphasizes major technical topics, such as data analysis, statistics, geometrical and physical optics of telescopes, time systems, catalogues, and image obtained by telescopes equipped with light detectors.

The observational labs also include discussions about some of the largest ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, which is intended to be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope. The curriculum also provides an introduction to solid state physics in semiconductors and charged-coupled device arrays.

The course's homework is challenging, too, similar to homework in physics or engineering courses. Often, problems are numerical, where cadets have to start with a number of laws (“formulas”) and combine them in such a way so that from the number of “givens” they come up with a calculation resulting in an “unknown.”

“One learns by doing, and when you have clear skies, the students can conduct the labs, see the stars in the night sky and get hands-on experience that will be beneficial when they conduct military operations on the battlefields of the future,” said Sadowski. At Picatinny Arsenal, Sadowski worked as a mechanical engineer in the Small Caliber Armament Division, Weapons Systems and Technology Directorate, Weapons Software Engineering Center, at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center.

Some of the celestial objects that the cadets may observe include the planets of our solar system, the moon, Sun, binary stars, multiple star systems, galactic star clusters, star clusters, planetary nebula, reflection nebula, emission nebula, and galaxies.

“Sadowski came with a lot of motivation and enthusiasm,” said Cadet Tyler Amison, a West Point senior. “We were pretty depressed on the first day when we had to come to Bartlett [the Academic building] at 10 p.m. on a Monday.”

However, Sadowski's enthusiasm rallied the class. “Seeing [Sadowski] up there with his handlight was pretty inspirational,” said Cadet Kevin Seaward, another West Point senior. “The handlight is a light saber from the dollar store,” continued the cadet, before playfully impersonating Sadowski. “‘Oh boy, I sure do love astronomy! Geeee-wiz!’”

“Sadowski is extremely helpful during labs and his attitude keeps the mood up,” added Cadet Drew Bailey.

Teaching astronomy at West Point has been a longtime effort at the Academy. The subject wasn't formally introduced into the curriculum until 2017, as one of the courses taught in the new “Space Science” major. Prior to 2017, a Space and Astrophysics course (without a lab component) was the only elective and the only course in astronomy offered by the department.

The rationale behind the new major was that all branches of the Department of Defense (DOD) needed to include “space-enabled” military officers, given the importance of satellite communication and cyber communication in modern defense.

Specifically this was a response to a request by the U.S. Congress in 2001, in which Congress wanted to create and sustain a cadre of space professionals by way of the “Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization.”

In anticipation of the new United States Space Force, established in December, West Point created an observational astronomy class to provide its cadets a hands-on experience with astronomy. A key objective is to instruct cadets how to navigate their location on Earth using the stars.

While at Picatinny Arsenal, Sadowski was among the scientists and engineers from the installation who regularly provided presentations to West Point cadets on subjects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The lecturers had various degrees and backgrounds including astronomy, engineering and chemistry.

“Sadowski has a lot of experience with observational astronomy,” said Fekete, who met Sadowski about four years ago, when he asked to borrow the department's solar telescope during one of his presentations. “I do not have a degree in astronomy. I'm more of a theoretical physicist than an experimentalist one,” Fekete said. “I was proficient in using the department's larger telescope (16-inch) which is permanently mounted in the observatory's dome. But I had a limited amount of experience with using small, portable telescopes.”

“This is Sadowski's expertise,” Fekete added. “He owns a small telescope and participates in gatherings of amateur astronomers (star parties) where these telescopes are used. He also participates in outreach activities and teaches astronomy courses at the college level.”

Sadowski earned his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Maryland College Park. He also has a master's degree in engineering management from Florida Institute of Technology.

His education led to brief work as a physical scientist for the National Bureau of Standards. Additionally, his degrees have led to his role as an adjunct associate professor at County College of Morris, where Sadowski has been teaching astronomy and natural science courses and workshops since June 1995. In fact, several of his former students now work at the Arsenal.

“When I was in high school, I watched on TV Neil Armstrong walk on the surface of our Moon,” said Sadowski, reflecting on what sparked his interest in astronomy. “After seeing this tremendous accomplishment, I decided that I would attend college for physics to become an astronomer.”

“It [Astronomy] is just fascinating,” he added. “When you look through a telescope, you can observe the surface features on Mars, the cloud bands and red spot on Jupiter, the fantastic ring system on Saturn and, with proper solar filters, the surface of our Sun.”

“Astronomy tries to answer my questions, ‘Who are we? How do we fit in the universe?‘“

At Picatinny Arsenal, Sadowski found his fit. He worked as a supervisory mechanical engineer, and as a research and development physicist that designs, fabricates and ballistically tests new concepts. While his efforts and enthusiasm with astronomy earned him the nickname “The Arsenal Astronomer,” his work with Picatinny Arsenal and his efforts to support the warfighter were grounded in personal experiences.

“My father was a World War II veteran,” Sadowski said. "He was in the Korean War as well. Every night, we [Sadowski and his siblings] would ask Dad to sing us a song before we went to bed. He would always sing ‘The Army Goes Rolling Along.’ We found out later that this was the only song that he knew.

“Also, my mother worked here [Picatinny Arsenal] during World War II,” continued Sadowski. “She was up on Navy Hill and worked for Quality Assurance, measuring the key dimensions on 50 caliber ammunition.”

When he retired, Sadowski had more than 42 years of federal service. However, he plans to continue as an observational lecturer for the astronomy classes at West Point.

Moreover, he plans to chase down and witness notable celestial events. “Witnessing the Great American Solar Eclipse in Idaho in the summer of 2017 was a fantastic lifetime experience,” said Sadowski. “And, teaching astronomy‚Ķ and seeing the awe and excitement of the students is very rewarding.”


Cassandra Mainiero
February 5, 2020