Two Hokies among 2022 class of Astronaut Scholars
Undergraduate students Lennon Headlee of aerospace engineering and Tim Proudkii of physics received the annual honor sponsored by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Virginia Tech undergraduates Lennon Headlee and Tim Proudkii have earned spots in the 2022 class of Astronaut Scholars. Sponsored by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the annual honor recognizes exceptional students in science, technology, engineering, and math for initiative, creativity, and excellence in their chosen field.
Headlee and Proudkii join an elite group of Hokies previously honored by the foundation, including Arianna Krinos in 2017 and 2018, Jim Owens in 2019, Christine Faunce in 2020, and Terelle Cadd in 2021.
Headlee and Proudkii will be honored at a dinner in January at a campus event hosted by the foundation. Afterward, a NASA astronaut will present a public lecture.
Lennon Headlee feels pulled to explore the cosmos
Like many of his peers, Headlee was bit by the space bug at a young age. He grew up reading and watching science fiction and dreamed of building robots and complex machines to survey unexplored planets and the vast galaxy.
He described “feeling the call” to uncover the mysteries and secrets of the cosmos from the time he was 11 years old. As Headlee began thinking about a career, he discovered that his lifelong passion for space and interest in engineering could be combined with the pursuit of an aerospace engineering degree.
At Virginia Tech, Headlee joined extracurricular teams including the TEK Robotics Club and the NASA Student Launch Initiative, where his team designed, constructed, and launched a rocket for competition. Through both groups, he gained hands-on experience and expanded his knowledge in multidisciplinary areas, such as computer science, programming, and mathematics.
Headlee sought out undergraduate research in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering as well. He developed software for visually interacting with and modifying damage models in virtual reality under Associate Professor Gary Seidel, and researched the use of ultra-wideband sensors for measuring relative displacement and velocity of automotives in Assistant Professor Mathieu Joerger’s lab. He also spent the past two summers at Lockheed Martin Space in Sunnyvale, California, working in guidance, navigation, and control and making several contributions, including one with companywide impact. He is currently working part time with the company to support Orion for Artemis missions.
Now a senior majoring in aerospace and ocean engineering, Headlee was nominated for the honor by engineering faculty members David Gray and Joerger. Gray, who serves as assistant department head for undergraduate programs for the Department of Engineering Education, typically sees more than 500 first-year engineering students as an instructor. The first-year general engineering body is made of the top students from Virginia and across the nation, making it significant for students to stand out among the crowd.
“Lennon is a bright, curious, and dedicated student, among the top 5 percent of all students that I have encountered here at Virginia Tech,” said Gray. “He has not only maintained excellence in his academics, but he has also engaged in multiple undergraduate research opportunities. He has a clear path forward and a vision for how he can achieve the next phase of his education through graduate school and beyond.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree this spring, Headlee plans to pursue graduate studies with a focus on space systems. He has his hopes set on acceptance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because the MIT STAR Lab, Space Systems Lab, and ARCLab all have research projects that align with his interests.
“I want to work on a project that helps further our understanding of space and push humanity into a brighter future,” said Headlee. “Whether that be by sending this generation’s brave men and women to explore and colonize our solar system and beyond or by developing technologies that improve the conditions of life on Earth for everyone who resides here. I want to help discover the mysteries that lie beyond the veil of our atmosphere, answer the truths hidden in worlds afar, and inspire the next generation to continue this pursuit of knowledge and passion.”
Tim Proudkii stays busy. And he likes it that way.
He is a senior in the College of Science, majoring in physics with minors in astronomy, computer science, and mathematics. He has been president of the Virginia Tech Society of Physics Students since his first year of school, and has organized various STEM outreach events for area schools, such as “astronomy night,” where members traveled to local schools to share their passion for science. In addition to his academic pursuits, he also has been involved in undergraduate research on early-type galaxies in the Department of Physics, and has spent the past two summers working at NASA, researching comets. Outside of academics, he enjoys jiu-jitsu and boxing. He also is a professional actor and a classically trained pianist, according to a LinkedIn profile.
“From struggling with jiu-jitsu to struggling with quantum mechanics, I love a good challenge,” he said earlier this fall. “Why do all this? Well, it’s simple: I want to expand humanity’s knowledge about our place in the universe.”
It was a high school trip to the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia that ignited this motivation.
“In the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, the night sky was clear with little to no light pollution,” Proudkii said. “I saw the Milky Way galaxy in all its grandeur for the first time in my life. I thought to myself that, perhaps, there is someone out there staring back at me -- how terrifying, yet beautiful. As I looked out into the starry abyss, I realized how little I knew about this magnificent universe. I had always been interested in astronomy, but standing there beneath the night sky, I felt a new sense of curiosity and desire to learn more. I decided then and there that I would do everything I could to understand this incredible place that we call home.”
His undergraduate research work with Collegiate Assistant Professor Danielle Lucero’s astrophysics research group also came about his first year. His task was researching early-type galaxies using the Very Large Array (VLA), a radio interferometer located in New Mexico.
“In Dr. Lucero’s group, we aimed to study the formation of stars in early-type galaxies,” Proudkii said. “My involvement in this project dealt with cleaning, calibrating, and imaging complex, real-world astronomical data. Through this work, I produced some of the highest-resolution radio images of multiple early-type galaxies.”
He also assisted Lucero in writing grant proposals and led radio astronomy workshops teaching new undergraduate entrants in the research group the basics of interferometric imaging.
See, he likes to stay busy.
“Tim’s contribution to my research group has been invaluable. Not only has he become a top-notch researcher but also a great mentor to students just starting out in the group. I honestly don’t know what I will do without him when he graduates,” Lucero said.
Proudkii's experience in complex radio interferometric data led to two internships with NASA during the summers of 2021 and 2022.
The first year he worked in the Astrochemistry Laboratory’s Theory and Observation Group -- a subdivision of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. His work involved analyzing radio interferometric data of comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array (ALMA), what Proudkii calls “the premier sub-mm observatory that can provide unprecedented detail of our radio universe.”
During the summer of 2022, he worked on a different project analyzing the molecular composition of comet D/2021 A1 (Leonard) as it approached the sun primarily using two different radio telescopes: the Northern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA) and the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX).
He also volunteered to write a proposal to use the Green Bank Telescope to learn more about cometary ammonia to shed light on the current mystery of nitrogen deficiency in comets. The proposal received an A-rating, and he was selected to attend the competitive Green Bank Observatory single-dish observing school, completing a full circle in his scientific career.
“When I visited Green Bank again, the Milky Way was still there, waiting for me, unchanged in all its wonder,” he added. “But in the three years since my first visit, I changed: I have grown as a young research scientist and now have the necessary tools to explore the cosmos.”
Proudkii’s year has had its difficulties. Raised in Northern Virginia, he was born to Russian and Ukrainian parents. The February invasion of Ukraine by Russia rocked his family.
“Our lives -- along with thousands of others -- were turned to turmoil,” Proudkii said. “At this time, I was taking some of the most demanding physics courses offered to undergraduates and it was challenging to find the strength to keep pushing; to wake up every day and witness the atrocities happening to my people, to think that I could have been there on the frontlines produced feelings of deep terror and dejection within me.”
He added, “However, I realize how privileged I am to be here in the U.S. pursuing my goals in science and education -- what a waste it would be if I did not maximize my potential. Through my name, I carry my family history: our traditions, our heritage, and our culture. My name motivates me to keep pushing in this challenging field, to keep pushing for a higher level of education, and to keep pushing to advance our understanding of the world.”
Recognizing the Innovators of Tomorrow
ASF recognized the 2022 Astronaut Scholars during its Innovators Gala at the Hilton Orlando in late August. In addition to receiving financial support of up to $15,000, the scholars benefit from networking and mentoring opportunities with astronauts, alumni, and industry leaders; participation in the Michael Collins Family Professional Development Program; and a paid trip to attend the foundation’s Innovators Week, which provides an opportunity for the Astronaut Scholars to present their research at a technical conference.
Created in 1984, ASF awarded its first seven scholarships in honor of its founding members, the Mercury 7 Astronauts — Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Each founding member sponsored a $1,000 scholarship and began to fundraise to support future scholarships by donating proceeds from their speaking engagements. Over the past 38 years, more than $7 million has been awarded to more than 700 college students.