By Steve Koppes
NASA Photo

I’ve said many times that the perfect experience for learning how to be an astronaut is to go out in the field with your experiments and make them perform on demand in tough conditions.”
—John Grunsfeld, SM'84, PhD'88
NASA associate administrator

John Grunsfeld decided he wanted to become an astronaut at age 6, but says his graduate studies at the University of Chicago were key in preparing him for a successful NASA career.

As a physics student, Grunsfeld participated in multiple expeditions that launched high-altitude balloons to collect data on high-energy cosmic rays, collaborating with Profs. Peter Meyer, Dietrich Müller, John Simpson, and Simon Swordy. Grunsfeld based his PhD thesis on cosmic ray data collected by an instrument of physicists Meyer and Müller, which flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1985.

“I’ve said many times that the perfect experience for learning how to be an astronaut is to go out in the field with your experiments and make them perform on demand in tough conditions,” says Grunsfeld, SM’84, PhD’88, who was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 30.

Grunsfeld flew five space shuttle missions from 1995 to 2008, logging 58 days in orbit, and completing eight space walks totaling more than 58 hours. Astronaut Hall of Famer Steve Hawley, who presented Grunsfeld for induction, noted Grunsfeld’s work on three Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions and his nearly 58-plus hours of spacewalking. After the last servicing mission, “HST was in better shape than it was when we launched it in 1990,” Hawley said at the ceremony.

“Great things don’t just happen. It takes vision. It takes hard work. It takes overcoming obstacles. It takes technical expertise. It takes teamwork, and it takes individuals like John Grunsfeld,” Hawley said. “John’s skill helped make HST what it is today and has helped fundamentally change our understanding of the universe, and it promises to do so for years to come.” 

By 1992, when Grunsfeld began his astronaut training, “I had all the tools that I needed to understand how a space shuttle works,” he said. His UChicago field experience had prepared him for working on a remote team with people back at mission control. Then he spent three years at the California Institute of Technology doing X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy using data from the orbiting Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and a variety of other satellites and telescopes. From his UChicago and Caltech experiences, he understood how the shuttle’s communications, telemetry, and command and control systems worked.

“Many scientists coming into NASA come in from the laboratory environment, and the entire space program is foreign to them,” Grunsfeld said. “It’s just a different way of living and working.”

Storied NASA legacy

Grunsfeld was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame with fellow astronauts Steve Lindsey, Kent Rominger, and Rhea Seddon. The induction ceremony took place with the space shuttle Atlantis, which Grunsfeld flew into orbit in 1997 and 2009, hanging high above in the rafters at the Kennedy Space Center.

During his comments at the ceremony, Grunsfeld reflected upon NASA’s history, from the early days of Project Mercury to the space shuttle program and its plans for crewed missions to Mars. 

“We’ve been able to solve these high-performance challenges with teams of people, with vision, with drive, with enthusiasm, and I feel privileged to have been a member of some of those teams,” Grunsfeld said. 

The HST has been transformational, he said, because of its great scientific promise, for the great people associated with it, and for the deep, fundamental questions it has helped answer. 

“It’s helped tell us where we’ve come from, how we got here, where we’re going, and it’s opened up a field that may someday tell us whether we’re alone in the universe.”

The next horizon

Grunsfeld left NASA in 2009 to become deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he managed the science program for HST and its future partner, the James Webb Space Telescope. In 2012 he returned to NASA, where he serves as associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

In this capacity, Grunsfeld directs and oversees the nation’s space research program in Earth and space science. The Science Mission Directorate works with the scientific community to define and prioritize the science questions that will expand the frontiers of earth and planetary science, the physics of the sun, and astrophysics.

He also comments regularly to journalists about developments such as the latest explorations of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, HST’s surprising observations of how Pluto’s moons behave, the selection of science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the successful comet landing by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft.

“We’re partners with the Europeans on two missions to Mars, and we’re planning our next steps on Mars, leading hopefully soon to humans around Mars and then to the surface,” Grunsfeld told the induction ceremony audience. And on July 14, he noted, the New Horizon’s spacecraft will fly by the dwarf planet Pluto. “We’ll get our first look at a new category of objects in our solar system that represents the origins of our solar system.”

Originally published on June 29, 2015.