Two Ohio State graduates join Columbia space shuttle flight

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COLUMBUS – At first glance, a college degree in biology or veterinary medicine may seem an unlikely foundation for a career in space flight. But two Ohio State alumni are proving that studying the life sciences can lead to a job in NASA’s space program.

When the Space Shuttle Columbia launched in late February, it carried mission specialists Nancy Currie and Richard Linnehan more than 350 miles above the Earth to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope. The Columbia crew will install new cameras on the Hubble to enhance its imaging capability ten-fold.

Pre-flight work. In an interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Currie and Linnehan took time out from pre-flight preparations to talk about how their education shaped their lives as astronauts. Both feel that their training at Ohio State gave them the versatility to tackle problems outside their normal realm of study.

Currie, who earned her bachelor of arts degree in biological sciences in 1980, is also an alumna of Ohio State’s Army ROTC program. Following graduation, she worked as a neuropathology research assistant in the College of Medicine.

After witnessing a tragic accident in flight school in 1985, Currie channeled her academic efforts into a master’s degree in safety engineering from the University of Southern California, and then a doctorate in industrial engineering from the University of Houston. She brings to the shuttle mission an expertise in human-machine interaction.

Flight monitor. Currie used all her skills to act as Columbia’s “quarterback” during takeoff and landing. While the other astronauts were responsible for only a subset of the shuttle controls, Currie monitors the flight as a whole, keeping procedures on schedule and correcting any possible malfunctions.

Once the shuttle reaches Hubble, she will pilot the giant robot arm that holds her fellow crew members as they work on the telescope.

She constantly tries to improve the way she and her colleagues interact with complex NASA machinery.

“I look at things and think, ‘how can I optimize the user’s interface to this piece of equipment, in order to provide them with the information they most need to operate it, keep their situational awareness and so forth?'” Currie said.

Her training will come in handy on this mission, as Columbia is only the second shuttle to replace its traditional mechanical cockpit instruments with new flat-panel displays. NASA hopes this “glass cockpit” will set the stage for a future “smart cockpit” that will make the cabin even more user friendly in the years to come.

A chance for cadets. Accompanied by Lt. Colonel Jack Gumbert, professor of military science at Ohio State’s Army ROTC, four undergraduate students will travel to Kennedy Space Center to meet the astronauts and attend the Currie family launch reception. When these cadets become captains, the Army will contact them about joining the astronaut program, Gumbert said.

Cadets Luke Anderson, a junior in mechanical engineering; Thomas Hardy, a junior in electronic and computer engineering; Brain Downs, a sophomore in aeronautical and astronautical engineering; and Justin Crocker, a freshman in criminology, are attending the launch.

This is Currie’s fourth space shuttle flight. She’ll take along the Ohio State University Army ROTC “colors,” a Buckeye Battalion flag, which she’s carried with her on every mission. When she retires from NASA, she plans to return the flag to the university.

First spacewalk. This is Richard Linnehan’s third mission, but the first in which he will take a spacewalk outside the shuttle.

An expert in marine mammals, Linnehan said his education at Ohio State prepared him for a versatile career.

Linnehan received his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Ohio State in 1985. Now a professor at North Carolina State University, he has applied his skills to medical experiments aboard the shuttle, including the Neurolab mission in 1998 in which he was payload commander in charge of all research on the ship.

By studying rats, mice, fish, and other animals in space, Linnehan said he’s learned many things that have applications back on Earth. He and his fellow astronauts participated in medical experiments as well, yielding clues about conditions as diverse as blood pressure, osteoporosis, and sleep disorders.

Earthly study. “Many of the things that happen to astronauts when they go into space and experience microgravity actually mimic the disease processes that happen to people on the ground,” Linnehan said. “So you can study a certain condition in a very short period of time and learn the basic science involved in it, then come back to earth and ask the questions about why it happens.”

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