In 1990, Robert Parker and Jeffrey Hoffman found themselves in close quarters on the Space Shuttle Columbia, two of four astronomers on board the 38th Shuttle mission. “It was great to be up there with another Amherst grad,” says Hoffman.
It was Parker’s second time in space: A 1984 Spacelab flight made him the first Amherst alumnus to leave the planet. In 1985, Hoffman completed an unplanned space walk—the “most intimate experience of being in space,” he says: “You’re surrounded by the universe. Lifting your hand up to your face, it’s amazing to realize there’s a vacuum between your hands and your eyes.” The magazine wrote about both astronauts in 1984.
Parker subsequently worked in NASA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, later moving to California to direct the NASA Management Office at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Hoffman flew additional flights, including one to install corrective optics in the Hubble telescope. “It was quite a thrill,” Hoffman says, “to put my hands on the Hubble in space.” The televised broadcast of the 1993 Hubble repair drew more viewers than any other space mission besides Apollo 11.
Hoffman became the first astronaut to log 1,000 hours on the Space Shuttle. He moved to Paris for four years to become NASA’s ambassador to Europe, and he’s now a professor of the practice of aerospace engineering at MIT.
Going forward, Hoffman would like to see NASA build on recent discoveries in astronomy. “We now know that dark matter and dark energy are 95 percent of the content of the universe, but we don’t know what they are. Hubble has shown us the early phases of galaxies, but we haven’t seen the birth of stars.”
Both astronauts see the end of NASA’s shuttle program as inevitable, though Hoffman mourns that U.S. astronauts now have to “get a ride from the Russians.” Still, he’s optimistic that by the end of the next decade, space flights will be easier, safer and cheaper and that private space flight could transform the field. “Humanity has a future up in space,” Hoffman insists. “All I can say is: stand by.”