NASA awards its highest honor to Yervant Terzian

NASA awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal, its highest honor, to astronomer Yervant Terzian, the Tisch Distinguished Professor Emeritus. The medal was presented by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston Aug. 2. 

“Dr. Yervant Terzian has dedicated his life to education, public service, and scientific research,” reads the NASA statement. “He has used his enthusiasm for space exploration and education to bring inspirational experiences to students and the general public across the country.”

The statement continues: “Dr. Yervant Terzian has made an indelible impact on education and inspiring young minds. … He has evoked comprehension and wonder in his students and in his public audiences. These accomplishments and his eminent humanity prove Dr. Terzian worthy of this Distinguished Public Service Medal.”


Terry Herter, chair and professor of astronomy, agrees. “Dr. Terzian has been a relentless, eloquent ambassador for the sciences over his entire career, reaching and influencing undergraduates, graduate students, colleagues and the general public.  This is a very well-deserved award.”

Terzian has served on eight NASA committees, including the Hubble Space Telescope Fellowship Committee, NASA’s Diversity in Science Education and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Radio Astronomy Evaluation Committee. For 20 years, Terzian directed the NASA New York Space Grant Consortium, comprising 19 universities and five industries and science centers. In 2012, the 52 state NASA Space Grant directors elected Terzian chairman.

“The Space Grant has been very successful in implementing space programs for the brightest students across NYS to provide them with opportunities to develop their interest in space,” noted Terzian. “This is what will keep the United States as the leader.”

For 12 years, Terzian served as a visiting lecturer in astronomy for the American Astronomical Society, traveling across the U.S. enhancing college communities’ scientific understanding of the universe. He has also contributed to dozens of radio and television programs for public listeners, on topics such as life in the universe, NASA and the space program, the U.S. space shuttle program, and the state of astronomy.

Terzian said he has been inspired throughout his life by the deductive method of science that started from the ancient Greeks, Aristotle and Plato. “When I was very young, and asked my father why there were stars, I was not satisfied with the answers and I started reading everything I could from the American Library in Cairo,” he explained. “I am sure that the description of nature through our science, through our scientific methods, is still young and we should expect major discoveries in the future. From the work humans have achieved so far, we can deduce that we are not alone in the universe and the day will come that we will find life in other planets. There is a lot of work to be done, and I’m glad that the future generation is interested in making significant progress.”

Yervant Terzian standing next to images of Saturn and of Saturn's rings


Terzian is known for his studies of stellar evolution and the discovery of regions of hydrogen gas between distant galaxies – a finding that indicated the presence of unseen matter in intergalactic space. His research using national radio astronomy observatories has been supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation. He is the author or co-author of more than 235 scientific publications and the editor of seven books, including “Carl Sagan’s Universe.”

Joining Cornell University in 1965, Terzian served as chair of Cornell's Department of Astronomy from 1979 to 1999. He initiated the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Cornell, which offers summer research for students, particularly women and members of underrepresented groups.

Among Terzian’s many honors are NASA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Republic of Armenia’s Gold Medal, its highest honor for scientific achievement. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2001.

At Cornell, Terzian has been recognized for the excellence of his teaching with the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award in 1984 and the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship Award in 2001. In 1999 Cornell University established an endowment for undergraduate scholarships in his name and in 2009 established an endowment for an annual lectureship in astronomy, both with the support of the Friends of Astronomy. The conference room in the Space Sciences Building was dedicated to Terzian in 2017.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

More news

Lisa Kaltenegger, founding director of the Carl Sagan Institute
Lisa Kaltenegger, founding director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. “I think a lot of people might not be so aware of where we are right now, and that they are living in this momentous time in history,” she said. “We can all be a part of it.” Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

She Dreams of Pink Planets and Alien Dinosaurs

View all news