NASA astronaut Behnken, WUSTL alum, returns to campus

Will deliver two talks for McDonnell Center’s Robert M. Walker lecture series


Washington University in St. Louis alum Robert L. Behnken, PhD, a NASA astronaut who has completed two missions to the International Space Station (ISS), returns to campus for two lectures Wednesday, Oct. 20, and Thursday, Oct. 21.

Behnken, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, will deliver the third annual Robert M. Walker Distinguished Lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, in Room 300, Laboratory Sciences building. He also will deliver a colloquium titled “Astronaut Training” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20, in Room 245, Compton Hall.

WUSTL’s McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences is sponsoring the lectures in memory of Robert M. Walker, PhD, the center’s inaugural director. Walker was a pioneering physicist who helped shape research in the space sciences.

In 2008, Behnken traveled to the ISS for 16 days on a mission that delivered the first component of the Japanese experimental module and the Canadian robotic manipulator Dextre.

In 2010, he spent 14 days on the ISS, delivering the Node 3 habitation module and the seven-windowed Cupola. During these missions he performed a total of six spacewalks, as well as many other ISS assembly tasks.

“The two talks by astronaut Behnken will be of great interest not only to scientists, space enthusiasts and those who aspire to become astronauts, but also to those who have a sense of adventure, those who wish to succeed in any field, and to the general public that enjoys the benefits accrued through space technology, like television, GPS and remote sensing,” says Ramanath Cowsik, PhD, professor of physics in Arts & Sciences and director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences.

In the Oct. 21 Walker lecture, Behnken will describe NASA’s manned exploration activities as well as discuss his experiences as a space shuttle crewmember and life on the ISS.

Afterward, he will present Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton a photograph of James S. McDonnell, the aerospace pioneer whose endowment established the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences in 1975. Behnken took the photo with him on the 2010 mission and it is signed by the astronauts on the mission and those in the space station.

The McDonnell Center also will be hosting members of the St. Louis Junior Academy of Science at the Oct. 21 event.

At the colloquium Oct. 20, Behnken will speak on “Astronaut Training.” Although military and academic training played roles in his selection to be an astronaut, Behnken will discuss NASA training for life on the ISS. That training included wilderness survival, living for extended periods in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aquarius underwater habitat and mission-specific training. He also will discuss the typical level of astronaut involvement with scientific payloads.

Behnken graduated from Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, Mo., in 1988. At WUSTL, he earned bachelor’s degrees in physics in Arts & Sciences and in mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science in 1992. He went on to earn a master’s degree in 1993 and a doctorate in 1997, both in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology.

His thesis research was in the area of nonlinear control applied to stabilizing rotating stall and surge in axial-flow compressors. During his first two years of graduate study, he developed control algorithms and hardware for flexible robotic manipulators.

Behnken, who had been an Air Force ROTC student at WUSTL, served as an engineer at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida before becoming the lead flight test engineer for the fourth F-22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Behnken has logged more than 1,000 flight hours in more than 25 different types of aircraft.

He was selected as a mission specialist by NASA in July 2000.

For more information on his lectures, visit or call (314) 935-6276.