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Thursday, June 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

Rice professor on NASA mission to Hubble

By Michelle Phillips     5/14/09 7:00pm

If all goes according to plan, the Hubble Space Telescope will not be the only one reaping the benefits of Mechanical Engineering professor Michael Massimino's second mission to space. "[I have] a Mech-E T-shirt signed by all the students and faculty of the department," Massimino said. "It's on the Space Shuttle Atlantis now, and I hope to fly it in space and return it to the school."

After blasting off on May 11, Massimino will spend 11 days in space making repairs on the Hubble as part of NASA's fourth and final mission to repair the famed telescope, NASA consultant John Joe said. After being delayed by the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy in 2003, the mission will feature improvements to the telescope and some repairs that should allow Hubble to operate until at least 2014.

Joe said the system that stores and transmits Hubble's data malfunctioned in late September, and Hubble has since been working on a backup system. Over five space-walks, Massimino and the other astronauts hope to replace the malfunctioning system, replace the telescope's gyroscopes, thermal insulation and batteries, repair some crucial instruments on Hubble and incorporate two new cutting-edge instruments to enhance Hubble's performance, Joe said.

Massimino has had several years of experience working with NASA. In the early 1990s, Massimino worked for the McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in Houston before he applied for the Astronaut Corps. Massimino said he was selected to be an astronaut of NASA in 1996, and then went on to basic training.

"They call it 'Astronaut College,'" Massimino said.

Massimino then underwent two years of basic training before serving in the Astronaut Office Robotics Branch and the Extravehicular Activity Branch in order to prepare himself for spacewalking. Joe said this is standard for astronauts. In 2002, Massimino made his first foray into space on the STS-109 and made repairs to Hubble.

"I loved my first flight, and I think I'm looking forward to this one even more," Massimino said.

Massimino's ties to Rice run deep, which is part of the reason he will also be wearing a Rice T-shirt in space, he said. Massimino said that while he worked in the aerospace industry, some people he knew were looking for someone to teach a class in the Mechanical Engineering department at Rice University. From 1992-'93, Massimino said he taught a class part-time at Rice until he became full-time faculty at Georgia Tech in 1995.

However, when Massimino was hired by NASA as an astronaut in 1996, he said he came back to Houston. When he did, he got in touch with some of his old friends at Rice and asked if he could come back to teach as an adjunct faculty. Rice reinstated him as an adjunct faculty in 1996 and he has been teaching at Rice ever since, he said.

"I missed being at the university because Rice is a great school," Massimino said.

He said he is a Rice baseball fan, and also particularly appreciates the cooperation he sees between students and faculty, specifically in the Mechanical Engineering department.

Massimino's own history in becoming a mechanical engineer was interesting, he said. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he majored in industrial engineering. However, when he went to graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he found that he was more interested in the mechanical engineering department. After being accepted into the department, Massimino was able to get connected with NASA, according to the NASA Web site.

"I just did what I loved, and it all worked out," Massimino said.

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