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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

UC Davis alumnus journeys to outer space

Just over a month after returning to Earth, UC Davis alumnus and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Stephen Robinson visited his alma mater for last Friday’s College of Engineering’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

The UC Davis astronaut graduated in 1978 with a dual Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. He has flown on four missions and logged 19.8 million miles in space.

Robinson began the forum by discussing the current condition of human spaceflight and NASA. The space shuttle program will end this year despite the fact that the shuttles are working better than ever, he said.

One of the problems is that NASA is working with its lowest budget since 1960. In addition, media coverage of successful missions is low.

“When you get the job done, the press is bored to tears,” Robinson said.

A number of decisions need to be made, including how much money should be spent on spaceflights and the role of the government and private industry, before the shuttle program can continue.

Then there is the question of where to go in space.

“In the universe that is conceptually reachable, there are not a lot of destinations. The moon takes two and a half days to reach; Mars would take five months,” he said.

Robinson then posed a question to the audience: Should we extend the space shuttle program?

Students, faculty and members of the Davis community voiced their opinions of the state of NASA, in addition to questioning Robinson about his own experiences.

After a brief intermission, Robinson played a slideshow of pictures from his latest visit to the International Space Station. He spent two weeks installing the module Tranquility (Node 3) and a 7-windowed Cupola viewing center.

Robinson then showed photos of his training and the launch of his shuttle Endeavor before moving on to photos of him and his crew in space. One picture depicted the crew floating in the shuttle.

“I like this picture because it represents how we approached this: work hard and have a great time,” he said.

The Aggienaut finished the presentation with a video he and the crew created during their time in space. The video showed the astronauts working, sleeping and eating while in zero gravity.

Students who came to see Robinson were thrilled with the opportunity to listen to an experienced astronaut.

“I’m very interested in the astronaut. I want to ask him an interesting question about UFOs,” said Yunchun Wei, a visiting Ph.D. student from China.

Other students were interested in becoming astronauts themselves.

“I am a resident at the medical center in emergency medicine. In 67 days I am leaving to begin my aeronautical medical fellowship in Texas,” said Jennifer Law. “I want to be a flight surgeon, and I was in town so I thought I should go.”

After the lecture, Robinson said that UC Davis had helped him get to where he is today.

“I would put it this way: My curiosity was always followed up at UC Davis,” he said. “I was encouraged at the College of Engineering, and when I was curious about something [Dean] Bruce White would always follow up with me.”

In fact, the last photo in Robinson’s slide show was an image of a UC Davis flag – in outer space.

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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