November 29, 2006
SIUC alumni help NASA shuttle program soarCARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale will be well represented in space and on the ground when Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off next week for a 12-day mission that includes a trip to the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham, a 1987 SIUC graduate in electrical engineering, is making her first space flight as a mission specialist aboard Discovery on STS-116. Under the direction of shuttle commander Mark Polansky, the seven-member crew is set to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center at 8:28 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7. The mission is the shuttle program's 20th to the space station.
The mission continues the assembly of the International Space Station. Higginbotham "will operate the station's robotic arm, oversee experiments and act as the primary coordinator of cargo transfer between the shuttle and station," according to NASA officials. She will also deploy small satellites after the shuttle undocks from the space station.
Higginbotham's journey aboard the space shuttle is a milestone for SIUC, Interim Chancellor John M. Dunn said.
"Ms. Higginbotham's accomplishments are impressive," Dunn said. "She is a prime example of the quality of students at SIUC and the successes experienced by thousands of SIUC alumni. We will use this opportunity to emphasize the pride we have in our University and graduates and to recognize through Astronaut Higginbotham that the Saluki spirit soars."
College of Engineering Dean William P. Osborne, one of several people from SIUC planning to attend the launch, said the college is "deeply honored and proud to have one of our own going into space on the shuttle."
A Chicago native and 1982 graduate of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Higginbotham started her NASA career two weeks after graduating from SIUC. She initially worked at Kennedy Space Center as a payload electrical engineer in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division. She later transferred to the space center's Operations
Support Branch, where she tested space station hardware for launch readiness and led orbiter experiments for the space shuttles Columbia and Atlantis. Higginbotham actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches during her nine years at Kennedy Space Center.
Selected an SIUC Distinguished Alumni in 1997, Higginbotham earned master's degrees from Florida Institute of Technology in engineering management in 1992, and in space systems in 1996. NASA accepted her as an astronaut candidate in 1996.
"The opportunity for us to share in launch, through the heart and eyes of our alumni, is outstanding," said Lizette R. Chevalier, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Currently, 9.5 percent of students in SIUC's College of Engineering are women.
"Joan Higginbotham's accomplishments represent the best of what our students can dream," Chevalier said. "The fact that she is an African-American woman from our college just makes us all proud, and brings a celebration this campus deserves."
Higginbotham is not the only former SIUC College of Engineering graduate involved with this mission.
Jeffrey G. Spaulding, a 1987 graduate in mechanical and thermal engineering from Rockford, is one of NASA's two shuttle test directors. He is responsible for the planning and execution of all shuttle launch countdown activities and for conducting the final portion of the count through launch.
Spaulding also chairs the Emergency Egress and Escape Working Group, which "establishes and manages emergency procedures and equipment during the launch countdown for astronaut and ground crew rescue," he said.
In addition, Norm Tokarz, a 1987 graduate in electrical engineering, is chief for International Space Station and Spacecraft Processing, Operations Division, at Kennedy Space Center, and will work with Spaulding on this mission. Tokarz' division is responsible for day-to-day operations, scheduling and testing for space station processing at the space center, according to a NASA spokeswoman.
Another SIUC alumnus, Angela Brewer, is flow director for the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Brewer, who graduated from Benton Consolidated High School in Southern Illinois, manages the day-to-day activities associated with the processing of Atlantis for launch, according to NASA.
That several SIUC graduates work for NASA is important for the College of Engineering, interim associate dean John W. Nicklow said.
"It demonstrates the quality of graduates that we are capable of producing and is a testament to the quality of our programs," he said.
Spaulding began working for NASA after graduating from SIUC, which "opened my pathways," to make his longtime interest in space and space travel a reality, he said. He became most interested in pursuing a job in aerospace while at Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colo., where he served an externship during his junior year.
"I was able to spend a week with the senior design engineer for the manned maneuvering units used, at the time, in space by the astronauts," he said. "I was able to see a lot of rockets and satellites as well as manned space hardware, which really piqued my interest," he said.
NASA hired Spaulding after officials came to SIUC to conduct job interviews.
In preparing for each launch Spaulding and his team will pore through approximately 6,000 pages of launch countdown procedures —which are updated for each launch. During the launch he has a direct hands-on team of 120 engineers in his control room.
A veteran of 12 shuttle launches since assuming his current job in 2000, Spaulding concedes he is most nervous on launch day, particularly as the countdown reaches t-minus 9 minutes through the launch. There is an emergency switch he can use to hold the launch, and the team has to be "ready to react to any scenario, situation or emergency," he said.
Spaulding is enthusiastic about the continuing development of the space station, along with efforts to return people to the moon in future missions, and eventually Mars.
He calls his job, "the best in the Space Center."
"I enjoy the challenges because it's never the same and we always have a great number of challenges to get off the ground during the planning or the day of the launch," Spaulding said.
"The people at the Space Center are some of the best in the world that I have the pleasure to work with," he said. "This is the can-do center. If it can be done; we can do it."
Enhancing nationally recognized programs whose graduates are in demand in the job market is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.
(Caption 1: Working out the details — Jeffrey G. Spaulding, a 1987 graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s College of Engineering, leads his team through a countdown simulation in late 2005 at the Kennedy Space Center. Spaulding is one of two shuttle test directors at NASA and will conduct the scheduled Dec. 7 launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Among the seven-member crew that is going to the International Space Station during a 12-day mission is Mission Specialist Joan E. Higginbotham, also a 1987 SIUC College of Engineering graduate.)
(Caption 2: Saluki in Space — Astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham, a 1987 graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s College of Engineering, will be the first Saluki in space when Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off Dec. 7 from the Kennedy Space Center. Higginbotham earned her SIUC degree in electrical engineering, and began working for NASA two weeks after graduation as a payload electrical engineer. During the 12-day mission to the International Space Station Higginbotham will operate the station’s robotic arm, oversee experiments and act as the primary coordinator of cargo transfer between the shuttle and station. She will also deploy small satellites after the shuttle undocks from the space station, according to NASA.)
(Caption 3: High flyer — Astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham sits in the rear station of a NASA T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center in Houston as she prepares for a flight to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Higginbotham earned her SIUC degree in electrical engineering and began working for NASA two weeks after graduation as a payload electrical engineer. During the 12-day mission to the International Space Station Higginbotham will operate the station’s robotic arm, oversee experiments and act as the primary coordinator of cargo transfer between the shuttle and station. She will also deploy small satellites after the shuttle undocks from the space station, according to NASA.)