Zero Gravity

UA astronauts: From Tucson to outer space
By:
Ford Burkhart, NASA photos

It was the summer of 1963 when Dick and June Scobee and their 2-year-old daughter Kathie arrived at a red-brick rental house on Mountain Avenue. The location was convenient: Dick could walk the five blocks to his aerospace engineering classes. From those classes, Scobee embarked on a long trajectory into space, where the United States needed him to help catch up with the Russians. 

Over time, Scobee would move up from engine mechanic to pilot to astronaut to commander of the incredible chariot called the Challenger. He would become the first of six UA astronauts to join the world’s greatest assembly of space travelers. 

Scobee, who was the first enlisted man to rise to the title of astronaut, had won an Air Force scholarship and could have studied anywhere. “The UA was his first choice,” his widow, June Scobee Rodgers, said recently. “It was all about a degree in aerospace engineering and flying airplanes.”

By encouraging UA students to follow in his footsteps, Scobee started a tradition that continues long after his untimely death during the 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. 

The UA’s second astronaut, Woody Spring, was a motorcycle-riding, scuba-diving West Point grad back from two tours of flying in Vietnam.

No. 3, Tom Jones, studied where to look for water way out in space, posing questions that the UA is still exploring almost three decades later in the OSIRIS-REx project.

No. 4, Don Pettit, worked on the International Space Station (ISS) alongside No. 6, Joe Acaba.

No. 5, Fernando Caldeiro, devoted his astronaut career to technical support of 52 launches at Kennedy Space Center.

Who will be next? One thing is certain: That man or woman will be among the best of the best in space travel. Next year, about a dozen new astronauts will be selected from more than 18,000 who applied to NASA.

The six UA astronauts came to Tucson from across the nation: from Washington, Rhode Island, Maryland, Oregon, New York and California. One was born in Argentina. 

Three studied aerospace engineering; the other three studied planetary sciences, chemical engineering and geology. 

All brought skill and courage to a high-risk adventure.

As engineers, they helped complete the $50 billion ISS in 2011. As scientists, the UA’s spacefarers have engaged in research that could pave the way for the era of space colonists.

Read our UA alumni astronaut stories and imagine the next UA scientist or engineer who may even today be looking up at the skies over Tucson, plotting a course to history.

Dick Scobee — B.S., Aeronautical engineering 

Dick Scobee graduated from high school in Auburn, Washington, in 1957, the same year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and moved a step ahead of the American space program. Scobee immediately enlisted in the Air Force, where he served as an engine mechanic.

After landing at the UA, he got his B.S. in aerospace engineering in 1965. 

He flew in combat in Vietnam from 1968-69, was hit by enemy fire a number of times and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, he won a spot at the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School in California. In all, he logged 6,500 hours flying 45 types of aircraft.

Scobee was selected for astronaut duty by NASA in 1978. He flew a variety of missions from Kennedy Space Center and became commander of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds into the mission on Jan. 28, 1986, in one of the worst space-program tragedies. All seven aboard died. At the controls of the Challenger, Scobee’s last words were, “Roger, go at throttle up.”

Woody Spring — M.S., Aeronautical engineering 

Woody Spring found his way to the UA after West Point and time in the U.S. Army. Coming off his second tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, he figured he needed an M.S. in aerospace engineering to pursue his dream of being a NASA astronaut. 

He enrolled at the UA, bringing along his motorcycle and his hiking boots. He recalls spelunking and taking his dirt bike to Chiva Falls in the Rincons, but he also studied hard. He survived nuclear physics — “I was over my head” — and he loved fluid dynamics and relished a class in automotive engineering. In all, he says, “I loved the University.”

He graduated in 1974 and became an astronaut in 1980, training with Dick Scobee.

Spring recalls one spacewalk when the enormity of his work hit him all too viscerally. He was going 17,500 miles an hour, flying 200 miles above Earth, attached only by his feet to a Canadarm robotic arm — and something didn’t feel right. 

“I felt I was way too high for that operation,” he says. “It was a moment of ‘Oh my God.’ Like when you have to talk yourself out of the top of a tree.” He held on to a handlebar, regained composure and finished the work. Later, Spring became one of NASA’s top experts in extravehicular activity and was part of the team that investigated the Challenger disaster.

Today, Spring is a retired Army colonel and a professor at the Defense Acquisition University, teaching engineering and management. He often speaks to school groups, and his message to any future astronaut is “Go for the gold. If you want to do it, go for it.” 

Spring also advises aspiring astronauts to get a good education. “And the UA is a good place for that.”

Tom Jones — B.S. and PH.D., Planetary sciences

After four shuttle missions, 53 days in space and three spacewalks totaling 19 hours, Tom Jones still would like to explore the stars. And he might help you get there, too. 

Jones entered the UA in 1983 after six years as an Air Force officer and pilot, including time in command of a B-52D Stratofortress. He knew that NASA’s new shuttle would need scientists as well as test pilots, and he knew that the UA had one of the best programs for learning space science.

His hardest UA classes, he says, were planetary physics and planetary electromagnetism. “But I got through them,” he adds. 

One day in 1985, he went to a science event at Flandrau Planetarium where he met Dick Scobee. “It was one of the best moments at the UA,” Jones says. To honor the UA, Scobee had taken an artifact from Flandrau into space during the 1984 shuttle mission.

Jones recalls telling Scobee, “I want your job. How can I get it?”

Scobee told Jones he was doing things right. He encouraged him to get his Ph.D. — which Jones did, in 1988 — and to persevere. “We lost Scobee a year later,” Jones recalls. “I respected him so much.”

Jones’ doctoral research sought to answer the question “What asteroids are most likely to harbor water?” That the UA’s current collaboration with NASA, OSIRIS-REx, shares similar concerns is no coincidence. Among those who shaped Jones’ thinking at the UA were Michael Drake — one of the UA’s best-known planetary scientists who was an intrepid advocate for OSIRIS-REx — along with John Lewis and Larry Lebofsky, both at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who persuaded him to study asteroids. 

In his student days, says Jones, “We were asking where we might find water out there. Now OSIRIS-REx is going to try to find out if this asteroid Bennu has water locked up in its rocks. That’s what I studied at the UA: Finding out whether an asteroid is wet or not. Now, the OSIRIS-REx team is going to go up and touch one.”

Like many successful NASA applicants for astronaut duty, Jones was turned down when he applied — twice, in his case. He recalled Scobee’s advice and persevered. The third time he applied, he was in.

Drawing on his 11 years at NASA and his UA Ph.D. in planetary sciences, Jones has become a consultant for groups that are preparing for the creation of space commerce and tourism and helping NASA get humans to asteroids, the moon or Mars. He advises for-profit space companies that plan to one day mine water and metals on the moon and asteroids. And he’s helping find ways to avert a catastrophic collision with a rogue asteroid. Jones has led a NASA Advisory Council Task Force on Planetary Defense and is chair of the Association of Space Explorers Committee on Near-Earth Objects, which promotes planetary defense planning among space agencies and through the United Nations.

Don Pettit — Ph.D., Chemical engineering 

Gentle Ben’s was a weekend respite from long days in a chemical engineering lab for one bright future astronaut.

“That was where we went after the boss went home on Fridays,” Don Pettit recalled recently from Houston, where he’s part of the U.S. astronaut corps in training for future missions.

At the UA, Pettit’s focus was heat, mass and momentum transport, developing instrumentation for measuring the distribution of particles in chemical systems. But Pettit’s curiosity put him in a wide variety of classes, from glass blowing to economics, biology to surface chemistry.

Pettit discovered a new way to use a laser to detect and measure particles the size of a speck of dust. The UA patented the spectrometer on behalf of both Pettit and his adviser, Tom Peterson; the device could be used in computer chip manufacturing or to monitor dust during natural phenomena.

After finishing his Ph.D., Pettit worked on fluid flow in reduced gravity at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He joined the astronaut corps in 1996.

His first space flight, a 2002 mission to the ISS, offered him 161 days in space with 13 hours on two spacewalks. His return to Earth was delayed after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts. His eventual return in May of that year was a bit bumpy, though not tragically so: The Soyuz return craft landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, about 300 miles short of its target. Pettit and the others aboard waited four hours for a rescue helicopter.

Pettit also spent six weeks in space with another UA astronaut, Joe Acaba, as the only Americans in the crew of six.

On his three space flights, the latest in 2012, Pettit was the ISS science officer and one of the most prolific scientist-astronauts. In the zero gravity of space, he put together a coffee cup that uses surface tension to wick the liquid to the edge, rather than settling for sucking drinks through straws in a plastic bag. Looking ahead, Pettit predicts that the new method may be how space colonists one day drink a toast to life on a distant object. His creativity was also reflected in many impromptu modifications to the station, such as a tracking system using the motor from a hand drill to enable sharp night photos of cities from the ISS, eliminating the blurring that had previously resulted from the station’s orbital motion.

In his spare time, Pettit did his own experiments on things like thin films and soap bubbles, videotaped them and relayed it all to Mission Control in Houston for a NASA television program called “Saturday Morning Science.” He even overcame some NASA engineers’ doubts about scientists’ practical skills by repairing his own wristwatch in space. “All of a sudden, they let me fix things,” he laughs.

For aspiring astronauts, Pettit — who applied to be an astronaut four times over 13 years — has this advice: “Put out really good effort in your field, apply to the astronaut program and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” 

Fernando Caldeiro — M.S., Mechanical engineering 

Frank Caldeiro liked to say he was just “the plumber.” But his astronaut colleagues knew him as “an engineer’s engineer.”

Caldeiro, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, received his master’s in mechanical engineering from the UA in 1984. Building on his UA training, he became a world-class expert on the “plumbing” in giant rocket motors that powered space shuttles with hydrogen, oxygen and hydrazine.

“Frank knew the shuttle main engines like most of us know our children,” says Mark Kelly, a member of Caldeiro’s astronaut training class and veteran of four shuttle missions.

Another classmate, Lee Morin, recalls, “Frank was very upbeat, reaching out to people in an uplifting way. He built his own airplanes, and he really knew the space shuttle engines and rocket propulsion systems.”

After the UA, Caldeiro was a test director at Rockwell for the B-1B Bomber. In 1988, he became a space shuttle propulsion system specialist at Kennedy Space Center and worked on the launch of the Orbiter Discovery.

Although chosen for astronaut training in 1996 and qualified to go into space, Caldeiro instead worked key roles in technical support. Among his contributions, he “flew” 52 space shuttle missions in a life-size shuttle mock-up, nicknamed the “ghost orbiter,” to assure NASA that each $1 billion space mission would run flawlessly.

Caldeiro also was the lead astronaut working on the ISS life support systems, robotics viewing port and shuttle-lofted cargo carriers. His experiments included finding ways to take the carbon dioxide that the crew breathed out and recycle the oxygen. 

In 2006, Caldeiro joined NASA’s WB-57 High Altitude Research Program, which ran missions that included atmospheric and earth science experiments, mapping and cosmic dust collection. 

Caldeiro’s astronaut legacy is considered the equal of any who flew into space — safely, thanks in part to his rigorous testing. He died of brain cancer in 2009.

Joe Acaba — M.S., Geosciences

When Joe Acaba was welcomed by Don Pettit aboard the ISS in 2012, both Americans on board were from Arizona’s own elite astronaut corps.

“Pretty cool,” says Acaba, who is, at 49, the youngest of the UA’s astronauts.

When he came to the UA in 1990, Acaba was still in the U.S. Marine Corps, having joined the reserves as an undergraduate in California. “I had a great time at the UA getting my master’s degree. It definitely made a big difference in my life, my direction,” he says.

Acaba credits his adviser, Joseph F. Schreiber Jr., for guiding him through a geology master’s thesis on the breakdown of granites near Tucson in preparation for what Acaba thought would be a career in environmental work.

His toughest class, he says, was geophysics. His favorite was geomorphology, which helped him understand “why the Earth looks the way it does.” That came in handy years later as he looked down at Earth from the space station in low-Earth orbit, some 200 miles up.

With his UA degree, Acaba worked as a hydrogeologist for Hargis and Associates, based in La Jolla, California. He eventually joined the Peace Corps and worked in environmental education in the Dominican Republic. Later, he became a teacher in Florida.

In 2004, Acaba was selected by NASA from among 1,600 educator-applicants to be an astronaut while teaching middle school math and science in Florida. 

As an astronaut, Acaba has logged 138 days in space on two missions to the ISS. In 2009 he was a mission specialist, logged two spacewalks and, operating a robotic arm, helped deliver solar arrays to supply electricity to the station. In a 2012 mission, he was a flight engineer during four months on the ISS, where he supported spacewalks, grappled a Japanese cargo vehicle and completed science experiments.

Acaba met Don Pettit early in his NASA career. “He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Acaba, who came to value Pettit’s mechanical and engineering skills in their two months together on the ISS.

Acaba is now the ISS operations branch chief for the U.S. Astronauts Office in Houston. But he’s banking on another trip into space. “I’ve had two flights now,” he says, “and I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping to have that opportunity again.”