Contributions in Space: Past and Present

NASA's original generation of brainpower — the ones who gave us the first moon landing and the heroic Apollo 13 mission — are passing the torch to a new cohort of engineers.

A lunar module prepares to land on the mooon in November 1969

The Apollo 12 lunar module (LM) is photographed in lunar orbit from the command and service modules. Engineering alumnus Alan Bean was in the LM as the lunar module pilot.
Photo courtesy of NASA, November 1969.

Later this month, six astronauts will board the space shuttle Endeavor and blast off from the Kennedy Space Center on a 14-day mission that will take them some 220 miles above earth. The breath-holding moment of liftoff is sure to be both joyous and bittersweet as Endeavor is slated to be NASA's second-to-last launch before it retires the 30-year space shuttle program later this year.

While uncertainty remains about NASA and the future of human space flight, there's no question that the Cockrell School of Engineering has made deep and wide contributions to space exploration over the years, and it will continue to do so. Alone, the school has produced nine astronauts who have flown in space, and McCombs School of Business graduate, Greg Johnson, will join Captain Mark Kelly and crew when they board Endeavor this month.

Other alumni have and continue to work on the ground, and renowned space experts and NASA legends, like aerospace engineering professor Hans Mark, share their knowledge and experience daily with Cockrell School students in the classroom.

As NASA's original generation of brainpower retires — the ones who gave us the first moon landing and the heroic Apollo 13 mission — they're passing the torch to a new cohort of engineers, and Cockrell School students stand ready to take it.

In late March, the school celebrated Space Week Texas, a statewide educational event that highlights space achievements and celebrates the future of space exploration. It was also a time for the school to look back at its contributions in space and to chart the next chapter of exploration.

Contributions that count

Randy Stone can recount the highs and lows of his 37-year NASA career with vivid detail. The highs: being 900 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, huddled around a shortwave radio to hear the BBC's broadcast of the first moon landing. Five days later, as part of NASA's quarantine crew, 23-year-old Stone would be among the first to welcome Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins back to Earth. And just a few months later, University of Texas engineering graduate Alan Bean would be the fourth human to walk on the moon.

But Stone's biggest high, which eclipsed even the Apollo 13 rescue mission which he was a part of, was launching the first space shuttle in 1981. Stone, a 1967 aerospace engineering graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, who, at the time of his retirement from NASA in 2004, was deputy center director of the Johnson Space Center, helped oversee the launch. For 18 months prior, he had trained with fellow UT engineering alum and astronaut Robert Crippen, who commanded the shuttle.

"When it got to orbit and the shuttle was doing everything we said it would do, I felt an overpowering giddiness. You were almost laughing and crying because we were a part of something that was so important," Stone said.

He and Crippen are just two of many alumni who have made their mark on space.

Marybeth Edeen, a 1989 chemical engineering graduate, now serves as lab manager of NASA's International Space Station (ISS), the most complex scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken involving five space agencies and representing 16 nations.

Edeen helped perfect a water recycling and reuse program that's essential for ensuring crew at the space station have drinking and cleaning water. The reuse and recycling program she and her team developed also have uses on Earth, especially in remote and developing areas. Edeen currently works to promote research partnerships aboard the station, which have already increased understanding and led to improvements in cancer and salmonella treatment, among other things. At NASA, she works with fellow Longhorn engineering graduate, Michael Suffredini, manager of the International Space Program.

Edeen, along with Terry Hill, a UT aerospace engineering graduate who serves as engineering project manager for the Constellation Space Suit Program, visited the Cockrell School during Space Week and discussed with students everything from career tips, to what their day-to-day jobs are like and how their aerospace degrees helped them.

"It was useful to hear about how we can apply our skills to different problems and to hear what employers are looking for," aerospace engineering senior Kit Kennedy said after listening to a presentation by Hill about his job designing spacesuits for NASA.

Because the language of engineering is universal and extends every culture, alumni said their degrees prepared them in more ways than they could have imagined — whether it was being able to discuss technical applications with the Russians, creating spacesuits that could endure years of wear and tear or making split-second and life-changing decisions.

"My UT experience of having to survive in an academic environment that I really wasn’t prepared for — coming from a little, tiny junior college — helped me improve my problem-solving skills," Stone said. "Ten years into my career I could see that The University of Texas at Austin engineering program prepared me for a lot of things that I didn't even realize."

Of course, there are some things no one can prepare for. Like the worst day of Stone's career, when the Challenger shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on Jan. 28, 1986.

Just seconds before millions saw the disaster live on T.V., members of mission control ordered the shuttle to "throttle up."

"The call to throttle up usually gets a 'Rodger,' call from the spacecraft and instead what we got sounded like an 'uh oh.' That was the last thing we heard from the crew," Stone said. "The moment when the flight dynamics officer said 'Flight, I’m tracking multiple objects,' we knew we had a serious problem."

There was only one T.V. in the room, and immediately Stone and others in mission control saw the Challenger break apart on the screen.

"I had been working for 18 months with that crew, eyeball to eyeball and shoulder to shoulder. These people were close friends so that obviously took a tremendous bite out of me," Stone said.

Since then, Stone has talked to students about the experience and about how failure can happen, but it's how you deal with it that defines your life.

"It defined me," he said. "It made me work harder and pay more attention to details and try to be the best flight director I could be."

The next generation of space explorers

While there are certainly risks to space exploration, those who pursue it on the ground or 200-plus miles above Earth accept that the opportunity to discover and learn about the world outweighs them.

"Landing on the moon was truly an awesome moment for our nation and the world, and it will be one of those moments from the 20th century that is forever remembered," said Hans Mark.

While funding cuts put human space flight in question and could shift a heavy load of space exploration from NASA to the private sector, alumni, faculty and students are optimistic.

"Things work in cycles and I tell my students not to worry about which cycle is up or down because if you live long enough you'll live through a couple of them," said Mark, a former deputy administrator of NASA, who oversaw the first 14 space shuttle flights, among other things. "We've got new challenges now to [spaceflight] and they're different and they're more subtle. But I tell my students that you're going to succeed — that's our habit — and there are still people around who think that way too."

Already, Cockrell School students are succeeding.

On Nov. 19, 2010, two satellites designed and constructed by aerospace students over seven years successfully launched. Earlier this year, the satellites separated, making them the first student-developed mission in the world in which satellites orbit and communicate with each other in real-time.

Such technology, which is smaller and less expensive than the satellites traditionally used in space, could pave the way for more complex satellite missions that require real-time coordination between small satellites.

They could also help prevent tragedies like the Columbia disaster, which, unknown to the shuttle's crew, had a hole in the left wing that caused it to disintegrate upon reentry to the Earth's atmosphere.

"If they would have had the technology that could go outside the shuttle and inspect it, then the hole could have been discovered," said Glenn Lightsey, the students' faculty advisor.

Lightsey said the satellite project introduced UT engineering students to a field experience in a way that no classroom can.

"It's a great opportunity to get a look at what it feels like to be in an aerospace company or government agency, from design to building and testing it to seeing it launch in space," Lightsey said. "As aerospace engineers, that's what we live for, to see our stuff go into space."

Engineers in Space

For more than 50 years, the Cockrell School of Engineering has been educating astronauts who have walked on the moon and manned dozens of space missions. Read about the nine Longhorns who have clocked more than 300 combined days in space.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean, '56 B.S. ASE
Bean was the fourth man and only Longhorn on the moon, and also helped establish 11 world records in space and astronautics. He has logged 1,671 hours and 45 minutes in space, of which 10 hours and 26 minutes were spent in Extra Vehicular Activities(EVAs) on the moon and in earth orbit. In total, he has logged more than 7,145 hours flying time including 4,890 hours in jet aircraft.

Robert Crippen

Robert Crippen, '60 B.S. ASE
Crippen piloted the first orbital test flight of the Shuttle Columbia, the first true manned spaceship. He also piloted the second flight for the Orbiter Challenger; the first mission with a five-person crew. Crippen has logged more than 6,500 hour flying time, which includes more than 5,500 hours in jet aircraft. He also served as director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center from 1992-95.

Ken Cockrell

Ken Cockrell, '72 B.S. ME
A veteran of five space flights, Cockrell has logged more than 1,560 hours in space. In total, he has logged nearly 9,000 flying hours and 650 carrier landings. Currently, Cockrell manages NASA's two WB-57F research airplanes and serves as pilot for research flights. He is also a pilot instructor for astronaut flight training.

Carl Meade

Carl Meade, '73 B.S. EE
A veteran of three space flights, Meade has logged more than 712 hours in space. He was recruited by NASA in June 1985, and became an astronaut in July 1986. Most recently, Meade flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery; the mission highlight occurred when Meade performed the first untethered spacewalk in 10 years. He has logged more than 4,800 hours of jet time in 27 different aircraft.

Fred Leslie

Fred Leslie, '74 B.S. EngSci
Leslie began work for NASA in 1980 as a research scientist in the Space Science Laboratory at Marshall Space Flight Center. Leslie flew as a payload specialist on a 16-day mission aboard Columbia focused on materials science, biotechnology, combustion science and fluid physics contained within the pressurized Spacelab module. He has logged 382 hours in space.

Michael Baker

Michael Baker, '75 B.S. ASE
Baker is the International Space Station Program Manager for International and Crew Operations Johnson Space Center. Following the Challenger accident — from January 1986 to December 1987 — Baker was assigned as a member of the team that was pursuing redesign, modification and improvements to the shuttle landing and deceleration systems. A veteran of four space flights, Baker has logged 965 hours in space and more than 5,400 hours flying time in approximately 50 different types of airplanes.

Paul Lockhart

Paul Lockhart, '81 M.S. ASE
A veteran of two space flights, Lockhart has logged 26 days, 39 minutes and 82 seconds in space. The first mission in June 2002 was the second Space Shuttle mission dedicated to delivering research equipment to the space platform. He has logged more than 5,000 hours in more than 30 different aircraft and the Space Shuttle.

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson, '92 M.S. ASE
A veteran of three space flights, Wilson has logged more than 42 days in space and was the second African American woman to have flown into space. Aboard her first mission in 2006, the crew produced never-before-seen, high-resolution images of the shuttle during and after its July 4 launch.

Karen Nyberg

Karen Nyberg, '96 M.S. ME, '98 Ph.D. ME
Nyberg completed her first spaceflight in 2008 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery's flight to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the 50th woman in space. She has logged more than 13 days in space, and has been assigned to the Expedition 36 crew as a flight engineer and is scheduled to fly to the ISS aboard Soyuz 35 in May 2013.