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Challenger anniversary recalls MIT's contributions

This week the world will mark the 20th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a disaster felt deeply at MIT, which has a long history of close connections to the space program.

When the Challenger exploded, 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, all seven crew members were killed -- including MIT alumnus Ronald E. McNair (Ph.D. 1976).

Over the years, contributions to NASA's mission by MIT scientists and engineers have ranged from developing the guidance and navigation system that allowed Apollo astronauts to reach the lunar surface, to exploring the frontiers of X-ray astronomy with the Chandra Observatory.

"MIT has always been key to NASA's success. Our people, technology development and scientific investigations have been intertwined since the earliest days of the space program," said William Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space operations.

NASA was founded in 1958. As of July 2004, MIT had 32 alumni astronauts, among them Buzz Aldrin (Sc.D. 1963), Franklin Chang-Diaz (Sc.D. 1977) and Janice Voss (Ph.D. 1987), the first alumna to fly in space.

Two former astronauts are on the MIT faculty: Jeffrey Hoffman, veteran of five shuttle missions, and Laurence Young (S.B. 1957, Ph.D. 1962), alternate payload specialist for the 1993 Columbia mission.

Historical highlights of the MIT-NASA collaboration include:

  • 1961, the MIT Instrumentation Lab wins the first major contract of the Apollo program.
  • 1960-1968, Robert C. Seamans Jr., alumnus (S.M. 1942, Sc.D.) and professor emeritus, serves as NASA's deputy administrator.
  • 1973, Professors Harry G. Gatos and the late August F. Witt lead MIT materials scientists in the first experiments to grow crystals aboard NASA's first space station, Skylab.
  • 1988, Frederick H. Hauck (S.M. 1966) commands Discovery, the first shuttle mission after Challenger.
  • 1994, MIT experiments investigate the characteristics of undercooled liquid metals on the International Microgravity Laboratory space shuttle mission.
  • 1997, NASA astronaut Wendy Lawrence (S.M. 1988) participates in the first of her two shuttle-Mir docking sessions.
  • 1999, NASA astronaut Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman (S.B. 1983) leads deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
  • 2000, astronaut William M. Shepherd (OCE 1978) commands the first crew to live and work aboard the International Space Station.
  • 2004, alumnus Lt. Col. Mike Fincke (S.B. 1989) begins a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

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