Professor remembers shuttle astronaut

WUSTL provided firm foundation; Behnken had the 'right stuff'

Salvatore P. Sutera, Ph.D., senior professor of biomedical engineering and former chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, was watching a local newscast earlier this month that featured astronauts greeting the media with their customary grins and salutes when he recognized a former student.

U.S. Air Force Major and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken, Ph.D., Mission Specialist 1 on the International Space Station, was a student of Sutera’s between 1990-92. At the time, Behnken was an Air Force ROTC student earning bachelor’s degrees in both mechanical engineering and physics.

In May 1992, he was planning to stay for a fifth year and earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Sutera would have been his adviser. However, Behnken decided to take his WUSTL degrees and head to the California Institute of Technology, where he spent the next four years earning a master’s degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering.

It could be that he was following the example of Sutera, who had done the same thing after earning a bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University many years before.

“I don’t think it was coincidental that Bob chose my alma mater for his postgraduate studies,” Sutera said. “I think he was motivated by some of the same reasons as I. For one thing, Caltech offered a one-year, non-thesis master’s program, and he probably wanted to see the other side of the continent. But then he got hooked and stayed on for three more years and a doctorate.”

Sutera remembered Behnken as an energetic, cheerful, likeable young man. Looking up Behnken’s transcripts, Sutera saw that he earned As and A-pluses in the courses he taught — grades he didn’t give out lightly.

“Bob was definitely a low-maintenance student, one who didn’t need a lot of help with homework problems,” Sutera said. “Obviously, he did very well to get the master’s and Ph.D. from Caltech in four years. That’s a very rigorous, challenging environment. Only the best students can survive it.”

Behnken is in the middle of the first space flight of his career on the spacecraft Endeavor, which launched March 11. He is one of seven astronauts on NASA shuttle mission STS-123, a 16-day mission that will enable the crew to add science capabilities to the space station as well as deliver equipment to aid in future maintenance operations.

Astronauts are installing the first section of Kibo, a Japanese-built laboratory, and the Canadian-made robotics system known as Dextre. STS-123 is the 25th shuttle mission and longest shuttle flight to the International Space Station to date.

The mission, which features five spacewalks, combines the expertise and experience of several countries working together to create a working research “home” in space. Behnken is scheduled to make three space walks.

He is coordinator of internal space walks and will be operating the Space Station’s robotic arm, thus playing a vital role in connecting Kibo to the Space Station.

Behnken has collected many honors in his career, including being named the University’s Outstanding Mechanical Engineering Senior in 1992.

Other honors: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow (1993-96), Caltech; Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate, Eglin AFB Florida Company Grade Officer of the Year (1997); USAF Achievement Medal (1997); USAF Commendation Medal (1998); Distinguished Graduate from the USAF Test Pilot School Program (1999); USAF Test Pilot School Colonel Ray Jones Award as the top Flight Test Engineer/

Flight Test Navigator in class 98B; and USAF Commendation Medal (2000).

At Caltech, Behnken’s thesis research was in the area of nonlinear control applied to stabilizing rotating stall and surge in axial flow compressors, subjects that are highly relevant to the design and performance of jet engines. The research included nonlinear analysis, real-time software implementation development and extensive hardware construction. During his first two years of graduate study, Behnken developed and implemented real-time control algorithms and hardware for flexible robotic manipulators.

Sutera said Behnken’s success as a scientist, pilot and now as astronaut reflects well on the University.

“Bob obviously had ‘the right stuff,’ and we can feel proud for having given him a good foundation and launching him to greater heights,” Sutera said.