UI aerospace alumni shoot for the stars

By Alissa Groeninger

While a student at the University, Scott Altman knew he wanted to be involved with space travel.

After graduating, he joined the Navy, where he was exposed to both aviation and NASA. He said he was intrigued by the ability NASA had to continually fly farther and faster.

“(It’s) a good thing for us as a people to move beyond earthbound things,” he said.

University aerospace engineering students, part of a program ranked in the top five nationally, have the opportunity to reach prestigious positions in the field of space travel, if current alumni are any kind of evidence.

On Feb. 19, alumnus Lee Archambault will lead a NASA mission to space. Three months later in May, fellow alumnus Altman will head to space.

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“It’s just an incredible experience,” Altman said. “It’s been a great blessing.”

Both Archambault and Altman began working for NASA after successful careers as military pilots.

“I’m sure there’s a great deal of excitement … Each one of them has got a unique purpose and mission,” said Harry Hilton, professor of aerospace engineering.

Along with Archambault and Altman, Joe Tanner, Steve Nagel and Dale Gardner are University alumni who have worked as astronauts. Cathy Koerner is a University graduates who has worked for NASA in another capacity.

Koerner said six University graduates have started working for NASA within the last year.

“They like the idea of participating in something bigger then themselves,” Koerner said.

Tanner worked for NASA for 24 years, going on four space missions and supporting 115 others in some capacity.

“It’s an incredible privilege to … be a part of the American space program,” Tanner said.

Dreams from youth

Even at a young age, Koerner was interested in space travel.

Aerospace engineering professor John Prussing said astronauts must be adventurous.

“It’s not something that the faint of heart would volunteer for,” Prussing said.

Altman said the launch experience is amazing.

“The whole vehicle is shaking, rocking and rolling,” he said.

While the flight is heading toward space, Altman said, it is amazing to look out the window and see the earth. The air is green, yellow and red. Bright flashes of white light and the exit from gravity combine to make for spectacular sights.

“The visual experience is literally out of this world,” Tanner said.

Challenging to succeed

Being selected as an astronaut is not easy, and Altman stressed the importance of learning to organize time. He said astronauts have to work well with other people and be able to both lead and follow.

“It’s teamwork that puts the whole thing together. Each person has a special purpose and a special duty,” Hilton said.

Astronauts are responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly.

“They have a focus and a drive,” said Brett Clifton, assistant director of advancement for aerospace engineering department.

Tanner said that hard work is one of the most important components of becoming an astronaut, as he applied several times before being selected for a mission.

“Minimal effort yields less than desirable results,” Tanner said.

Prussing said the strenuous physical requirements of becoming an astronaut are enough to prevent most people from making it on board a space mission.

Dedicated to the University

Archambault, Altman and Tanner all have fond memories of their time at the University and they fly with Illinois flags and T-shirts.

In Houston, where the Johnson Space Center is located, many University graduates are members of an alumni club.

Clifton said that the astronauts have remained dedicated to the department.

“(It) makes us very well prepared for moving out into the workforce and succeeding,” Koerner said.

Tanner said he is still fond of the University.

“I never regretted going to the University of Illinois and I’m proud of it,” he said.

University alumni working for NASA studied hard during their college years.

Prussing said Archambault was smart and conscientious, which applies to his work as an astronaut.

“He had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do.”

“(He knew) that he wanted to go out and fly.”

University equally proud

The aerospace engineering program, as well as the whole University, are equally proud of the astronauts.

“We have many distinguishable alumni and (Lee’s) certainly one of them,” said Hilton.

The University’s aerospace engineering program is continually ranked in the top five nationally.

“It’s a combination of having excellent faculty and excellent students,” Prussing said.

Prussing said it is very difficult for students to get into the program, and once in, students’ undergraduate studies are taken very seriously.

“(Alumni success is) a reinforcement of the quality of the programs,” Hilton said.

Chris Aavang, freshman in Engineering, said that the engineering classes force students to think on their feet, like one has to in the real world.

Stanley Chang, freshman in aerospace engineering, said having successful alumni gives current students a direction of where they can go and what they can achieve. He said having distinguished alumni in the field helps current students network.

“You have a feeling of belonging,” said Chang.

Prussing said when Archambault and other high-profile graduates come back to speak, the venue is always full.

Hilton said students can use them as role models.

“(It is) just seeing what somebody who went to this school can achieve,” Prussing said.

Koerner received her master’s degree from the University in 1987.

Even now, only 20 percent of undergraduates in Engineering at the University are women. Prussing said it is helpful for female students to see women working for NASA.

He added that some current aerospace engineering majors want to become astronauts, while others are considering other possible career paths with a degree in the field.

“Not many people have been in space,” Clifton said.