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Alumni turned astronauts: from Stanford to space

Courtesy of Steven Smith

Courtesy of Steven Smith

Historically, Stanford has held a large presence in the field of space exploration. Out of the more than 500 astronauts NASA has ever trained, 21 have been Stanford graduates.

Stephen Robinson M.S. ’85 Ph.D. ’91, Steven Smith ’81 M.S. ’82 MBA ’87 and Barbara Morgan ’73 are just three of the Stanford astronauts who demonstrate that career dreams are never out of reach, even if those dreams involve going to space.

Time in space

Robinson knew what he wanted to do right from the beginning.

“All through Stanford, [becoming an astronaut was] what I wanted to do,” Robinson said.

While earning both an M.S. and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford, Robinson attended the University mostly part-time as he worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Robinson also fulfilled his enjoyment of exploration and the outdoors by taking flying lessons while at Stanford.

NASA selected Robinson as an astronaut in 1994, and he subsequently participated in four Space Shuttle missions: STS-85 in 1997, STS-95 in 1998, STS-114 in 2005 and STS-130 in 2010. During the STS-114 mission, Robinson became the first person to perform an in-flight repair of the spacecraft’s exterior.

Like Robinson, Smith recalled having an interest in space for as long as he can remember. In fact, Smith still keeps an illustration of his space dreams that he had drawn in crayon when he was younger.

Smith earned all three of his degrees at Stanford and was part of the men’s water polo team, serving as captain during his senior year. Smith credited his involvement in athletics as one of the reasons he may have been chosen for the astronaut program.

Courtesy of Stephen Robinson

Courtesy of Stephen Robinson

“I was competing against incredible people to get into the astronaut program,” Smith said. “When [NASA] interviewed me, the fact that I had been at national level athletics and…had led a team in that environment, I think that really meant something to them.”

While Robinson and Smith both recall early memories of wanting to be astronauts, Morgan’s career followed a slightly different route.

Morgan was interested in a variety of academic areas during her time at Stanford, including medicine, biology and music. While she was always fascinated with the space program, she recalled feeling that she needed to become either a nurse or a schoolteacher, as were the career norms for women at the time.

Nevertheless, Morgan graduated with distinction and was later selected in 1985 as a backup teacher for Christa McAuliffe in NASA’s Teacher in Space project and also served as a mission specialist in the STS-118 mission to the International Space Station.

From Stanford and beyond

Though each astronaut’s career played out in different ways, one common theme emerged: Stanford is a good place to be if you are interested in space.

Morgan emphasized her Stanford experience as one of immense academic exploration, openness and facilitation.

Morgan remembered taking between 20 and 23 units during multiple quarters in order to achieve

the breadth of education she desired and to fully explore the opportunities Stanford had to offer.

While becoming an astronaut was not on her mind during her time at Stanford, Morgan said she “had [her] eyes open in so many ways to exploration and discovery.”

Robinson also emphasized how Stanford’s interdisciplinary approach fosters the University’s large presence in astronautics and space exploration.

Courtesy of Babara Morgan

Courtesy of Babara Morgan

“I think Stanford has always had a huge amount to contribute both in terms of technical problem-solving expertise, but also in the deeper layer of intellectual breadth—the awareness that disciplines are connected to each other in nature,” Robinson said.

Smith spoke about Stanford’s legacy in space—while Stanford has sent a number of astronauts into space, a larger number of graduates have been involved in all parts of the space program.

“You can’t help but come out of [Stanford] ready to be an ambassador, a diplomat, really in any business you go into,” Smith said.

Morgan, Smith and Robinson all agreed that Stanford will continue to maintain its presence in space exploration. Additionally, each astronaut mentioned that Stanford has become a leading force in the newest direction—including space entrepreneurship and commercialization—that those interested in space are taking.

“Stanford’s in the right place, and they’re doing the right thing, and they have an incredible set of opportunities and support structure in place for the space program,” Smith said.

Contact Samantha Neuber at sneuber ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

  • R. Stern

    I’m amazed this article does not mention Sally Ride, who earned her PH.D. in physics at Stanford