Retired NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson reflects on a lifetime of flight—and future star tours
Sacramentans said goodbye to the space shuttle this summer. All around the city, people got a glimpse of the shuttle Endeavour as it cruised over the capital, then turned and headed for retirement in a science museum in Los Angeles.
The end of the shuttle program must have been especially poignant for Davis resident Stephen Robinson, who is starting a new job as an engineering professor at UC Davis. Robinson once rode the Endeavour into space. In fact, he was one of the last shuttle astronauts—going to space four times, including a historic spacewalk to repair the underside of the shuttle Discovery.
On Tuesday, February 19, at Three Stages at Folsom Lake College, Robinson will offer an inside look at the shuttle program and tell the story of his own improbable journey to space.
Robinson told SN&R it was always “extremely unlikely” he’d ever become an astronaut. Then again, he was sort of born to do it.
“I had this gene to be fascinated with flight.” He flew model airplanes, studied bugs and birds. He learned about the Wright brothers and read their papers. He grew up in the East Bay in the early 1960s, when Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom were captivating a generation. “Those first pioneering astronauts were all the kids’ heroes. That’s what we were for Halloween. We turned appliance boxes into spaceships.“
In 1963, when Robinson was 8, his family went to the San Mateo County Fair. While the other kids headed for the rides, Robinson begged his dad to take him to the lecture NASA was presenting at the fair. “I remember it so well, the things NASA was doing at the time—flying rocket planes, talking about landing on the moon. The NASA brochures I got that night, I still have them in my office.”
When he was 14, his dad bought him a ride in a glider, and that’s where Robinson’s path diverges from the thousands of American kids who played astronaut. In the same year, he started designing and flying his own hang gliders.
“I just went up on a hill and ran off the edge at full speed,” he says, laughing, acknowledging how absurd it may sound to the protective parents of today. “The whole neighborhood came out to watch this crazy kid. There was no fear.”
There never was any fear.
He applied to study aeronautics and mechanical engineering at UC Davis. His dream might have been grounded right there, however, as the university rejected his application. Somehow, he sweet-talked his way into the program anyway. “It was a different time. The world was smaller then. But they took a risk on me.”
He kept flying hang gliders. He and his friends would drive to Dillon Beach to test them—on days when Robinson’s old station wagon would manage to get them there.
Eventually, he landed an internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he worked as a 19-year-old mechanic. He was also into graphic design and music. He had a live music show, one of many shows he hosted, at KDVS, the student radio station at UCD. His first real job out of college was as a morning deejay gig at a commercial radio station. He worked as a music teacher and a surveyor, and he pumped gas for airplanes at airports.
He worked his way back to NASA, earning a job as an engineer and research scientist at Ames in 1979. At the same time, he pursued his master’s and doctorate degrees at Stanford University. He started applying to the astronaut program in the early 1980s, just as the space-shuttle missions began. He was turned down several times, along with thousands of other applicants.
“There are these amazingly qualified people all over the place. I couldn’t imagine they’d choose me over them.” Robinson persisted because the pursuit of his dream was itself worthwhile.
“In my mind, you have goals in life, and you try your hardest to achieve your goals. Then you have dreams, in which you also try your hardest, but you recognize that it’s not entirely up to you.
“And then, against all odds, I got the job.”
He was nearly 40 by the time he launched on his first mission in 1997. But he was as happy as a 14-year-old jumping off a hill on a homemade hang glider. “I have never been so at peace with the world as I was sitting on the launchpad waiting for the first launch,” he says.
If you’ve ever watched a movie or seen video of the shuttle launching, you may have an image in your mind of the shuttle lifting slowly off the launchpad. It’s sort of slow and majestic looking. But that’s not how it feels to astronauts.
“It was like being rear-ended by a dump truck at a stop sign,” Robinson says. The entire “stack”—the tank and the rockets and the shuttle together—is about the size of a 20-story building, and “it goes from zero to supersonic in about 43 seconds.”
“There’s this big violent lurch off the surface of the Earth, and you’re flung into the sky. I remember thinking, ’Wait a second, maybe we’re blowing up.’ Because it was nothing like training.”
Everything about flying in space was surprising. Simulators don’t teach astronauts what spaceflight feels like. It just trains them to do their jobs automatically, even though their senses are scrambled.
“The first day in space, more new things happen to you than at any other time in your life, except maybe the day you are born. You are in a bubble in a vacuum, way above the surface of the Earth. You are traveling 5 miles a second. You are floating. You are seeing the most amazing colors. You are entrusted by the nation and your agency and your crew to do things right.”
No spaceflight is routine—certainly not Robinson’s third mission in July 2005. This was NASA’s historic Return to Flight mission after the Columbia disaster of February 2003. On that mission, the Columbia exploded upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard. NASA later learned the problem was a hole caused by a chunk of insulating foam that broke off from the large external fuel tank during launch and slammed into the shuttle’s wing.
For two-and-a-half years, NASA scientists and engineers chased down the problem and thought they had it fixed by the time Discovery was back on the launchpad. But after Discovery got into orbit, NASA sent Robinson and the crew some disturbing video. “We almost lost two in a row,” Robinson says. The video showed another large piece of foam, narrowly missing the wing. “We were dumbfounded. We thought we were probably the last shuttle flight.”
In fact, the shuttle program was grounded for another year after that mission, until NASA finally got the foam problem managed. Meanwhile, Robinson’s crew had another problem.
The underside of the space shuttle is covered with thousands of special tiles, which protect the craft when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA determined that the “gap fillers” between a couple of tiles were protruding slightly, enough to pose a danger during re-entry. On the ground, NASA engineers spent days trying to figure out how to fix the problem, and came up with a maneuver that had never been tried before.
“One thing we were told during training was that you’d never have to go near the belly of the shuttle.” The tiles are delicate, but soon, Robinson was dangling over them by the shuttle’s robotic arm—in a bulky spacesuit which weighs 600 pounds on Earth.
Ultimately, the repair turned out to be simple: Robinson was able to pluck the gap fillers out by hand. But here was a view no human had ever seen. He gazed along the graceful curvature of the shuttle’s belly and at Earth looming below. Then, for a moment, he was back at Ames, loading a model with the very same shape into the wind tunnel, years before the first shuttle took flight. “I felt very privileged to see what I was seeing.”
And while he may have held the lives of the crew in his spacesuit-gloved hand, he wasn’t scared. “I don’t remember ever being frightened in space, even in places where you’d think maybe I should have been. I think it’s the way the brain works. While it’s happening, you’re just trying to solve the problem. I think this is why humans are still around.”
Robinson made one more spaceflight after that in February 2010, aboard the shuttle Endeavour. He directed installation of two new modules onto the International Space Station, along with the station’s distinctive cupola window. “I had a wrench in my hand the whole mission.” It was one of the last flights of the shuttle program—which officially ended with the landing of the shuttle Atlantis in July 2011.
The United States is still sending citizens to the ISS, courtesy of the Russian Soyuz taxi service. But with the station completed, the shuttle’s job is done, and NASA is working on a new launch system, hoping to move beyond low-Earth orbit.
Under the Bush administration, NASA was aiming for a return to the moon, but the Obama administration scrapped that plan. This year, President Barack Obama mentioned a possible mission to an asteroid by 2025. As with everything else, space travel is political. Robinson doesn’t do politics, though.
“There shouldn’t be a Republican destination and a Democratic destination,” he says, though he does think that a return to the moon is the logical next step. “Let’s say that someday people are going to go to Mars. It is a place of partial gravity, a dusty environment, high radiation, large thermal extremes and no breathable atmosphere. Tough neighborhood. Now, where would you go practice to go to a place like that?”
The moon is two-and-a-half days away, Mars is, at best, six months away. To Robinson’s mind, the path to Mars goes through the moon. “If we want to send a crew of humans to Mars and back safely, then we will learn a lot by going to the moon first.”
He won’t be on that flight. But he may help to prepare those who one day will be—at the school that once rejected him, then thought better of it. His first class begins in March. “I feel like this is the job I’ve been preparing for my whole life. I’m really excited to be here.”