From Rutgers to the Space Shuttle Challenger
For more than 50 year, Rutgers University and the School of Engineering have been advancing aerospace research and innovation while preparing students for careers at organizations such as NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and more. On this historic anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, we are proud to salute SoE alumni and NASA astronauts Terry Hart (MS ENG'78) and Robert Cenker (MS ENG'77).
Below they share reflections from the careers that sent them into orbit as Challenger and Columbia astronauts.
Alumnus Astronaut Terry Hart (MS ENG’78) looks back to the future of space exploration
For Terry “T.J.” Hart, a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer and U.S. Air Force Reserve pilot, 1978 was a banner year. He received his MS in electrical engineering from Rutgers School of Engineering and learned he had been accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 – the first new group of astronauts in nine years and the first to include women, and African and Asian Americans.
During his six years with NASA, Hart was initially a member of the Mission Control Team, supporting crews on four shuttle flights as Ascent and Orbit CAPCOM or capsule communicator. Later, in April 1984, he spent seven days in space as a member of the crew of the STS-41-C Challenger space shuttle. He helped to release the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), which contained 57 experiments from 200 researchers from eight countries. The mission made history by successfully completing the first on-orbit spacecraft repair of the disabled Solar Maximum Mission, or Solar Max, satellite.
Today, Hart teaches aerospace engineering at Lehigh University, his undergraduate alma mater, where he loves to see his students launch careers in the field.
You earned an MS in mechanical engineering from MIT. Why did you choose Rutgers for a second MS degree in electrical engineering?
I’d just come back from active Air Force duty and was working at Bell Labs in New Jersey on government defense projects such as the antiballistic missile system. When my job began to involve more electrical work, I went back to night school to learn about electrical engineering. It was a wonderful opportunity to have such a good school there as Rutgers.
You were one of 35 astronauts chosen by NASA from a pool of 8,000 applicants in 1978. Why did you apply?
Right in the middle of working at Bell and towards my master’s degree at Rutgers, NASA announced they were going to hire the first group of astronauts since the Apollo missions. I put an application in on a whim.
It was dumb luck – kind of like Forrest Gump – in that I was in the right place at the right time. NASA loved Bell Labs and fact that I was a weekend fighter pilot with the New Jersey Air National Guard and that my educational development included both mechanical and electrical engineering.
My group had the first women astronauts. These six women were a breath of fresh air for NASA. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was in the group and we were best friends. We shared an office for four years and flew T-38s – supersonic jet trainers – together. She was one of my favorite co-pilots and one of the first of our group to get to fly on a shuttle mission.
What was your role as a mission specialist on the 1984 STS-41-C Challenger mission?
We took the Long Duration Exposure Facility with up with us and deployed it. We used a mechanical arm to unberth it and deploy it – and the experiments that were on it.
Four years earlier, the Solar Maximum Satellite had been launched but had become disabled and couldn’t be used. We trained underwater with space suits on and with simulator training for space walks in order to be able to repair and replace it. My job was to work with Commander Bob Crippen and grab the satellite with the shuttle’s mechanical arm. Other guys space walked to do the actual repair – the first ever rendezvous with and repair of a satellite.
From the Challenger disaster to the beginning of cable TV and how a united country can land us back on the moon
Robert J. Cenker, a Rutgers-New Brunswick electrical engineering alumnus, was a crew member on the 1986 space shuttle Columbia, where he changed the face of cable TV across the United States.
During his six-day mission, which began Jan. 12, 1986, he observed the deployment of an RCA satellite and conducted an experiment on an infrared imaging camera. In total, Cenker traveled more than 2.1 million miles in 96 Earth orbits and logged more than 146 hours in space. The mission was the final flight before the Challenger disaster, which killed seven crewmembers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who trained with him. As a result, Cenker's Columbia mission was called "the end of innocence" for the Shuttle program.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Cenker will join students from the New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology, TARGET and EOF on July 19 to discuss his journey into space and offer a glimpse of what it takes to become an astronaut. He will describe how the political climate has changed since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 and how the country needs to band together to return to the moon – and perhaps reach Mars.
How did your time at Rutgers help you travel into space?
Prior to Rutgers, I received my undergraduate and graduate degree from Penn State University in aerospace engineering, where I focused on spacecraft dynamics and orbits. After I graduated, however, I worked for RCA Astro-Electronics and its successor company, GE Astro Space, on hardware design and systems design on satellite attitude control.
What I found out while working at RCA is that spacecrafts were largely electronic, and it wasn’t going to be the spacecraft dynamics that would give me an edge, but rather an expertise in electrical engineering. So, I went to Rutgers and got a second master’s degree in electrical engineering. I needed a program that would allow me to take evening classes, so I could continue working at RCA, and Rutgers had an excellent program – and I am sure they still do. RCA was looking to send a payload specialist, which is an individual selected and trained by commercial or research organizations for flights of a specific payload on a NASA space shuttle mission, with my skills into space. They wanted to launch satellites that held the technology to share cable TV communications across America. I was at the right place at the right time to be the right person needed to support RCA’s new technology in space.
Explain your role on the 1986 Columbia mission and your connection to the crew members on the Challenger?
I worked on SATCOM KU-1, which was a commercial communications satellite built by RCA and deployed by the STS 61-C shuttle mission, which was the seventh mission of Columbia. RCA Labs came up with a new IR sensing technology that they wanted to test in space; and RCA Astro selected me to be there as an observer of the KU-1 deployment in case it needed troubleshooting while in space.
In order to prepare myself for spaceflight, I had to perform extensive training with both career astronauts as well as other payload specialists. Some of the people I met during training were going on the mission I was on and some were training for upcoming missions, such as the 10th flight of Challenger. One of those people was Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to fly into space. Sadly, her spacecraft broke apart before it ever reached space, killing the seven crew members onboard. I was on a flight to Los Angeles when it happened. I felt as though my body went into shock. There is this photo of us from our training, and it’s something I will never forget.
Starting from left, Gerry Magilton (Cenker's backup), Payload Specialist Astronaut Christa McAuliffe, Former Astronaut and Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida, Barbara Morgan (Christa’s backup) who eventually (years later) got to fly as a teacher, and Payload Specialist Astronaut Bob Cenker during NASA training.