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Born in Chicago, Richard Vondrak entered St. Procopius College as a member of the class of 1965. After studies in Europe he earned an A.B. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and a Ph.D. in space physics and astronomy from Rice University in 1970. His doctoral research was a rocket-borne measurement of electrical currents in the aurora, followed by postdoctoral research in Stockholm, Sweden. He returned to Rice University for lunar research, working in the Apollo Science Operations Center during the last three Apollo missions. He then joined the Stanford Research Institute for studies of the arctic upper atmosphere and the aurora. Later he became the director of space physics at the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory.
In 1995 he became the chief of the laboratory for extraterrestrial physics at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In 2005 he organized the Solar System Exploration Division at Goddard, with responsibility for planetary research and instrument development, and was its first director. He also served as the project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is mapping the Moon and searching for resources. In 2013 he retired and became a part-time NASA employee.
Vondrak is the recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award for Meritorious Senior Executives, as well the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, and many other awards. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, a member of other professional societies, and has served on many advisory committees. He has published 135 papers in scientific journals, edited two books and presented more than 300 papers at scientific conferences. He frequently interacts with students, teachers and the public to inform and inspire them regarding the Moon and the planets.