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Bruins in Space

By Brad A. Greenberg '04, Photos by Michael Tighe

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM

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Left: Story Musgrave '59 takes a walk during one of his six space missions. Right: Walt Cunningham '60 watches the stars during one of his space flights.

The year was 1961. Yuri Gagarin had just gone where no man had gone before and the United States was getting ready to send one of its own Mercury astronauts into space. Walt Cunningham, a Navy fighter pilot on reserve as he worked toward a doctorate in physics at UCLA, was jealous.

"I envied the hell out of them because they were going to be able to fly faster and higher than me," says Cunningham '60, M.S. '61.

On May 5, 1961, Cunningham was driving from his home in Van Nuys to work at the RAND Corporation. Heading south on the 405, the top down on his Porsche, Cunningham pulled onto the shoulder of the freeway to hear Alan Shepard shot into sub-orbit.

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"It got down to the 3-2-1 countdown and I heard this voicing screaming, 'you lucky son of a bitch,'" Cunningham recalls. "I got a little sheepish because I realized it was me yelling."

And that was pretty much the end of Cunningham's doctoral work. He settled for a master's degree and applied to work for NASA, which selected him in 1963 to be in its third group of astronauts — and launching a legacy of Bruin spacemen and women.

Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 7 flight. After the Apollo 1 burned up on the launching pad, killing its three-man crew, Cunningham and two others were assigned to fly the first manned Apollo mission. Theirs was the first engineering test flight, and they survived. Nine months later, and less than a century after the Wright Brothers built the first successful airplane, man would land on the moon.

Watching the Skies in Westwood

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Megan McArthur '93 made her first trip to space earlier this year on a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, during which this picture was taken. Read more about her in McArthur's interview with UCLA.

There is something magical about exploring the Final Frontier and for more almost 50 years, a cadre of UCLA students have been at the forefront.

Maybe it's Los Angeles' creative spirit or Westwood's proximity to the aerospace industry, Rocketdyne and Jet Propulsion Laboratory; maybe it's all those professors who have led unmanned space missions; maybe there's just something in the water. But since Cunningham became the first Bruin to escape Earth's orbit in 1968, six others have flown into space — two this year alone.

"A lot of people who have been involved with UCLA have been involved in the space-exploration business, whether it is manned or unmanned," says Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican who, until recently moving to the House Appropriations Committee, was chairman of the Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. "We could go on and on. I can't think of many universities that have more of a connection with NASA."

The eight Bruin astronauts have been a distinguished bunch. The first selected by NASA was Elliot See Jr., M.S. '62, who would have beaten Cunningham into space by two years if he hadn't died in a plane crash in early 1966.

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Taylor Wang, '67, experienced zero-G on his first space flight in '85.

Four of the high fliers attended UCLA as undergraduates; seven earned masters' degrees here and three received doctorates, including one in medicine. Some trained long to become astronauts and others were fortunate enough to be qualified when NASA was in need of new blood. Some waited more than a decade to be selected, while others were accepted shortly after turning in their application.

The roster, from earliest to most recent, includes See; Cunningham; Vance Brand, M.B.A. '64; Story Musgrave, M.B.A. '59; Taylor Wang '67, M.S. '68, Ph.D. '71; Anna Lee Fisher '71, M.S. '72, M.D. '76; John Phillips, Ph.D. '87; and K. Megan McArthur '93.

This elite eight worked on the Apollo missions and on the creation of the Skylab, on the Challenger missions and the construction of the International Space Station. Phillips returned from a two-week trip to the Space Station in March and a month and half later McArthur took off for the Hubble Telescope.

All together, Bruin astronauts have escaped Earth's atmosphere 17 times and spent 327 days in space.

Why They Go

"If I had lived in the 19th century, maybe I would have been a polar guy," Phillips says. "But for my century, the frontier of exploration was space, and I wanted to be on the frontier."

Wang, now a professor at Vanderbilt University, was a scientist sojourning as an astronaut. On loan from Cal Tech for two years, Wang was part of a mission dedicated to science, and he was there to do research on cell encapsulation in the zero gravity realm.

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John Phillips spent two weeks visiting the International Space Station in March.

There is no substitute for that on this planet. Wang knew that. But he also learned that there's really no preparation for leaving Earth.

"It's something that they teach you what to expect, but in reality you never really do," he recalls. "On the launch, the first few minutes, it's a very violent shaking, like a Jeep on a backcountry road. You can't see a lot, you can't do anything. You just bolt down and go for the ride.

But then the universe beckons.

"After the first few minutes you enter the zero-gravity environment and everything changes," Wang continues. "For the first time, you truly are free. You float in mid air and you tend to overreact to the sensation. You basically move by using fingers instead of hands and arms. You push off with your fingers and stop by using your fingers. The legs start to shrink; you lose about an inch or so. But in that sense, when you shrink, it all goes to your face. We call it chipmunk mode."

Musgrave, who made six trips into space, had more time to get used to and appreciate weightlessness and the view from the heavens. A Renaissance man with seven degrees, Musgrave spent three decades at NASA and at age 62 was the oldest person to enter space until John Glenn flew up as a private citizen in 1998. When he was on terra firma, Musgrave was the CAPCOM at the Mission Control Center.

"I liked being the contact point and making perfect calls, looking after the folks upstairs, maintaining their spirit and taking care of them," Musgrave says. "But I liked looking out the window at the stars, the meteors, the city lights. That's spectacular. Zero Gs is marvelous too."

NASA selected its first female Bruin astronaut in 1978.

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Vance Brand in zero gravity during one of the collective 327 days Bruins have spent in space.

Fisher, who still works in management at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, was assigned to her first flight two weeks before giving birth to her oldest child. She delivered Kristin on a Friday and was back in the office three days later for their Monday meeting.

In 1984, on a mission to recover two failed satellites expensively orbiting Earth, Fisher became the first mother to enter space. And if you think that's no small feat, then you've never had a 16-month-old child at home who you weren't sure you were going to ever see again.

"I flew before Challenger and Columbia, but I don't think you're in this business without realizing that possibility exists," Fisher says. "That was the most difficult thing of the entire year: knowing you could get through training but there is also an amount of luck involved."

Fisher's mission was a success and she was assigned to a second flight, the shuttle that would follow the Challenger disaster. But Fisher and her husband, who also is an astronaut, decided to have another daughter and this time Fisher took a leave of absence. She returned seven years later, in 1996, and did some of the testing of the Space Station's robotic arm before it was transported up.

"The most satisfying part," she says, "is being a part of something you really believe in and feeling that in some small way we are part of the beginning of humanity leaving our planet. It is not going to happen as fast as I, or others, would like. But we're hitting those first steps."

Wonder, and Wander

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Anna Lee Fisher was the first mother in space.

What the future holds for space exploration is about as unknown as what exists … out there.

Are we going to keep pushing further into space? Will space tourism become available to more than just the uber-rich? And will we ever really set up colonies off Earth?

"Is it new and exciting enough just for people to be in space? Probably not," says Tony Reichhardt, senior editor for Air & Space magazine. "There are people up there right now, there are 13 between the shuttle and the station, and it is fairly routine. It is a great view by all accounts and weightlessness is cool, but it is no longer a novelty. We are at a point when we are going to have to ask ourselves whether, if we want to go places we've never gone before, it is better to do it with machines."

There are certainly some UCLA professors who would say so. In fact, UCLA has arguably done more through its faculty involvement in unmanned missions than by putting alumni into space.

Christopher Russell, a professor of geophysics and space physics, has been a NASA investigator for 36 years, most recently leading the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where the unmanned spacecraft explored two of our solar system's first bodies.

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Anna Lee Fisher.

David Paige, a professor of planetary science and principal investigator for the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment, is part of an unmanned mapping mission of the moon launched in June.

Andrea Ghez, a professor of physics and astronomy and a MacArthur Fellow, is researching a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

And Edward "Ned" Wright, the David Saxon Presidential Chair in physics, is leading the WISE mission, which in November plans to launch a satellite that will scan the sky for infrared light from nearby stars and bright galaxies.

"As we get more experience doing things astronomically, we learn more and it always opens up new questions," Wright says. "In the past decade or so we have seen the discovery of hundreds of planets outside of our solar system. Now people are looking at developing telescopes that could study planets outside other stars. You get a taste of something you do early, and you always want to be able to come back and learn more."

What seems certain is that wherever space exploration takes mankind, Bruins will still be involved. At least, Marissa Rosenberg '09 sure hopes so. While studying astrophysics, Rosenberg started the UCLA chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Upon graduation she headed to the International Space University in France to earn a masters degree and then begin Ph.D. work. Her motivation?

You guessed it: she wants to be an astronaut.

"When I was three I saw a space shuttle take off. Ever since then I've wanted to be an astronaut. It never went away," Rosenberg says. "When you are a kid, it is the thought of being weightless and getting to bounce around on the moon. Now it is more a hope of finding intelligent life and getting to explore and collaborate with other intelligent life-forms. The hope that I could contribute, at least partially to that, is a driving force."