As an astronaut and pilot with NASA, Douglas Hurley has logged more miles in the past decade than most people dream of in several lifetimes.
But one of the most nerve-wracking trips he can recall wasn’t his 16-day International Space Station assembly mission in 2009. Nor was it the time he piloted the last flight of the country’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, during which he logged more than 5 million miles in 12 days.
Rather, it was the time he traveled 1,200 miles from Owego, New York, to New Orleans. It was 1984, and Hurley was headed to the Crescent City to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Tulane University.
“The trepidation was huge,” he said, looking back. “But for me, it was exactly what I needed. I felt like I needed to make my own mark and get out and see the rest of the world. It’s almost like I chose New Orleans because it’s so different from what I grew up in.”
Hurley, who had just graduated from Owego Free Academy, had grown up in an “absolutely idyllic” environment, he said. He was raised in the small town of Apalachin, New York, where he said he felt “completely and utterly” isolated from the rest of the world.
So, he came to New Orleans to get “real-world experience” and a degree that ultimately would catapult his two careers: one in the military, where he became a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps before retiring after 24 years, and another at NASA, where he’s accumulated more than 683 hours in space and piloted two Space Shuttle missions.
Hurley graduated magna cum laude with honors from Tulane in civil engineering in 1988. He also was a distinguished graduate from Tulane’s NROTC program.
On Friday, Hurley, 49, was back in New Orleans to speak at the 16th annual Tulane Engineering Forum.
Held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the one-day conference brought together experts from around the country to share their knowledge with more than 500 professional engineers, scientists and technical managers.
Topics of panels included innovative infrastructure design and construction, the future of the U.S. electrical grid and coastal restoration.
Hurley and his wife, fellow astronaut Karen Nyberg, gave the group a synopsis of the past 15 years of human space flight.
Their talk included some intimate highlights, such as being chosen for the same astronaut class in 2000, falling in love and getting married nine years later and having a son, who is 6. They also discussed the ins and outs of space flight, including the development of allergies from exposure to dust in a zero-gravity environment, and the marvels of in-flight food choices.
Inevitably, however, the discussion included the Columbia disaster, the 2003 explosion that killed seven astronauts when a large piece of foam fell from an external tank attached to the shuttle, breaching a wing. The Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over Texas after a research mission during which the crew performed about 80 experiments in space.
The disaster would suspend Space Shuttle flights for more than two years as NASA investigated. It also would bring intense scrutiny to the organization following a report that safety issues there had been overlooked for years.
According to Hurley, it ultimately resulted in cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and closed an entire chapter of human space flight in the U.S.
“The loss of Columbia was unbelievably overwhelming for all of us,” he said. “It was a public loss of seven friends. But also the rehash, scrutiny of NASA, the changes and the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program all resulted from Columbia. Not only did it affect the country, in my opinion, it directly affected us as astronauts.”
Hurley and Nyberg didn’t just focus on the negative, however. Nyberg, who became the 50th woman in space on her first mission in 2008, complimented the progress NASA has made in recent years in bridging an inequality gap between men and women.
Nyberg attributed it to more women becoming engineers and scientists and joining the military.
“As we start to see more and more women in those roles, we see more women in NASA,” she said. “There certainly are plenty of capable women out there.”
Both astronauts also praised the International Space Station project, a habitable satellite that’s been continuously occupied since November 2000 and has had 222 visitors from 18 countries.
They also discussed NASA’s future plans, which mainly involve transitioning to the private sector to carry commercial flights and cargo.
Ultimately, however, the goal is Mars, Hurley said — a feat that would cause an “entire change in political thinking” and a more intensive partnership among countries, and that would be of “huge significance.”
“Just to be able to accomplish that as a nation would be a tremendous goal. At NASA, one of our primary missions is to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, artists and teachers,” Hurley said. “Having a human relating their experience from Mars back to Earth? I can’t even venture to guess how many people would be sitting on the edge of their seats.”