MIT-trained astronauts have participated in some of the most challenging and historically significant US space missions: the first lunar landing, the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit and the first long-duration mission onboard the International Space Station. In fact, more than one-third of the nation's space flights have included MIT-educated astronauts, who have logged a total of more than 14,923 hours in space on 55 flights.
NASA has chosen more MIT graduates to become astronauts than graduates of any other private educational institution. Including the astronaut class selected in August 2000, NASA has selected 31 MIT graduates as astronauts, followed by 20 from Purdue and 18 from Stanford. Only the US Air Force Academy, the US Naval Academy and the US Naval Postgraduate School have had more graduates selected for the astronaut program.
Twenty-three MIT graduates (20 NASA astronauts and three payload specialists) have made space flights and 10 others are currently training for missions.
Four of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon during the Apollo program were MIT alumni. They logged a total of 51 hours exploring the lunar surface from 1969-72.
Several NASA astronauts were MIT employees at the time of their selection. William B. Lenoir was a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science when he was selected as an astronaut in 1967. Jeffrey A. Hoffman worked in the MIT Center for Space Research as project scientist for the HEAO-1 observatory prior to his selection as an astronaut in 1978. He made five space flights, including the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The first NASA payload specialist was Byron K. Lichtenberg (SM in 1975, ScD 1979 in aeronautics and astronautics). Dr. Lichtenberg was selected to fly on STS-9 in 1983, which carried the first Spacelab orbital laboratory in the shuttle's cargo bay. He also flew another shuttle mission in 1992. Albert Sacco Jr. (PhD 1977, chemical engineering) flew aboard STS-73 as a payload specialist in 1995.
Canadian payload specialist Robert B. Thirsk (SM 1978 in mechanical engineering, MBA 1998) flew aboard STS-78 in 1996. In addition, Apollo Program Professor Laurence R. Young was trained as a payload specialist but did not have the opportunity to fly in space.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 6, 2001.