Purdue astronauts most popular, but thousands of fellow alums enable giant leaps
While Neil Armstrong may be the most famous Purdue alum for his lunar giant leap for mankind, he and other astronauts have been joined by thousands of other Purdue alums – in fact, too many to count – working in numerous segments of the space industry.
“It’s difficult to track the specific number of Purdue alumni in the space industry, but they are everywhere,” says Tom Shih, the J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Of course people think of our astronauts, but Purdue alums are responsible for the most minute details of the spacecraft and spacesuits to measuring the trajectories to launch things. Not to mention fuel, food, and health and safety. And the list doesn’t end there.”
Purdue, best known as the Cradle of Astronauts, has graduated 24 NASA astronauts, including the first and most recent people to walk on the moon. Armstrong’s moon landing is the inspiration for Purdue’s 150 Years of Giant Leaps, and Space: Earth, Exploration and Economics is one of the celebration’s themes.
More than one-third of all U.S. spaceflights with humans aboard have included at least one Boilermaker. By the end of 2018, Purdue astronauts will have spent the equivalent of more than 1,100 days in space.
And on the ground, hundreds, if not thousands, of Purdue alumni work in the space industry today. In the past 5 years alone, 167 employers in the airline, aviation and aerospace industry have hired Purdue graduates, according to Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities.
“An overwhelming number of Purdue graduates have found places in the space industry,” says Tim Luzader, director of the Center for Career Opportunities. “It’s exciting to see graduates work on so many different pieces to ensure success and safety. That’s what being a Boilermaker is all about.”
Positions held by graduates vary widely. Some examples include:
* Runs NASA’s largest Space Center: In May, Purdue graduate Mark Geyer was named director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Geyer, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1982 and 1983 respectively, has been with NASA for 28 years and previously worked on the International Space Station program, negotiated with Russia for space station plans and requirements, provided direction for NASA’s human spaceflight exploration mission, and served as the deputy center director at Johnson. Now, NASA officials hope to launch an uncrewed Orion flight by 2021.
* Makes space travel safe, possible with garment design: Amy Ross graduated from Purdue with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1994 and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1996. Now, as the head of Advanced Spaceflight Pressure Garment Development at NASA, Ross has designed the gloves used by every spacewalking astronaut since 1998, including her father. Spacesuit gloves must allow for comfort, mobility and dexterity while insulating and protecting. Gloves designed by Ross for a shuttle mission in which her father Purdue alum and astronaut Jerry Ross performed three spacewalks have been featured on every spacesuit since 1998. Her latest project has been redesigning spacesuits to better accommodate the environments of other planets, allowing for walking, running, bending and crawling.
* Tests human life support systems: Mark Baldwin, a 1997 graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, is a biomechanical engineer for Lockheed Martin. He tests human life support systems in the next generation Orion capsule. Upon re-entry, the Orion capsule descends from parachutes before splashing down in the ocean. Baldwin studies how the structure reacts to water impact in tests, and also examines how splashdown loads are transmitted to seats and crew. During drop tests, the Orion capsule contains two crash-test dummies with sensors to help engineers quantify the potential for injury, allowing for safer re-entry.
* Engineers complex systems: Anna-Maria Rivas McGowan received her bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue, and is now NASA’s senior engineer for complex systems design. She is the agency’s senior advisor on interdisciplinary aerospace challenges, and strategizes to research, design and develop methodologies that address those complexities. In her 23 years in the aerospace industry, she has served in many roles, including as a flight test leader, NATO consultant, NASA spokesperson and wind-tunnel test engineer.
* Teaches spacewalking: Allissa Battocletti, a 2011 graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, works at Johnson Space Center in Extravehicular Activity Operations. She leads classes for astronauts and conducts lessons at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where astronauts train in near-weightless conditions. Battocletti ensures astronauts know what to do and can complete maintenance outside the International Space Station.
* Builds airplane to launch rockets from: Ben Diachun got his pilot’s license on his 17th birthday, and graduated from Purdue in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Now, Diachun is the president of Scaled Composites, where he works on a team building an airplane that can launch rockets. The plane, called Stratolaunch, has a 385-foot wingspan, two fuselages and will launch satellite-carrying rockets from under its wing.
* Develops deep space exploration vehicles: Julie Kramer White received her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue in 1990, and began working full-time at NASA after graduation. Now, she’s the Deputy Director of Engineering at NASA. Previously, she worked as Chief Engineer for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, guiding a team to develop the first human rated deep space exploration vehicle since Apollo. In 2014, Kramer White was personally recognized by President Barack Obama for her contributions to the nation’s space program.