How to be an astronaut
Astronaut Woody Hoburg ’08 shares insights and advice with students in his first visit to campus since joining NASA.Janine Liberty | Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
The first question a student asked Warren “Woody” Hoburg ’08 during his visit to MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) this November was: “It seems like there’s no real way to know if being an astronaut is something you could really do. Are there any activities we can try out and see if astronaut-related things are something we might want to do?”
Hoburg’s response: There is no one path to space.
“If you look at all the classes of astronauts, there are all sorts of life paths that lead people to the astronaut corps. Do the things that are fun and exciting — work on things you’re excited to do just because it’s fulfilling in and of itself, not because of where it might lead,” he told a room full of Course 16 students.
Hoburg was the only faculty member among his peers in NASA’s Astronaut Class 22, for example. His own CV includes outdoor sports, computer science and robotics, EMT and search and rescue service, design optimization research, and flying airplanes.
In a two-day visit to the department that included a keynote lecture as well as fireside chats and Q&As with undergraduates and grad students, Hoburg shared his personal journey to becoming an astronaut, lessons and observations from his time aboard the International Space Station, and his excitement for what’s next in space exploration.
From MIT to ISS
For Hoburg, the path that led him first to MIT and eventually to the International Space Station wasn’t straightforward, or focused on a specific goal. From his aerospace studies at MIT, he was torn between going to grad school or getting a job in industry. He decided to pursue computer science in grad school, and from there wasn’t sure if he should stay in academia, join a startup, or join the U.S. Air Force. It was late in grad school when his research started going well that he decided to stick with it, and that decision brought him back to MIT in 2014 as an assistant professor leading a research group in AeroAstro.
He had more or less forgotten his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. “Not in a bad way,” he clarifies, “just there were other things consuming my time and interest.” But then, a friend suggested they submit applications for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program. “I remembered that when I was a kid I did think that would just be the coolest job, so I applied. I never thought I’d actually get accepted.”
Performing in an operational environment
Hoburg credits his time at MIT with nurturing a love of adventure and pursuing new ideas and passions. “Everyone here was awesome academically, that was a given. But it seemed like everyone also had a wild unique interest, and I loved that about this community.” As an undergraduate Hoburg remembers rushing through his P-sets so he could go off rock-climbing and skiing for the weekend.
The MIT Alpine Ski team was his first experience on a tight-knit, mission focused team, which has become a core part of his personal and professional ethos. Before starting grad school at the University of California at Berkeley he took a year off to be an EMT, and he spent his summers in California on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team.
“That was my first experience doing what I would call real operational stuff, getting called out on a mission to help someone, working with a high-performing team in an austere environment,” he said. “A lot of the civilians who get selected at NASA have something operational in their background, in addition to their technical expertise. I think search and rescue ultimately helped me with my astronaut application, but I don’t know of anyone who had gone that route before me. It did help me grow into a strong operator — but at the time I just wanted to be out in the mountains responding to emergencies.”
This theme of operational capacity emerged throughout Hoburg’s talks and Q&As. He noted that astronaut candidates tend to be natural team players, and the two-plus years of training prepare them to approach every situation with trust and confidence. A comfort level with versatility is critical for an astronaut: they have to fly and dock the spacecraft, operate and perform maintenance on the ISS itself, perform spacewalks, and of course get home again. All of this is in service of their primary mission aboard the ISS:
“We’re just operators up there,” says Hoburg, “we work on literally hundreds of different experiments, while the PIs are on the ground. The science work is definitely the purpose of why we’re there. That place is busy — we are working 12 hour days a lot of the time.”
Moon, Mars, and beyond
Many of the students’ questions and Hoburg’s responses were practical, perhaps unsurprisingly in a department full of aerospace engineers. His ISS wish list — free-flying robots to help with holding and carrying; robotic cameras to better document their experiments and other pursuits onboard; improved automation and manual control interfaces in launch, flight, and docking; better solutions to the challenges of stowage and organization — may be the very projects that this generation of engineers tackles.
Hoburg also shared some broader insights from his career as an astronaut so far, including his personal reflection on the famously profound experience of looking at the Earth from space:
“Earth actually looks really big from the ISS,” he said, adding that he would love to see it from the far-away perspective of the Apollo 8 lunar mission. “The overpowering feeling for me was looking at the atmosphere. When you do a spacewalk, it’s pretty in your face that you’re in a vacuum. There is just pure death all around you. And when you look at the Earth, you see how it’s protected by this very, very thin layer.”
Hoburg is enthusiastic for NASA’s upcoming return to the moon, and for the growing commercialization of low Earth orbit that’s allowing NASA to focus on “a transition period beyond low Earth orbit.” He’s keen to help with the lunar missions that will help prepare the next generations of spacefarers to get to Mars.
Above all, he’s excited about the possibilities ahead. “Looking back at the 20th century, I think the moon landing was truly one of our crowning achievements. So part of it is purely inspirational, that spirit of adventure and exploration. Putting humans farther out into space is an audacious goal, worth our time and effort.”
Originally published via MIT News on December 12, 2023