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Beginning with this month's launch of Atlantis on the fifth shuttle/Mir docking mission, MIT's alumni in the NASA astronaut program will play key roles in several space missions over the next year. These missions include servicing the Hubble space telescope, a long stay aboard the Mir space station, and a Spacelab mission which will conduct experiments as a precursor for the International Space Station.
John M. Grunsfeld (SB in physics, 1980) was a mission specialist on the shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-81, which was launched on January 12 and docked with Mir two days later. The primary objective of the mission was to conduct a crew exchange. Astronaut Jerry Linenger replaced astronaut John Blaha, continuing the permanent stay of US astronauts on Mir which began with Shannon Lucid's flight in March 1996.
The crew successfully transferred supplies, water and scientific experiments between the shuttle and Mir during five days of docked operations. During the mission, Dr. Grunsfeld logged his personal experiences in a series of e-mails posted to NASA's Web site at <http://shuttle.nasa.gov>.
In February, Mark C. Lee (SM in mechanical engineering, 1980) will be the payload commander for the ambitious Hubble servicing mission aboard Discovery on STS-82. Lee, an experienced space walker, will participate in two of four planned space walks. The mission will enhance Hubble's performance by installing the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), as well as upgrading data recorders, guidance sensors and various electronic subsystems on the telescope.
In April, Janice Voss (SM in electrical engineering, 1977 and ScD in aeronautics and astronautics, 1987) will be the payload commander for STS-83, the first Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL-1) Spacelab mission. This 16-day mission aboard Columbia will serve as a scientific test for experiments under development for the International Space Station. A variety of experiments involving materials processing, combustion science and plant growth in microgravity are planned.
Wendy B. Lawrence (SM in ocean engineering, 1988) will fly on Atlantis (mission STS-86) in September and will spend the next four months aboard Mir before her return to earth aboard Discovery in January 1998. She will become the sixth American astronaut to log a long-duration mission aboard the Russian space station.
In addition, William M. Shepherd (SM in mechanical engineering and ocean engineering, 1978) was recently 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 on a mission planned for 1998.
MIT has produced more astronauts than any other private educational institution. Only the US Naval Academy and the US Air Force Academy have had more graduates in the astronaut program. Currently nine of the active NASA astronauts and four astronaut candidates chosen in 1996 hold degrees from MIT. Beginning with David R. Scott (SM and EAA in aeronautics and astronautics, 1962) on Gemini 8 in 1966, 22 MIT graduates (19 as NASA astronauts and 3 as payload specialists) have made a total of 43 space flights. Four of the 12 men who walked on the moon during the Apollo program were MIT alumni. With the completion of STS-81, MIT alumni have logged a total of more than 9,200 hours in space.
(John Tylko, SB '79 in aeronautics and astronautics, is a special correspondent for MIT Tech Talk.)
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 1997.