NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson joins UC Davis faculty

Stephen Robinson, a UC Davis alumnus who acted as a mission specialist on four space shuttle missions, recently announced that he is leaving NASA to become a professor at UC Davis.

Robinson started as an undergraduate at UC Davis in 1973 and graduated with a double major in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1978.

Robinson had initially been rejected by the admissions committee at UC Davis that had screened his application.

“I fought it,” Robinson explained when asked how he got admitted. “I borrowed my parents’ car and drove up from the Bay Area to Mrak Hall. I met with someone in Mrak Hall in the admissions office and somehow talked them into it.”

As an undergraduate, Robinson learned about a “cooperative,” or “co-op,” program that allowed students to experience an extended period working as a student at NASA. He got the call to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley after another student declined the position.

“It was a springboard for almost everything that came afterwards,” he explained. “It also gave me some real-world experience. I actually did better in my grades at UC Davis because of having the NASA co-op experience.”

David Morse is the current Dean of Students at Ames.

“When former Ames co-ops, like Robinson, say his NASA Ames co-op experience was the springboard to his entire career, it is nothing short of thrilling,” Morse said.

Students from the NASA co-op and internship programs often go on to become NASA astronauts, taking part in world-changing missions.

Edgar Mitchell is one of the small group of 24 men in Earth’s history who have visited another planetary body. Of those 24 who traveled to the moon, he is one of 12 who have walked on its surface.

Mitchell said humans would go to Mars “in due course.”

“It depends on the equipment we have. We don’t have anything that can take humans to Mars right now,” said Mitchell.

While Mitchell was part of the fifth group of men chosen by NASA to be astronauts in 1966, Robinson was part of “Group 15” who were selected in 1995.

As a professor at UC Davis, Robinson will be able to apply his experience in creating a new research center. The center will study the way humans interact with vehicles, including space vehicles.

Robinson says the center will provide an “opportunity to use engineering to extend the human presence into hazardous environments.”

He thinks UC Davis has unique strengths to contribute to that effort.

“There’s quite a collaborative atmosphere at UC Davis. Not all universities have such an environment that’s conducive to collaboration,” Robinson said.

Robinson is eager to seek out new co-researchers.

“A vision starts out usually with one person, but as more people become part of the effort, then it becomes a shared vision and it grows organically,” Robinson said.

Philippe Spalart was a co-worker of Robinson’s at NASA Ames in the early 1990s when Robinson was working full-time and writing his dissertation.

“[Robinson] combined experiments and numerical simulations, which was unusual,” Spalart said. “He knows how to build a [theoretical] bridge.”

UC Davis also has two other astronaut alumni, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a mission specialist, and Robert Phillips, a payload specialist. Caldwell Dyson graduated in 1997 with a Ph.D. in  physical chemistry. Robert Phillips, who graduated from UC Davis in 1965 with a Ph.D. in physiology and nutrition, was trained by NASA to be a payload specialist.

Phillips served on the back-up crew for the STS-40 mission of space shuttle Columbia in 1991 and taught for many years as a professor at the University of Colorado.

Ninety-eight NASA astronauts who have flown missions into space held an earned doctorate. Of these, Robinson was number 73. A number of Russian cosmonauts have held doctoral degrees as well.

Of the astronauts who have flown into space, 15 have held positions as university professors. Robinson will be number 16 when he begins work at UC Davis in September.

BRIAN RILEY can be reached at

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