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Alums have flown one-third of space missions

Beginning with David R. Scott on Gemini 8 in 1966, MIT graduates have flown on more than one-third of the nation's 126 space flights, a total of 44 missions. Six of these flights have included two astronauts with MIT backgrounds, for a total of 50 space flights by Institute alumni/ae.

Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman (SB in chemistry, 1983) is a mission specialist who recently guided the successful deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (see accompanying article). She was the 22nd MIT graduate to fly in space -- 19 as NASA astronauts and three as payload specialists.

Ms. Coleman was interviewed from space during a crew press conference and commented about MIT's role in her education and in the development of Chandra. "I think MIT is a place that people go to be able to explore, to be able to push the frontiers of both knowledge and technology and MIT is playing that role for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and also played that role for myself, as the start of my higher education... so it was nice for me to have these two paths joined in one place in the deployment of this incredible telescope," she said.

MIT has produced more astronauts than any nonmilitary educational institution. Of the 293 candidates selected by NASA since 1959, 29 have been MIT graduates. Purdue University is second with 19 and Stanford University is third with 18. Only the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy and the US Naval Postgraduate School have had more.

Alumnus Ronald E. McNair (PhD in physics, 1977) and six other astronauts were killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986. Two and a half years later, the first space shuttle mission following the accident was commanded by MIT graduate Frederick H. Hauck (SM in nuclear engineering, 1966).

Four of the 12 men who walked on the moon during the Apollo program were MIT alumni. They are Buzz Aldrin (ScD in aeronautics and astronautics, 1963), Apollo 11; Charles M. Duke Jr. (SM in aero/astro, 1964), Apollo 16; Edgar D. Mitchell (ScD in aero/astro, 1964), Apollo 14; and David R. Scott (SM and EAA in aero/astro, 1962), Apollo 15. Russell L. Schweickart (SB and SM in aero/astro, 1963) also flew in the Apollo program as a lunar module pilot on Apollo 9.

With the completion of STS-93 in July, MIT graduates will have logged more than 10,775 hours in space. The MIT record is held by Franklin R. Chang-Diaz (ScD in physics, 1977), who has flown on six space shuttle missions and spent 1,269 hours in space.

Twelve of the active NASA astronauts hold degrees from MIT, including five women: Janice Voss (SM in electrical engineering, 1977, and PhD in aero/astro, 1987); Wendy B. Lawrence (SM in ocean engineering, 1988); Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper (SB 1984 and SM 1985 in mechanical engineering); Pamela Melroy (SM in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, 1984), and Ms. Coleman. Four members of the 1998 astronaut class are also MIT graduates.

MIT alumni/ae will also play significant roles in several upcoming missions.

  • In September, Dr. Voss will be a mission specialist aboard Endeavor on mission STS-99, which will create a high-resolution digital topographic map of the Earth's surface using a sophisticated radar system.
  • In October, John M. Grunsfeld (SB in physics, 1980) will fly as mission specialist on STS-103 and conduct space walks as part of the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.
  • ������In February 2000, Ms. Melroy will become the third woman to pilot a space shuttle on STS-92, an International Space Station assembly mission.
  • William M. Shepherd (Ocean Engineer degree and SM in mechanical engineering, 1978) was chosen to be the first American astronaut to work aboard the International Space Station. He will serve as commander of the first space station crew and will be launched with two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This mission is scheduled for March 2000.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 2).

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