Growing up during the 1970s and ’80s in Forest Park, Dan Chang never really saw the stars firsthand.
“It was all in my head,” said Chang from his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab near Pasadena, Calif. “You can’t really see stars in the sky from Forest Park.”
Instead, the universe opened up for Chang at the library. “My mother, MiMenglan [English name Kathy], worked as a medical tech and during the summer my sister Anne and I were basically latchkey children,” he said. “We went to the Forest Park library almost every day and I read every book about physics, space and aviation.”
Forest Park can claim its very own rocket scientist.
A laser physicist, Chang helps NASA propel and guide rockets on the outer edges of explored space. He’s worked on the Cassini spacecraft now orbiting the planet Saturn. He also helped create a laser measurement system to calculate the tiniest gravitational wobble in a star — a wobble that might indicate the presence of an earthlike planet.
When he came to Forest Park from Taiwan, he was 10 and spoke no English.
“My father, ChenChe [now deceased] worked as a diplomat for the Taiwanese government consul in Chicago,” Chang said.
“I went to Grant-White and then Field-Stevenson. Back then there were no ESL programs. I used to doodle all day until one day I realized I knew the language. The teacher, Mr. Racine, noticed that I should be in the highest reading group instead of the lowest one.”
“It was a sink-or-swim kind of thing,” Chang added.
Intensely interested in science, he attended Fenwick after his parents found out the school was inviting students to apply for scholarships.
When he got to high school, Chang was a member of the math competition and computer clubs. He won a National Merit Scholarship and was a valedictorian, said classmate Ray Kotty, who lives in Forest Park.
Kotty now teaches math at Fenwick.
“Dan was always a little bit more a risk-taker than the other guys in the math-club group,” said Kotty. “He was always going to go ahead and blaze his trail.”
“I credit it to immigrant paranoia,” Chang said. “It’s a mentality that your status is not assured and you have to stay one step ahead of the curve.”
Chang attended MIT and received a B.A. in fluid dynamics and astro-aeronautics. He got a job at the Jet Propulsion Lab and then picked up a Ph.D. in photonics and solid-state physics from UCLA. He’s married and lives outside Pasadena. They have an 8-year-old daughter, he said.
Ever since he read about airplanes in the Forest Park library, Chang has loved aviation. He owns a single-engine aircraft, has flown more than 1,000 hours as a pilot and has trained in stunt flying. “I’ve thrown up in an aerobatic aircraft,” he joked.
For NASA he has worked with the group tasked with interplanetary exploration and astrophysics. Cassini was launched in 1997 and has been in orbit around Saturn ever since 2004, Chang said.
“Everything mankind knows about Saturn right now is coming from that spacecraft,” he said.
NASA’s Deep Space probe is another craft Chang has helped to develop. The spacecraft has an ion energy system 10 times more efficient than a chemical rocket, Chang said, allowing it to travel much farther and longer.
He also helped develop a star identification guidance system for the Deep Space probe that helps keep the craft oriented and works with star-measuring systems that scour stars for clues to life-sustaining planets, up to 50 parsecs away (1 parsec = 3.26 light years, or 19.2 trillion miles).
“We can imagine life on rocky planets, on the order of earth-sized, within the habitable zone around the star — not so close that you’d fry and not so far that you’ll freeze.”
If the star wobbles in a tiny way, that might mean a gravitational pull from a life-supporting planet, he said.
“We measure a star’s angular movement by one micro arc-second. That’s one millionth of 1/360th of a degree.”
NASA put the measuring instruments on spacecraft to improve accuracy, since the atmosphere interfered with the precision accuracy of earth-based telescopes, he said.
Though he works at NASA, he’s most interested in the physics and engineering, he said.
“For me the laser system that I was partly responsible for is right at the edge of what’s technically possible.”
Along with his current NASA work, “which I can’t tell you anything about,” Chang consults for private space companies in California.
But he remembers fondly Forest Park’s pool, rockets at the library and his years at Fenwick.
Classmate Kotty remembers Chang in a Saturday astrophysics class in the early 1980s at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.
“We were from Fenwick, an all-boys high school [at that time] and we were kind of nerdy, the math-club guys. There were these girls there. Dan was the only one who was not too shy to talk to the girls. He even took one of them to the junior prom,” Kotty recalled.
Chang remembers the girl, too, but for different reasons. “She knew what black body radiation was and so did I. I think she works in the naval research lab now.”
Recently Chang took a group of Fenwick visitors, including then-president Rev. DePorres Durham on a tour of the Jet Propulsion Lab.
“I’ve been interested in science all my life. My goal was to win a Nobel Prize in physics, which I guess I’m going to fall far short of,” he joked.