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MIT Technology Review

At MIT, space is in the atmosphere

Above and beyond with the Institute’s more than 40 alumni astronauts

Photo of Duke on the crater's edgePhoto of Duke on the crater's edge
Photo of Duke on the crater's edge

Of all the MIT alumni who have worked to advance space exploration in myriad ways, none spark fascination quite like those who have left Earth’s atmosphere.

Fewer than 600 humans have gone to space. Of that number, 38 first went to MIT. That tally will soon rise to 41, adding three MITers chosen for training in 2017 from some 18,000 applicants: Raja Chari, SM ’01, a US Air Force lieutenant colonel; Warren “Woody” Hoburg ’08, an MIT assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics; and Jasmin Moghbeli ’05, a US Marine Corps major.

Meanwhile, the initiated continue to take flight. On the auspicious (for MIT) date of March 14, or Pi Day, of this year, Tyler “Nick” Hague, SM ’00, returned to the International Space Station (ISS). And E. Michael “Mike” Fincke ’89—a retired Air Force colonel who has already logged 381 days off the planet—is slated to make his fourth trip to space later this year on the first crewed test launch of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, a spacecraft designed to be reused up to 10 times for missions in low-Earth orbit.

Photo of Coleman in space
Cady Coleman ’83 prepares to insert samples into an ISS freezer as part of the Nutritional Status Assessment study in 2011.

Several astronauts made shorter journeys in March, touching down on MIT’s campus for Apollo 50+50, a symposium hosted by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing in 1969 (piloted by Buzz Aldrin, ScD ’63). The event was part of a campus “Space Week” that also included the Media Lab’s Beyond the Cradle 2019: Envisioning a New Space Age and the MIT New Space Age Conference hosted by the MIT Sloan Astropreneurship and Space Industry Club. Together, the events surveyed the feats of the past as inspiration for the next half-century of space—and Earth—exploration, and provided an opportunity to envision an interplanet­ary future.

“Those next 50 years belong to a new generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers,” said Aero-Astro faculty member Olivier de Weck, SM ’99, PhD ’01, at the Apollo event. “They are passionate, they are diverse, they are extremely motivated, and they will take humanity further than ever before.”

In 2014, the MIT Alumni Association interviewed several astronauts during the MIT Aero-Astro centennial. Here are some highlights from those conversations.

The dream

An image of Chris Cassidy in a spaceship
Expedition 36 flight engineer Chris Cassidy, SM ’00, in the “cupola” of the International Space Station in 2013
NASA

Fincke: I decided to become an astronaut when I was three years old. I learned to read just so that I could read more about space.

Cameron:Watching John Glenn on his orbital flight—that was the initial motivation. I don’t think I really thought seriously about it until I was here at MIT and realized that as an aviator, and an MIT graduate, I actually had a shot.

Cassidy: I wasn’t a kid with space shuttles glued to my wall. I got into my career in the SEAL Teams. When I met Bill Shepard [SM ’78], another graduate of MIT and a SEAL, I realized, “Hey, my background’s kind of similar. If he got selected, maybe I could do that as well.”

Coleman:It never occurred to me to be an astronaut until I met Dr. Sally Ride at a talk sponsored by the women’s alumni association [AMITA] here at MIT. All I did was shake her hand, but it was very significant to realize that maybe that was something I could aspire to as well. I think I always wanted to be part of going places that people hadn’t been.

Antonelli:During my childhood, the Apollo-era guys were heroes, but for me it was really about exploration and wanting to see something new. My guess is there’s a large percentage of the MIT community that shares that trait.

Chang-Díaz:I wanted to be a rocket scientist, and I always felt that astronauts and rocket scientists were pretty much the same thing. Fortunately, NASA began to open up astronaut positions for non-military scientists, and so the conditions were just right for me at the time that I started.

Photo of astronauts in spaceship
Five astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis (including Ken Cameron ’78, SM ’79, far right) look out at their counterparts aboard the Mir space station in 1995.

“It was like a train wreck, the violence and the energy, launching into space.”

Massimino: Coming to MIT is like wanting to be an actor or an actress and going to Hollywood. There were so many students here that wanted to be astronauts, it didn’t seem like a crazy idea.

Grunsfeld:It really came into focus for me at MIT. We built an instrument to go in a high-altitude balloon, to look at black holes and neutron stars. That experience firmed up for me that I didn’t want to just send experiments to space—I wanted to go.

The prep

Photo of suited astronaut
John Grunsfeld ’80 performs work on the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.

Massimino: MIT teaches you how to solve problems. The problem sets and exams, as much as they were grueling—you learned how to think quickly. This happened all the time for me in spaceflight: you’re trying to do something that might be pretty complicated, and you’re like, “Whoa, I can’t handle everything here—let me handle what’s really important.” I think that’s what MIT overall taught me, in addition to working together with people to solve a complicated problem.

Fincke: Tooling, tooling, tooling. Studying all the time—that’s what we did at MIT. Problem sets, critical thinking, working together in groups. All those skills we got here first, at MIT, before I ever went to NASA. I couldn’t say astronaut training was easy, but it was made a lot easier because of the forge of Unified Engineering.

Coleman:One of the things that I learned at MIT was how to be tough and persistent. Some of those things I learned out on the water on the crew team. It’s hard to look ahead at a whole race and realize I have to work that hard. It’s daunting, but I can think about it for this stroke and this stroke, and maybe the next 10.

The thrill

Fincke: All the way up to the final countdown, I thought they were gonna open the hatch and say, “Hey, we made a mistake. Get out.” But they didn’t, and we launched. We were in orbit, and I looked out the window, and I saw the Earth from space for the first time. And it took my breath away. Literally, it was breathtaking—I couldn’t breathe for 30 seconds.

Grunsfeld: I had no idea what was coming. It was like a train wreck, the violence and the energy, launching into space. Eight and a half minutes later, we’re traveling at 17,500 miles an hour, 250 miles above the surface of the Earth, and when the main engines turned off, all of the violence suddenly went away. It was perfectly calm. I got this really big silly grin on my face, and it stayed the whole mission, 17 days.

Photo of MIT alumni astronauts

The astronauts

  • 1. Dominic “Tony” Antonelli ’89 (Course 16)

    Has flown in more than 40 kinds of aircraft.

  • 2. Kenneth Cameron ’78, SM ’79 (Course 16)

    Gave the Aero-Astro department a brass rat he carried into space.

  • 3. Christopher Cassidy, SM ’00 (Course 13)

    Paddled a kayak 180 miles to raise funds for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

  • 4. Catherine “Cady” Coleman ’83 (Course 5)

    Plays flute in a folk band with fellow astronauts.

  • 5. Franklin Chang-Díaz, ScD ’77 (Course 22)

    Was the first Costa Rican in space.

  • 6. E. Michael “Mike” Fincke ’89 (Courses 12 and 16)

    Teleconferenced into his 15th reunion from the ISS.

  • 7. John Grunsfeld ’80 (Course 8)

    Nickname is the Hubble Repairman.

  • 8. Michael Massimino, SM ’88, ENG ’90, ME ’90, PhD ’92 (Technology & Policy, Course 2)

    Published a memoir, Spaceman, in 2016.

  • For a full list of MIT astronauts, click here.

Cassidy: On the space station, we have this wonderful 360-degree window called “the cupola,” where you can just surround yourself with space and Earth.

Antonelli: I was up there looking down at Earth thinking, “Everybody I know lives there, and everybody they know or have known all shares this one little place together.”

Coleman: One hundred eighty days in space is a good start, but it’s not enough. It’s a magical place where suddenly, all the rules are different. It’s about constantly challenging yourself to think, not just in one G, as we call it, but in different directions. It’s very addictive. There’s a certain grief, almost, in leaving, and at the same time, there’s a lot of sacrifices associated with being up there.

Chang-Díaz: I don’t think any astronaut really closes the door on spaceflight. My interest is to open the door for others. I feel that being in a select group like this is thrilling, but we really should be able to open space to the entire world.

Interviews by Brielle Domings, Nicole Morell, and Kate Repantis.