Q&A: Ex-astronaut Stephen Robinson ready for new UC Davis challenge

Published: Monday, Jul. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 9, 2012 - 6:29 am

Sacramento native Stephen Robinson, an astronaut since 1994, has hung up his spacesuit to become a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at UC Davis.

He will also head the new Center for Human-Vehicle Integration and Performance, which will research how humans and machines can interact efficiently. Robinson is returning to his alma mater, where he got a dual bachelor's of science in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. He got his master's degree and doctorate at Stanford.

Did you always want to be an astronaut?

I think so. I was fascinated with flying in space from the time when I was very young.

What was your favorite part about being an astronaut?

It was the people that I worked with. All the people involved with the space program are very passionate. You don't join because you're gonna make a lot of money.

Least favorite part?

The summers in Houston.

What's a flight like?

Being in space is the culmination of years of training. The launch is very exciting – pretty dynamic and a little bit violent. Lots of forces and vibration and noise and suddenly, it all stops and you're floating peacefully in orbit. And then comes a couple of weeks of the hardest work you've ever done, at least for a shuttle mission.

Why retire from NASA?

Well, I have been an astronaut for 17 years, and that's a tremendous privilege, but it's time to let other people fly in space.

How do you feel about being a professor?

I am so excited that I can't wait to start. It's my other lifetime dream to be a professor. It's the reason I got a Ph.D. in the first place. I feel like everything I've done up to now has been preparation for this.

What is the new center?

The idea is to give humans a chance to operate much more effectively and safely in a very hazardous environment. The idea is to do research to study engineering development and design, neuroscience, psy- chology – to bring these things together.

What do you hope to achieve there?

My goal is to provide a research environment to learn how to extend human capability. To do that you need machines and software; you need to understand how the brain works, behavior and learning, and how to operate as a team. We can extend our presence and do things we couldn't otherwise do, such as going to space, but also flying in the atmosphere, doing robotic surgery.

What's your new class, Introduction to Spacecraft, about?

The idea of that class is to provide undergraduates with a very broad view into everything humans throw into space: satellites, human-carrying spacecrafts, deeper space travel. Hopefully, get them interested enough to want to do grad work in this field.

What do you hope your students will learn?

Besides a good foundation of engineering principles, to be creative-problem solvers. And most importantly, to be creative problem-identifiers. In other words, question-askers. The hardest thing to do in the technical field is to try to ask the right question.

What advice would you give someone aspiring to be like you?

For whatever you're aspiring, don't allow other people to convince you to let go of that dream. People will try to give you advice about what's practical, and dreams by definition are not practical. You don't achieve dreams by giving up. If some- body wants to be an astronaut, get experience in as many different activities and fields as possible. The life of an astronaut changes every day, and you're often faced with something nobody's ever done before.

What are your current plans?

Pack up to move from Texas to California. I'll be coming home.

Do you ever want to return to space?

Absolutely. Tomorrow would be good.

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