David A. Wolf

Astronaut and Chief, Extravehicular Activity Branch, Astronaut Office
BSEE ’78

For his revolutionary research in engineering and medicine, and for his extraordinary service to humankind.

Shooting for the Stars

David Wolf was born to fly. “We had an airplane when I was a kid,” he says. “My earliest memory in life was sitting on my uncle’s lap in an open-cockpit biplane.” By the time he was 9, Wolf knew he wanted to be an astronaut. “I watched on TV as Ed White accomplished the first U.S. spacewalk, and I thought that that was a job I’d like to do. I realized, however, that all the astronauts became something else first and that they were good at that other job.”

Wolf intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. “But then the first electronic calculators came out the summer before I was to start pre-med at IU,” he says. “I was so amazed with the digital electronics that I switched to electrical engineering at Purdue, with the intention, perhaps, of becoming a bioengineer.”

Wolf was drawn to Purdue by its reputation. “Purdue gives you a genuine background in real- world engineering as well as a strong theoretical base,” he explains. “I didn’t know it at the time, but in all these years, working with engineers from all over the country, there is no question that Purdue produces the highest quality anywhere.”

While at Purdue and later during medical school, Wolf worked in medical ultrasonic imaging. “I was always interested in photography,” he says. “I took a liking to ultrasound because it combined medicine, electronics, and image processing. At the Indianapolis Center for Advanced Research, we worked in high-resolution ultrasound and produced one of the earliest prototypes of fully digital RF ultrasonic imaging system, now the basis of all medical ultrasound.”

Simulating Zero Gravity

Shortly after completing his medical internship, Wolf joined NASA. “I was hired for my ultrasound expertise,” he explains. “We built the first ultrasound equipment to go into space and study human cardiovascular adaptation to zero gravity.” Wolf also helped to design, and later build, the medical facility currently onboard in the International Space Station.

“But the real jewel was the Space Bioreactor,” Wolf says. “We developed the bioreactor to go into space, where we thought the unique zero-gravity conditions would be advantageous for growing delicate human cells in culture. In an attempt to anticipate what we would obtain, we built a system which would simulate zero gravity on earth. That system is now the state of the art for human tissue engineering, due to its unique ability to organize tissue in three dimensions.”

Pushing the Limits

Despite his extraordinary success at NASA as an engineer, it was years before Wolf was accepted into the astronaut program. “Right when I first went to NASA, at 27 years old, I made the final interview cut and then was rejected four more times before getting the job.”

Wolf took the lesson to heart and persevered in his dream. “Most successful people I know have failed more times than the unsuccessful people I know,” he explains. “It’s how you recover from failure that shows your fortitude. In fact, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying enough. You have to move ‘smartly’ outside your comfort zone. That’s true of an innovative team, too. At NASA we push the limits constantly both of humans and machines.”

During his tenure as an astronaut, Wolf has logged 152 days in space in three separate missions, including 128 days on the Russian space station MIR. When an airlock on the aging space station failed to repressurize, Wolf and his Russian partner became trapped in the vacuum of space. “After 13 hours and at the very end of our suits’ cooling capacity,” Wolf explains, “we were forced to make a plunge through an auxiliary hatch in the face of skyrocketing temperatures.”

“It was essential that we get our life support umbilicals connected,” Wolf continues. “Neither of us could access our own in the tight space, and we could just barely reach each other’s. It was an exhaustive effort, requiring a high degree of teamwork to make it back inside by this emergency path. I can tell you: you’re best friends forever after an experience like that.”

Undaunted by the near disaster, Wolf returned to the stars four years later and served as the lead spacewalker and rendezvous navigation specialist in an International Space Station assembly mission. On the ground, Wolf is currently the chief of the Astronaut Office Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Branch. “I’m kind of like the spacewalk coach,” Wolf laughs. “I lead the team that is responsible for conducting the spacewalks for the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station.”

Wolf’s time in space has changed the way he sees life on earth. “Your first look back at the planet, this beautiful blue-green ball hanging in the emptiness of space, has a terrific impact on all astronauts,” he explains. “It makes you realize that all humans are space travelers and our spacecraft is the earth. We need to take care of our earth just as we would our artificial spacecraft.”

“The earth looks like a jewel,” Wolf continues. “Some of the lakes, like Lake Baikal in Siberia, are so blue they look like a sapphire embedded in the earth’s crust. There are just no words to describe the experience.”

2002 Lead spacewalker and rendezvous navigation specialist, space shuttle Atlantis flight STS-112 (International Space Station assembly)
1999 Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineer Award, Purdue
1997–98 Four-month crew member on the Russian MIR Space Station, NASA-MIR 6
1996–97 Cosmonaut training, Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, Russia
1994 Texas State Bar Patent of the Year
1993 Mission specialist, space shuttle Columbia flight STS-58 (Spacelab life sciences research mission)
1992 NASA Inventor of the Year
1990 Astronaut selection
NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Metal
1983–90 Chief Engineer, Flight Echocardiograph, Space Station Health Maintenance Facility, Space Bioreactor, Johnson Space Center
1982– USAF Senior Flight Surgeon, Air National Guard
1980 Research Scientist, Indianapolis Center for Advanced Research

BSEE ’78, Purdue University
MD ’82, Indiana University