Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, once took multivariable calculus at Northwestern while in high school. He then grew up to become an astrophysicist and space-traveler.
The astronaut and Chicago native spoke to a packed Tech Auditorium on Tuesday for the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics’ public lecture. Grunsfeld focused on the latest space mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 and the future of the space program in the United States.
Grunsfeld spent his childhood near Chicago in Highland Park, where his interest in science and the cosmos began. He spent summers at the Adler Planetarium, where he often looked up at the stars and wondered if there was life beyond Earth.
He studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago, according to his NASA biography. From there, he joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1992 and went on five space missions, totaling 58 days in space.
He currently works at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. as “the head science guy” – as Stephen Colbert called Grunsfeld when he appeared on an episode of The Colbert Report in August 2012.
Reminiscent of his appearance on Colbert’s program, Grunsfeld injected humor into the jargon-heavy lecture, wishing Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus a happy birthday on what would have been his 540th birthday.
Grunsfeld presented videos from the crew of the 2009 STS-125 Atlantis mission, showing the astronauts performing intricate repairs on the Hubble, such as changing 400-pound batteries.
“We had hundreds of engineers on-call around the clock,” Grunsfeld said, along with a “what to do if things go wrong” checklist, which he said was “incredibly detailed.”
Audience members also saw candid moments of the crew enjoying zero gravity, playing video games and learning “how to make a chicken tortilla in space.”
Grunsfeld also discussed the history and future of NASA explorations on Mars, which include the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission later this year. MAVEN will gather data about the planet’s upper atmosphere, according to the NASA website. The launch will add to the current spacecraft and rovers already exploring the planet.
“As a kid who loved dinosaurs and space, and later robots and space,” Grunsfeld said, “a robot in space that can zap rockets is the ultimate cool factor.”
He said he hopes that with continued exploration on Mars, it will be possible to send a geologist or astrobiologist there to learn about the potential for life on other planets. He closed his talk with the idea of the future – of both the space program and those who will one day run it.
“It is important we share the wonder of science with the folks who are young,” he said. “They are the future decision makers.”