An MIT Alumni Association Publication

At MIT, Space Is in the Atmosphere

  • Nicole Estvanik Taylor
  • MIT Technology Review

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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 (see a full list). 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 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.

Several astronauts made shorter journeys in March, touching down on MIT’s campus for Apollo 50+50 (watch video), 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 MIT 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.”

Attention alumni: Don’t miss astronaut Cady Coleman ’83 in her Symphony Hall debut on Friday, June 7, at Tech Night at Pops 2019, an exclusive concert for MIT alumni and guests held during Tech Reunions. As narrator, Coleman will accompany conductor Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops in performing a new work by composer Jim Beckel, From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond, commissioned in honor of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Register now for 2019 Tech Reunions and be sure to reserve a seat for the performance.


Astronaut Chris Cassidy in the International Space Station
Expedition 36 flight engineer Chris Cassidy SM '00 in the "cupola" of the International Space Station.


Unparalleled Views

Interviews by Brielle Domings, Nicole Morell, and Kate Repantis

In 2014, the MIT Alumni Association interviewed several astronauts during the MIT AeroAstro centennial. Watch a playlist of videos from these conversations, or read on for highlights from the transcripts.

The astronauts

Dominic A. “Tony” Antonelli ’89 (Course 16): Has flown in more than 40 kinds of aircraft.

Kenneth D. Cameron ’78, SM ’79 (Course 16): Gave the AeroAstro department a brass rat he carried into space.

Christopher J. Cassidy SM ’00 (Course 13): Paddled a kayak 180 miles to raise funds for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

Catherine “Cady” Coleman 83 (Course 5): Plays flute in a folk band with fellow astronauts.

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz ScD 77 (Course 22): Was the first Costa Rican in space.

E. Michael “Mike” Fincke ’89 (Courses 12 and 16): Teleconferenced into his 15th reunion from the ISS.                                                                                       

John M. Grunsfeld 80 (Course 8): Nickname is Hubble Repairman.

Michael J. Massimino SM ’88, ENG ’90, ME ’90, PhD ’92 (Technology & Policy, Course 2): Published a memoir, Spaceman, in 2016.

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.

The dream

FINCKE: I decided to become an astronaut when I was three years old. My parents made me stay up late to watch all the moon landings. I learned to read just so that I could read more about space—that’s all I wanted to do.

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.

GRUNSFELD: When I was growing up, it was an incredible time with the birth of the space program. I remember going to school carrying a Gemini spacecraft lunchbox—Mercury, Apollo, I got to see all of that, and it definitely influenced my life. 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.

CASSIDY: I wasn’t a kid with space shuttles glued to my wall. I was always excited about space, but never even gave thought that it was something that I could do. 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.

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.

MIT astronaut Cady Coleman
Cady Coleman '83 prepares to insert samples into an ISS freezer as part of the Nutritional Status Assessment study in 2011.

The prep

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.

COLEMAN: One of the things that I learned here 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.

CASSIDY: Each experience [as a SEAL Team leader, an MIT student, and an astronaut] had unique challenges. But all those experiences combined made me realize that you can’t do anything challenging on your own. It takes a support network. If you try to do everything by yourself, you’re going to fail. A saying that is popular in the astronaut office that I really like is “Nothing is more important than what you’re doing right now.” Whether you’re flipping a switch that turns on the engine, or pushing the button that distributes water into your scrambled eggs in the morning, it’s that action you need to be 100% focused on.

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. And MIT is where I learned the Russian language, and I was a flight engineer aboard the Russian Soyuz.

CHANG-DÍAZ: The training that one receives here in the Institute is very diverse. And astronauts tend to be more generalists than specialists, able to be jacks of all trades, to execute tasks in space and understand what we’re doing.

CAMERON: Each mission could be completely different. Deploying a telescope that helped astrophysicists look into deep space or helping scientists with their instruments to study the planet Earth. The MIT AeroAstro program put the pieces together in a way that, as a student, I understood what was going on, learned how to approach a bigger problem and put it into pieces and then address each one.

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.

The thrill

GRUNSFELD: We got into the space shuttle in our orange suits. We were in the final count, and I started thinking, “Shouldn’t I be nervous now?” I felt like, “What difference would it make?” Would I suddenly go, “Uh, Commander, I’d like to get out now?” So, in fact, I wasn’t really scared. But I also had no idea what was coming. I had no idea how violent a space shuttle launch is. The clock was clicking down. We got to main engine ignition, and suddenly the whole vehicle came alive, and then the solid rocket motors lit, and it was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. 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.

FINCKE: Here I am in the middle of Kazakhstan, and 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. One of my colleagues, this was his first time in space too. I got to see the Earth first because we were rolled, so I told him to look across the cockpit: “Hey, Andre, take a look.” And I watched him as he saw the Earth for the first time from space. I watched all the emotions that a human can feel.

CASSIDY: My job in my first minute in space was to take pictures of the external fuel tank. I was doing my thing, and then all of a sudden, it dawned on me that behind that tank was Earth. It looked like a blue marble. I remember looking down and seeing the ocean and Europe, and just thinking how beautiful it was. On the Space Station, we have this wonderful 360-degree window called “the cupola,” where you can just surround yourself with space and Earth. It’s something else, to come over the Gulf of Mexico and see the whole entire state of Florida, and see all the way up to, practically, Washington, DC, and as far over as Houston. All that in one view really puts in perspective what’s happening.

MASSIMINO: Going out on a spacewalk, you’re not limited by the window. You’re in your spacesuit and you can look wherever you want. It’s beyond words.

CHANG-DÍAZ: The only thing that separates you from the void is just that little thin shield in your helmet.

ANTONELLI: I was up there looking down at Earth thinking, “Everybody I know lives there, and everybody they know or have known all share this one little place together.” Just that little couple hundred miles looking back at Earth it makes it look like a different place.

CAMERON: You don’t notice how heavy your clothes are, actually, until you come back from space. On orbit, in free fall, you’re actually flying inside your clothes. When you get back on Earth suddenly you feel this huge pressure on your feet, and that’s your weight pushing down into the floor.

COLEMAN: One hundred eighty days in space is a good start, but it’s not enough. I loved it up there and I would’ve stayed another six months in a minute. 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.

A condensed version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of MIT Technology Review’s MIT News magazine. Photo (top): Charles Duke SM '64 collects lunar samples during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. All photos courtesy of NASA.


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