From the campus to the cosmos

March 4, 2024

Astronaut Warren “Woody” Hoburg returns to campus to share his journey from UC Berkeley student to NASA astronaut

Woody Hoburg shares photo memories with audienceEmbarking on a remarkable journey that traverses from the hallowed halls of UC Berkeley to the cosmic expanses of outer space, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a distinguished alum, pilot and NASA astronaut, recently returned to Berkeley to give a distinguished lecture and reunite with mentors and peers.The event, cohosted by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute and the Berkeley Space Center, sold out within 10 minutes of going live, an indication of the deep interest in outer space and beyond.

Hoburg always knew he wanted to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, there is not a detailed checklist or route that guarantees acceptance. Even within his own diverse astronaut class, Hoburg noted that the set of backgrounds that work out as potential astronaut candidates is very broad. For himself, he credits a blend of education, professional and personal skills and unwavering passion.

Even at a young age, Hoburg has been a tinkerer, an individual who enjoys hands-on work. While in high school, he became interested in amateur rocketry and started building rockets in his parents’ garage. It was the first real opportunity where he was able to get his “hands dirty” trying to make complicated aerospace systems work. It also introduced him to the concept of aerospace engineering, a path he would continue to pursue into college.

The Pennsylvania native earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2008. After graduating MIT, Hoburg had learned about a young, new faculty member at Berkeley named Pieter Abbeel, who was building systems that could fly autonomous helicopters trained by human pilots. It was an opportunity for Hoburg to work within parallel worlds, incorporating AI and robotics into his educational journey, so he made the intentional decision to come to Berkeley to study computer science.

“I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to work at the intersection of two fields,” said Hoburg. “It made my life a lot easier because I was able to just notice things from one field or the other that were maybe not so obvious, except being in that intersection. I really appreciated it during my time at Berkeley; seeing how many people had that willingness and even desire to work at intersections.”

Hoburg recounted memories of meeting with his advisor, professors and the hours he spent at his tiny desk at CITRIS Headquarters in Sutardja Dai Hall. He also recalled having the flexibility to work with the Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue Team during the summer, a time he describes as “one of the more academically productive periods of his studies.”

Although not related to his research work at Berkeley, it is a true passion of his, and one he is thankful he was given the flexibility to pursue. At the time, he did not know it, but the search and rescue experience would be a contributing factor in his astronaut application and the operational skills he learned on the job are ones he still finds useful today as an astronaut.

It is a reminder that there are multiple ways to achieve one's dream. And, although his desire to become an astronaut fluctuated through his development and career, it was the pursuit of his interests that ultimately led him down a path to a future with NASA.

“There are so many different pathways to achieve this big goal that is way off in the future,” said Hoburg. “I think the most important thing is to, right now, with the immediate decisions you have, choose to work on things that you are passionate about, excited about and that you are going to be happy having worked on, no matter what happens.”

For those who are looking to work within human space flight, Hoburg shared three core skills he believes one should have – technical competency in something; operational competence and being able to handle unexpected chaos; and the ability to be a good team player.

Preparing for Liftoff

Audience laughs as Woody Hoburg shares his memories from BerkeleyAfter graduating from UC Berkeley (M.S.’11, Ph.D.’13 EECS), Hoburg soon found himself back at MIT as a junior faculty member where he dug into the ideas of bringing convex optimization to engineering design. It was here that he finally received the once-in-a-lifetime call from NASA that he had been selected as a member for the 2017 astronaut class.

Over the next two years, Hoburg would train with 12 other class members in what he defined as an “astronaut bootcamp.” They participated in aviation training, learned about the International Space Station (ISS) system and trained on how to spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a 40-foot deep in-door pool, where individuals could experience zero or partial gravity.

Regardless of his classmates’ previous experience, Hoburg noted it was a time where all members were equals, “Everybody comes in with their specialty and their unique background that may have suited them to being a good astronaut, but no one has been in a spacesuit or done one of these spacewalks. Everybody started from scratch.”

After bootcamp, he worked on a few technical assignments before he received another call. It was early 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, when NASA informed him that he was being assigned to be the pilot of Crew-6, a group of 4, who had been chosen to fly up to the International Space Station (ISS) via the SpaceX Dragon Capsule. The mission would require him to spend six months living in a laboratory, 250 miles above Earth.

Training started immediately and lasted another two years. However, this time, his training focused on a variety of mission-specific tasks including more detailed aviation training, another round of buoyancy training and water survival training for when they re-entered the earth after their mission was complete. In addition, Hoburg trained with SpaceX to acclimate himself with the Dragon Capsule where he prepared for the key phases of flight – launch, re-entry and one port relocation.

On the day of the launch, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, meticulous planning unfolded as Hoburg prepared for his space odyssey. The journey commenced with the donning of the astronaut suit in the crew quarters, followed by a 20-minute ride to the launch pad. However, planning took an unexpected turn when, with just 2 minutes and 12 seconds remaining, an issue with the engine-igniting fluids prompted the cancellation of the launch.

Undeterred and three days later, the entire process was repeated with the same remarkable precision, as Crew-6 was successfully launched into space. Within a little more than a day’s passing, Hoburg and his team had made it to the ISS.

The team hit the ground running as a cargo vehicle called SpaceX 27 presented them with a variety of science experiments. During their six month stint, the crew grew tomatoes, worked on beating heart muscle tissue, printed a section of human meniscus, studied combustion in space, printed structures that could only work in a weightless environment and even ran a few student competitions with Astrobee robots.

“I operated a student-built experiment while I was in space,” noted Hoburg. “I would encourage students to get their hands dirty and work on real things, to get an experiment aboard the space station – that’s actually possible. For a student to have that experience… Wow, what an incredible thing to do as part of your undergrad maybe or part of your graduate studies.”

Hoburg described the total mission as “an amazing life experience” and one that gained him a new family – “it’s hard not to be friends when you are stuck together for six months.”

To Infinity and Beyond

Woody Hoburg, Berkeley alum and NASA astronaut, shares an image of him in his spacesuit

The new Berkeley Space Center, a proposed, 36-acre innovation center and hub where academia, private industry and government come together to identify, incubate and launch tomorrow’s technological breakthroughs, is a project that Hoburg is excited about for future Berkeley students.

“I sure wish such a facility and project had been around when I was here,” said Hoburg. “We’ve had, for 23-24 years now, continuous presence on the ISS and so being able to actually fly things to the space station and do research above the space station, give these opportunities to students to do hands-on work – it's all just really exciting and I think it will be great for the students, great for the companies that have chosen to partner with Berkeley and great for Berkeley.”

When asked about what was next, Hoburg excitedly shared his goals of us going back to the moon and potentially having a moon base. He’d openly volunteer, but even if not chosen, having the opportunity to work on any part of the mission would excite him.

As a parting inspiration, Hoburg encouraged the audience to follow their passion, to work on things that are difficult, to challenge themselves and to pursue things that are rewarding.

“Do not necessarily pick your path based on where you think it will lead you, pick your path based on what you are interested in and excited about in the moment,” said Hoburg. “Shorten your time horizon. Through that process of working on things that are actually exciting in the moment, it’s just natural to do better work, than one would otherwise be possible, and to end up going places you would never imagine.”

The Distinguished Lecture Series is a part of an on-going series of events hosted by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute. Learn more about upcoming events or watch the full lecture featuring Warren “Woody” Hoburg.