Campus alumnus could become NASA astronaut, travel to Mars


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NASA announced Wednesday that campus alumnus Warren “Woody” Hoburg had been selected as one of 12 in its newest class of astronaut candidates.

Hoburg, who is currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans on moving to Houston, Texas, to begin the two-year astronaut training program.

According to Hoburg, this is an exciting time to be joining NASA as an astronaut — multiple new vehicles are being developed and one of NASA’s long-term objectives is for humans to reach Mars.

By February 2016, NASA had received more than 18,300 paper applications from astronaut hopefuls, according to Hoburg. Hoburg then went through two rounds of interviews in Houston, and NASA made its final selection in May. The program’s acceptance rate was approximately 0.07 percent.

Once he arrives in Houston, he will learn the specialized skills he will need in space, Hoburg said. These include flight training, spacewalking – which is taught in a big swimming pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory – and Russian. The astronauts will also learn specialized robotics and undergo wilderness survival training.

Hoburg said he and his fellow astronaut candidates are already “fast friends” and that the people selected have a wide range of backgrounds, although most have spent time working operationally in hazardous spaces. These include Antarctica, submarines and, in Hoburg’s case, Yosemite. Hoburg spent his summers conducting search-and-rescue missions at the National Park while he studied at UC Berkeley.

Hoburg studied at UC Berkeley from 2009-13 and received a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science. Although he entered as a robotics researcher, he instead developed new methods that improve turnaround time in aircraft design.

According to Hoburg’s research adviser, professor Pieter Abbeel of the campus’s EECS department, NASA “picked the right person” when they chose Hoburg to become an astronaut. Abbeel remembers Hoburg as driven and motivated, always looking for criticism so that he could improve his work.

During one of their first meetings together, Hoburg told Abbeel that one of his long-term goals was to become an astronaut.

“It was his dream. … He was already launching rockets as a kid,” Abbeel said.

Hoburg’s partner Polina Anikeeva, a professor at MIT who was recently awarded tenure, said she is ecstatic Woody gets to pursue his lifelong dream but regrets that they will not be moving together to Houston. Hoburg likewise said that leaving Anikeeva will be the hardest part of the years ahead. He is also not looking forward to leaving his students and research team behind at MIT.

Still, Hoburg looks forward to the years ahead. He says it is almost guaranteed that he will travel to space, whether to the International Space Station or beyond into deep space.

Hoburg emphasized that his appointment is “the result of a lot of support over the years from various mentors.”

“I am very grateful,” he said.

Contact Rachael Cornejo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachaelCornejo.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the acceptance rate of NASA’s 2017 astronaut program was about 0.0007%. In fact, it was about 0.07%.