Astronaut and educator Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman coming to Temple Beth Shalom in Needham Nov. 4
NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – As movie fans continue to rush to see “First Man” and Brad Meltzer releases his latest inspirational children’s book, “I Am Neil Armstrong,” interest in space and astronauts is on the rise. While it is great to read about or see our space heroes in books and movies, it’s nothing compared to meeting them in person.
On Sunday, Nov. 4, Temple Beth Shalom in Needham will welcome NASA Astronaut and MIT professor Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman for a talk about his adventures and the future of space exploration for an event called “Jews in Space.”
Over a career spanning nearly two decades, Dr. Hofffman made five space flights, four space walks, and became the first astronaut to log 1,000 hours of flight time aboard the space shuttle. A member of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, Dr. Hoffman also directs the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, a consortium of local colleges, universities, and outreach organizations that promote NASA and space exploration. He is a professor in MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, and is the Deputy Principal Investigator of the MOXIE experiment on NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which aims to will produce oxygen from extraterrestrial material.
The Journal was recently able to dock up with Dr. Hoffman to talk to him about his life and career.
What or who first interested you in space?
Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Buck Rodgers. All of the sci-fi that was available in the 1950s. We didn’t have real astronauts then, but there was a lot of publicity for the Space Age that was coming. Disney had Tomorrowland. There were articles in Collier’s. On the scientific side, my dad used to take me to the shows at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. So I was not interested just in space travel but in space and astronomy.
When did you decide it was something you wanted to do?
I was very excited about the space program, but all the early astronauts were military test pilots, and that was not a career for me. So I never considered it a real career goal until I was working as an astrophysicist at MIT in the 1970s. That is when NASA was making the preparations to fly what was then the brand-new space shuttle. The difference was that the shuttle crew had seven people, only two of which had to be pilots. So it opened possibilities to people like doctors and scientists and that is when I realized I could do it. So I applied in 1977 and I got the call in January of 1978 and formally joined NASA in the beginning of July of 1978.
What do you tell younger people who dream of going into space?
As you can imagine, here at MIT, we have lots of aspiring astronauts. I tell them that this needs to be their Plan B and that they need to have a good Plan A. When I applied, we had 8,000 applicants and they chose 35 of us, so no matter how qualified you are, there are lots of other fine people who are qualified, yet who might never get the chance. So you need to have a good career plan.
When was your first mission? What was your role?
I was what they call a Mission Specialist, which means I was responsible for everything other than piloting the shuttle. We were assigned to fly in June of 1984, but we kept having delays and reassignments, so my first flight was not until April of 1985. I was responsible for operating shuttle systems, like a flight engineer on an airplane. I operated the robotic arm, took care of experiments, launched satellites, and did space walks. We were not planning to do any spacewalks on my first flight, but when one of the satellites we launched did not work right, NASA asked us to do what was the first unplanned contingency spacewalk in NASA’s history. And that was the best part of the job!
What was that first step outside of the shuttle like?
I had perfect confidence in my suit. I had trained thoroughly even though we were not planning to do a spacewalk. I had trained in a water tank, and part of the training was wearing my actual suit in a vacuum chamber. The real question remains, however, as to whether I could do the job they asked me to. We had never planned to do a walk that mission, but I remember floating out of the airlock and feeling that it felt very much like it felt in the water. Then I turned away from the shuttle and saw the Earth and realized it was the real thing! But it is a tribute to how great the training is that I felt perfectly comfortable and went out and did the job.
What have been your most significant accomplishments as a scientist and an astronaut?
As an astronaut and as a former astronomer, I was part of the crew that fixed the Hubble telescope and turned it into what is now NASA’s most successful science mission.
Where do you hope NASA is headed, and where is it actually headed?
Finally, NASA seems to be getting serious about continuing exploration of the Moon that we started briefly with the Apollo missions. We have started up with ideas of going back several times and it has never happened, but I hope this time, we do it right. That is the first step in whatever else we want to do. I am keen on going to Mars, but Mars is very far away and the Moon is something we can do in a reasonable timeframe, so I hope we will do that, but in a way that will help us eventually get to Mars.
What can guests at the TBS event expect?
I call it “Jews in Space.” It will be a discussion of what it’s like being an astronaut, but emphasizing the Jewish aspects of my career and how I carried some of my Jewish heritage with me into space. For example, I show a picture of myself floating in space with the caption, ”What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like this?”