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Since NASA chose the first astronauts in 1959, thousands of pilots, engineers, and scientists have applied to its intensive astronaut candidate training program. Just a handful–321 to date–have actually enrolled. Of those, MIT has educated 34–more than any other private university. Among all universities, only the U.S. Naval Academy claims more, with 52.

Alumni astronauts include Russell L. (Rusty) Schweickart ‘56, SM ‘63, who piloted the first manned flight of the Apollo 9 lunar module in 1969 (see “Defending the Planet,” November/December 2006). The same year, Buzz Aldrin, ScD ‘63, served as lunar-­module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission in the first manned lunar landing. ­Ronald McNair, PhD ‘76, died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Pamela Melroy, SM ‘84, will become the fifth MIT-trained astronaut to command a space mission when she leads the STS-120 space shuttle operation, slated for launch in October. This undertaking will also make her the second woman to command a U.S. space mission.

Melroy’s mission will give a lift to Daniel M. Tani ‘84, SM ‘88, who will remain on the International Space Station as a flight engineer. Five other alumni are scheduled on missions through 2008.

MIT’s Proving Ground

MIT’s astronauts have come from diverse departments. Eleven earned degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, eight studied mechanical engineering, and others pursued courses including applied plasma physics, ocean engineering, geology, chemistry, and nuclear engineering.

Aero-astro head Wesley Harris says MIT provides a stellar proving ground. “To travel to space requires the ability to risk failure in order to succeed. And people are not born with this ability,” says Harris. “It must be taught.”

Melroy says MIT taught her how to apply principles to practice in complex situations. “This is such an important element of what astronauts do, because every time we go into space, we are not sure what will happen next,” she says. “Understanding physical principles–engineering, physics, and so forth–allows you to take the leap when something unexpected happens and apply those principles to the situation at hand.”

The opportunity to help students develop this capability drew Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of the practice in aero-astro, to teach at MIT. ­Hoffman himself was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2006. His NASA career included five shuttle flights, including one to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993.

Solving Problems in Tight Spots

“NASA looks for qualities like the ability to solve problems, to analyze and fix things,” Hoffman says. “And those quali­ties are encouraged at MIT, through project-based learning.” Last year, for example, a group of Hoffman’s junior and senior students designed a mobile camper to operate on the moon’s surface. The camper would offer astronauts unprecedented mobility by providing a pressurized environment for spending nights free of their space suits.

In the Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), undergraduate and graduate students build, program, and test micro­satellites and other devices for use in space. For instance, the Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) can fly in formation and dock with each other as components of a distributed satellite system. The devices are being tested at MIT and on the International Space Station. “The hands-on spaceflight education that students receive gives them the comprehensive, concept-to-operation perspective that is needed to be an astronaut,” says SSL director David W. Miller.

This intense education also forges lasting bonds. Melroy is close friends with astronaut Catherine Cady ­Coleman ‘83, whom she met in MIT’s ROTC program. “This friendship,” says Melroy, “is just one of the benefits from my days at MIT.”

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Credit: Courtesy of NASA

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