Engineering alums team up on shuttle mission

The summer 2009 mission of the space shuttle Endeavour marks the seventh time in space shuttle history two Purdue alumni have been aboard.

Commander Mark Polansky and mission specialist David Wolf, veterans of multiple space shuttle missions, both graduated from the School of Engineering in 1978 and both lived at Cary Quad, where they first got to know each other some 34 years ago. As they prepared for the coming mission, the two men spoke about their passion for Purdue Engineering, and the extra level of trust and comfort their common background brings to the work ahead.

“I have had the opportunity to work with many of the world’s finest engineers,” Wolf said. “But Purdue engineers are the very top. I like to kid students, ‘It will seem like an unfair advantage coming from Purdue.’”

Mark Polansky (BS and MSAAE ’78)
As commander of shuttle mission STS-127, Mark Polansky had onboard responsibility for the vehicle, crew, mission, success, and safety of the flight. No small task, but Polansky and his colleagues are used to handling pressure, and his profession is one that has enamored him since his days as a Purdue undergraduate.
Polansky didn’t plan to become an astronaut. But soon after arriving in Indiana from his home state of New Jersey, it became apparent to him that Purdue might be a great place to make a start in that direction.

“I quickly became aware of the legacy that Purdue has with astronauts—Grissom, Chaffee, Cernan, Armstrong,” he recalls. He was directly inspired when astronaut Gene Cernan (BSEE ‘56) gave an informal lecture at Polansky’s residence hall, Cary Quad. “To be up close and in a personal setting with someone who had just walked on the moon, that was cool,” he recalled.

After leaving Purdue, Polansky joined the Air Force, eventually making his way as a pilot through F-15s, duty as an aggressor pilot training aircrews to defeat enemy aircraft tactics, and weapons and systems testing in various aircraft. He joined NASA in 1992 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot, and was assigned to teach astronaut pilots space shuttle landing techniques.

This summer’s mission marks the third time Polansky has been in space. His first trip was in February 2001 as pilot of the space shuttle Atlantis. His second voyage came with the space shuttle Discovery in December 2006.

When interviewed in April, Polansky was at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in the midst of intense preparations for the approaching mission. With two months to go until liftoff, the crew frequently worked around the clock fine-tuning the work ahead.

“As hard as we train for what we know we’re supposed to do, and what we hope doesn’t happen, there are always last-minute changes to the mission. It is very challenging and it takes a lot of time. We’re quite ramped up and it will be that way until the solids light,” he said.

All work and no play?

Though space may be Polansky’s workplace, his universe is in another orbit.

“My family—wife Lisa, and kids Caitlyn, 4, and Zachary, 2—is my universe. They ground me. My daughter doesn’t care if I have a long sim the next day or a demanding flying schedule to California and back the same day. She wants Daddy to take her to the sandbox. When I come home, it’s nothing but the kids. You ought to be able to get your work done during normal business hours. There’s not that much that requires us to be working 24/7. It’ll happen when we get in orbit,” he said.

Like his shuttle team member, Dave Wolf, Polansky sees plenty of opportunity for the next generation of astronauts. The shuttle program will end in 2010, with NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration turning toward a return to the moon by 2020, further exploration of Mars, and beyond.

Polansky, like Cernan before him, inspires the next generation. In fall 2008, he took part in Purdue Space Day, an outreach event for elementary school students sponsored by the Indiana Space Grant Consortium and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“It’s an honor to have the job that I have and to get to do the things that I’ve done,” Polansky said. “Part of the overall responsibility in a position like this is to do outreach not just to children but to folks all over the country and the world. Hopefully, one of the kids I meet along the way will come back to Purdue some day and talk about their mission to Mars.”

David Wolf spent an entire day underwater recently, submerged in the world’s largest swimming pool in a space suit. Wolf, astronaut/medical researcher/engineer, was at NASA’s Johnson Space Center training for the June shuttle mission. The exercise, which is one of the methods used to prepare for space walks, involved six hours underwater in a pressurized space suit.

A day in the life of David Wolf would be, well, exhilarating and exhausting. Wolf, veteran of three space shuttle missions including a 128-day stay at space station Mir, could be found mid-April in the frenzy of preparations for the rapidly approaching shuttle launch. The astronauts refer to the intensity as “ramping up,” a period that begins a year out and peaks about four months from launch time. The crew had eight weeks to go.

As chief of NASA’s extravehicular activity (EVA) branch, Wolf was preparing with three space walk rookies for the work that lay ahead on the mission. They were rehearsing the fifth and final space walk, which they would do by themselves, Wolf having led them on the first three. Five space walks, he noted, would be the most ever planned on a single mission. Days were long, stretching into the early morning hours. He had pulled two all-nighters the week before; kind of like in his undergraduate days at Purdue, he joked, pointing out that no place can prepare a person better than Purdue.

Wolf, who was raised in Indianapolis in a family of pilots, clearly thrives on pushing the envelope. His earliest memory is sitting on his uncle’s lap in an open-cockpit aerobatic biplane.  Years later, himself an aerobatic pilot, he would compete against his Uncle Ed—and usually lose. The need to press the limits continued: he flew jet fighters as a weapons officer in the Indiana Air National Guard, recently built his own custom chopper which he describes as the nearest thing to a space shuttle on Earth, and slalom course waterskis. He has dealt with his share of emergencies in space, including complete spacecraft power failures and loss of attitude control. In 1997, while doing a spacewalk out of the Russian space station Mir, an airlock failure trapped him outside and forced a last-minute emergency ditch to save his life, just before his suit ran out of time.

“I take no unnecessary risks, but I am energized by operating near the edge. My parents tell me I was always like that,” he said.

Expanding the frontiers of science

In addition to bravado, Wolf has a philosophical side. He speaks about NASA’s four areas of impact: exploration, inspiration, custodianship of the Earth, and fundamental research and development. As a research organization, NASA is a super-incubator, producing technology such as the satellite communications that now enable cell phones, GPS navigation systems, and even state-of-the-art tissue engineering technology, the latter undertaken by Wolf and a research team in the days before he became an astronaut. He talks of a day when Earth orbit will be dominated by commercial ventures, and NASA moves on to new frontiers.

Foremost a biomedical engineer, Wolf, who topped his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering with a medical degree at Indiana University Medical School, has seen his own research have societal impact. He holds more than 15 patents, primarily for 3-dimensional tissue engineering technologies, among them a space bioreactor used for microgravity research. NASA has licensed his patents to form several commercial spin-off companies related to stem growth, cancer research, and tissue regeneration. Wolf points out that this is typical of how NASA improves life on Earth. He plans to continue as part of the exploration team and, perhaps foremost, to inspire the next generation of explorers.

Wolf is quick to observe that none of his success has happened in a vacuum. Well, actually, some of it has, he teases.

“In the long run, success is measured in how much enthusiasm and quality you can inspire in the people around you. That way one leverages knowledge and experience,” he says. “If I’ve been able to inspire others and contribute to their successes and important contributions, that to me is my own most significant contribution. I want everyone who brushes up against me to feel themselves propelled forward.”

Spoken like a true space explorer.