Meet Woody Hoburg: Pittsburgh Native And Future Astronaut

Jul 3, 2017

Next month, 12 new astronaut trainees will arrive in Houston, Texas for two years of intense training to prepare them for future missions into outer space.

One of those people, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from North Allegheny High School.

90.5 WESA’s Liz Reid spoke with Hoburg, from his office at MIT, where he teaches aeronautics and astronautics.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NASA's latest class of astronaut trainees includes (L-R): Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren "Woody" Hoburg, Robb Kulin, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, Raja Chari, Loral O'Hara and Jessica Watkins.
Credit NASA

LIZ REID: What does it mean to be a part of the astronaut candidate class? What does that involve?

WOODY HOBURG: We’re going to do training in five different areas. We'll do flight training. We'll train in NASA's neutral buoyancy lab -- that's where we go underwater and simulate space walking. There’s a mock-up of the International Space Station and a giant swimming pool, essentially. We'll learn Russian language. We will learn about ISS systems, meaning the engineering systems onboard the International Space Station. We’ll learn some robotics, and sprinkled in to all that, we'll do some things like wilderness survival training. So we'll basically spend the next two years of our lives in Houston, Texas training, and after those two years we will be full-fledged astronauts ready to be assigned to a mission, eventually.

REID: Do astronauts need different skills today than they did 50 years ago? I'm thinking about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. They were both military men and pilots. But I took a look at your class, and there's a geologist, a materials scientist, a nuclear engineer, a biologist and, not surprisingly, a few service members and pilots. But I'm curious what you think about how the skills needed for this job have changed over the years.

HOBURG:  Unfortunately for those of us that just got selected, we don't necessarily know all the details of what NASA is looking for in their astronauts, so I'm certainly not an expert on the topic. But I do think that one of the things you're seeing is that NASA is interested in going further into the solar system than we've ever gone before. So humans have been to the moon, but that's the furthest that a human being has ever gone from the planet. And NASA is now seriously considering missions that would venture further into the solar system. So that brings a whole broad set of challenges, and one of the challenges is just the duration. So we're talking about potentially being on spacecraft for a very long time. And so you do see, I think, and this is just my impression, I'm not speaking for NASA, but I do think you maybe see that reflected in the class that was just selected. You have people that have spent time in Antarctica or spent time in confined spaces on submarines and, I think from meeting the 12 candidates that were just selected, everyone just is so easy to get along with. It's just an amazing group of people with amazing personalities, and it's maybe just the practical stuff. Like is it easy to get along with these people for a long time?

REID: So being good-natured is probably a skill you need to have.

HOBURG: We became fast friends, those in the class that I didn't already know. And it's just so easy to get along with my fellow astronaut candidates. They are amazing people.

REID: So I know you don't know exactly what kind of mission or missions you'll go on, but what do you want to do up there? Where do you want to go and what kinds of discoveries do you hope to participate in?

HOBURG: Well, I think it's a super exciting time to have just gotten selected. It's a really exciting time for human spaceflight. I don't know what I will get assigned to, and I'd be thrilled with any assignment. We've been told that we might fly on any of four spacecraft that are currently operational or in production. So those are the International Space Station, two commercial crew vehicles -- so that's the Boeing Starliner and the Space X Dragon -- and then there's Orion, which would fly on the Space Launch System; that's for missions deeper into space. So it's still a long time out for me. I'm going to go through my training for a couple of years, and then I'll go into a technical role and hopefully eventually get assigned to a mission, and flying on any one of those vehicles would be really a dream come true.