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Monday, July 26, 2021

UCD alum travels to space station

UC Davis alum Stephen Robinson blasted into orbit this past Monday as part of one of the final missions of NASA’s space shuttle program.

Robinson graduated from UCD in 1978 with a B.S. in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. For his senior thesis project, Robinson designed and built a full-sized hang glider, which he tested by jumping off a cliff. He even worked at the University Airport in Davis just to be close to planes.

“I was his advisor,” said Dr. Bruce White, Dean of the College of Engineering. “I became good friends with Steve. He always wanted to fly.”

Robinson earned his Master of Science and doctorate degrees from Stanford University while working at the NASA Ames Research Center.

“The guy who actually won the internship at Ames couldn’t take it,” Robinson said in his 2005 public lecture at UCD. “So I got it, even though I was only a sophomore. The Dean of Engineering’s office called me and told me I needed to interview with the guy who was going to be my boss. I thought ‘Great! Now I have to learn how to tie a tie!'”

He rose through the ranks there quickly until he was granted the position of Chief of the Experimental Flow Physics Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1990. Only a few years later, in December of 1994, he was selected as an astronaut.

“Steve has the unique qualities required of all astronauts,” White said. “He is smart, he has incredible common sense and instills a confidence that is awesome.”

Throughout his time as an astronaut, Robinson accumulated over 20 hours of time on spacewalks. His spacewalk experience includes the unprecedented repair of space shuttle Discovery’s heat-shield during the “Return to Flight” mission, the first after the loss of space shuttle Columbia.

“Looking outside into space is endlessly fascinating,” Robinson said. “I’ve been in space for almost 35 days, and every time you look out you see something you’ve never seen before. Sunrises and sunsets happen so quickly, go through such a range of colors. You almost wish you could slow them down and watch.”

This most recent launch, on which Robinson is a mission specialist, is designated as STS-130. This launch of space shuttle Endeavour, delayed from its scheduled launch date of Sunday due to weather concerns, is the thirty-second mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

“Endeavour’s 13-day mission will deliver and assemble the last U.S module onto the International Space Station, giving the laboratory a room with quite a view,” according to NASA’s press release.

Node 3, also known as “Tranquility”, is a multifunctional room designed to provide more space for ISS crew members and for the station’s extensive life support systems. The node’s name was chosen in a slight deviation from NASA’s normal naming method.

As per usual, NASA released a ballot with suggested candidate names and a write in section. However, when comedian Steven Colbert rallied fans to write in his surname, NASA chose to abandon their traditional technique and hand picked the name “Tranquility”.

When astronaut Suni Williams announced the official decision on “The Colbert Report,” Colbert reacted with mock horror. Williams then revealed the new treadmill inside the node would be named as the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill”, or C.O.L.B.E.R.T.

The mission will feature several space walks to install the Tranquility node and to inspect the Endeavour’s heat shield. Though Robinson will not be going out this time, his memories of the times he has are vivid.

“You’re in the suit for a total of about 11 hours for each 7 hour spacewalk,” Robinson said. “But the reward is worth it. I got to have the first digital camera on a spacewalk. The variety of lighting out there is so dramatic.”

Robinson and the rest of the crew are scheduled to return to earth on Feb. 19.

BLAKE PETERS can be reached at features@theaggie.org. 

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