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Jim Voss

Samuel Ginn College of Engineering alumnus

Jim Voss will tell you he is an "Auburnaut," the name he has dubbed the six university alumni who have become astronauts, but he is that and much more. He graduated from Auburn in 1972 with a degree in aerospace engineering and earned a master's degree from the University of Colorado in 1974. He was selected for the astronaut program in 1987. During his tenure at NASA, Voss flew on five space missions and conducted four spacewalks, which included the longest (8 hours and 56 minutes) and the shortest (19 minutes) in program history. He was also the first to space walk from the International Space Station and has also "walked" in a Russian space suit. In 2001, he was a member of the Expedition 2 crew on board the space station for 163 days, bringing his total time living and working in space to 202 days.

Voss has worked in shuttle safety, software checkout, as a spacecraft communicator and as the astronaut office training representative. He has also done extensive extravehicular activity development work and served as the back-up crewmember for two missions to the Russian space station Mir. Voss's last role with NASA was as the deputy for flight operations in the Space Station Program Mission Integration and Operations Office. He left the space agency in 2003 to return to Auburn, teach human spacecraft design and serve the College of Engineering as associate dean for external affairs. Today, he is working with the next generation of spacecraft and their pilots.

Voss, who calls Opelika home, is the kind of down-to-earth Auburn man who has literally reached for the stars and defied gravity, watching Earth disappear in his rearview mirror. An Auburn engineering degree led Voss into space. His love of Auburn led him home.

1. You've been a wrestler, an army officer, an astronaut and an engineering administrator - what are you working on today?

I am involved with human spaceflight projects in several capacities as vice president of space exploration systems at Sierra Nevada Corp in Colorado, where I manage a team that is building a commercial human spacecraft for NASA to take their crews to the International Space Station. I am also teaching a human spaceflight class at the University of Colorado, similar to the classes I taught at Auburn, so I get to help build a spaceship and teach young people about space.
All the experience I gained while studying, training and flying on three spacecraft - Space Shuttle, International Space Station and the Russian Soyuz capsule - has prepared me for designing and building spacecraft and teaching others about them. The only difference is that I'm no longer flying them.

2. What does the future of space flight look like?

Bright and impressive. NASA will explore Mars, the moon or an asteroid - in our lifetime - then beyond. With the International Space Station, scientific research and engineering testing is preparing us to explore the solar system, ensuring that we are prepared for the difficult missions of exploration to follow. Of course, I also feel that what we learn in space has always resulted in technology spin-offs that have benefited all of us.

Commercial companies will be carrying paid passengers to low Earth orbit for science missions and for pleasure, beginning slowly with government support, much like the early airlines, and then becoming a thriving business. Commercial spacecraft will be simpler and smaller; they don't need to be as versatile or capable as a do-it-all shuttle. The technologies and knowledge acquired during the 30 years of the shuttle program can be applied to new space vehicles, making them safer and more robust than the shuttle. Commercial programs will make spaceflight affordable and accessible to more people, allowing the government to focus on more difficult missions.

3. Will tomorrow's American astronaut be any different from the Gemini, Apollo or space shuttle astronauts we know today?

They may be different - upcoming missions will involve long trips in tough environments and will not require the same type of piloting skills. A variety of people and disciplines will be required, from pilots, medical personnel and engineers to technicians and geologists. A good astronaut has a willingness to do adventurous work that involves a degree of risk, is a strong team player and can understand and operate complex machines, as well as remain calm and in control in unsafe circumstances.

It can be dangerous to fly in space, even when we know how to do it. The vehicles we build must be operated as they were designed, and we have to always be vigilant to ensure we don't make mistakes that can place crews in more danger. It requires a great team of people to accomplish successful space flight and Auburn graduates have played an important role in our nation's space program. I hope to see more Auburn graduates become America's space explorers.

4. How do you think Americans developed their sense of national pride when it comes to space travel?

From the beginnings of space travel, the U.S. has been a leader and we take pride in that. It continues today with the International Space Station, but we are in danger of losing our leadership in space with the retirement of the space shuttle and no building plans for follow-up vehicles. For Americans to have pride in our space program, we need to continue leading the development of difficult missions and new space vehicles, which is why partnering with commercial companies to quickly re-establish our capability of taking people to space is critical, as is conducting challenging NASA missions that explore our solar system.

5.Extraterrestrials. Real or imaginary?

I couldn't say for sure, but ours is a vast universe, and I can't imagine that we are the only living things in it.

Aug. 15, 2011