By Colin Poitras
(from UConn Today)
It’s not unusual for commencement speakers to share their unique perspective on life with members of a graduating class.
But NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio ’82 (ENG) may have topped them all Saturday when he spoke to the School of Engineering’s 2014 graduating class while floating – upside down – inside the International Space Station 260 miles above the Earth.
“I was trying to figure out how to make this speech different than all the other commencement addresses that are given each year,” Mastracchio said at the start of his pre-recorded videotaped keynote address. “And then I realized, I’m in a weightless environment. So maybe I should give the speech in a different orientation.”
And with that, Mastracchio, flanked by two empty astronaut spacesuits, rotated counterclockwise and briefly continued speaking while inverted.
It was a moment the approximately 400 engineering graduates will likely remember for some time.
“It’s incredibly cool,” said Rose Cersonsky, a materials science and engineering major and the designated student speaker for the ceremony. “I think it really speaks to the technology today and the caliber of UConn students.”
As an engineer, Cersonsky said she was intrigued by all the different elements that had to fall into place to incorporate Mastracchio’s remarks into the program remotely.
“It was only 50 years ago that a simple thunderstorm could interrupt a long-distance conversation,” Cersonsky said. “Now, an astronaut can speak to us from 250 miles above the Earth.”
Engineering graduate Gregory Reinhold, a computer science & engineering major, said he too was excited that Mastracchio was tapped to be this year’s keynote speaker.
“It’s such a unique experience,” Reinhold said. “It’s rare to get a chance to hear someone speaking from space. It’s exciting that he chose to speak at our graduation. It isn’t often an alum speaks at Commencement who has received so much national recognition.”
Mastracchio’s six-and-a-half minute speech was broadcast on the Gampel Pavilion scoreboards to about 5,000 graduates, their families, and friends in attendance. His wife, Candi, accepted an honorary degree on her husband’s behalf during the ceremony.
A UConn alum who has made four trips to outer space, Mastracchio is one of nine distinguished individuals receiving honorary degrees from the University this year. He has been living and working aboard the ISS since November 2013, and is scheduled to return to Earth May 14.
A Waterbury, Conn. native, Mastracchio graduated from UConn with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer engineering. After beginning his career with Hamilton Standard (now UTC Aerospace Systems), he transferred to Houston, where he applied his engineering knowledge supporting 17 NASA missions as a flight controller. He was accepted into the astronaut corps in 1996.
On Saturday, Mastracchio said he probably has “the best job on – and off – the planet.”
He noted that he first applied to become an astronaut following the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. He continued sending in applications over the next nine years before finally being accepted into the nation’s elite space program. The importance of perseverance and hard work was the main theme of his keynote address.
“I wasn’t just sending in an application and crossing my fingers,” Mastracchio told the graduates. “I was working on things to improve my chances. I went to the University of Houston at night to get a second master’s degree. On weekends, I trained for and received my pilot’s license. I worked hard to build up a good reputation at the Johnson Space Center.
“You become an astronaut the same way you accomplish any goal – through hard work and perseverance,” added Mastracchio, who lived in East and North campus residence halls during his time at UConn. “Everyone has goals, dreams, and wishes, but not everybody wants to do the daily work it takes to reach their goals… You achieve big things not with one big step but with many small steps. You didn’t complete college in one day. It took you working hard almost daily for four or five years. Other big goals and accomplishments will probably take a similar level of work and effort.”
Mastracchio said he’s come to realize that the difference between those who become astronauts – those who achieve their goals – and those who don’t is the ability to work toward their goals on a day-to-day basis.
“You have shown that ability,” he told the graduates. “You have succeeded in graduating from the University of Connecticut School of Engineering. Let me tell you and let me tell your parents, your family, your friends – that is not easy… I know you’ve worked hard to get to this point and now you know: You know how to achieve a major goal. You know how to work hard. You know that you can succeed at difficult tasks. That same work ethic and perseverance that got you to this point can take you a long way. It is up to you on which direction you go and how far you take yourself.”
Mastracchio said he could never have imagined as a UConn student that his rigorous studies and training would someday lead him into space, where he helped build the International Space Station during early space shuttle missions. He has logged more than 51 hours of spacewalks, including two unplanned spacewalks during his current mission to replace a faulty computer unit and repair a vital cooling system.
“So remember, that all of those small steps and all of that hard work can take you a long, long way,” Mastracchio said in closing. “Let me finish up by saying to the parents, families, and friends of the graduates, I know you are proud of your graduate but you should also be impressed by their accomplishment. And to the graduates, let me say that it is great to work hard. But remember, your family is very important. And remember to also have some fun along the way – I know I do.”
And with that, Mastracchio donned a UConn baseball cap and signed off, but not before rotating once more and smiling down on the graduates from his weightless, upside down inversion.
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was founded in 1988 by the late Hollywood legend Paul Newman, who believed passionately that all children, including those who suffer from serious illnesses such as cancer and sickle cell disease, should have the opportunity to experience the “transformational spirit and friendships” associated with camp. Last fall, Civil Engineering professor and professional engineer Howard Epstein, Ph.D. learned that the Camp would be celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the news reminded him that some years ago, UConn civil engineering students regularly interacted with the Camp personnel as part of their capstone Senior Design experience.
Epstein contacted then Camp director Matthew Cook to propose a rekindled relationship. For Epstein, the opportunity to engage engineering seniors in realistic design projects that also carry a deeper emotional resonance was a driving force. Cook says “I thought immediately of two projects that might enhance the Camp experience for campers while benefitting from the creative energy and technical knowledge of the students.”
Epstein and Charles Elias, P.E. of George Torello Engineers, P.C., who co-advises the undergraduate engineering team, met with Cook to flesh out the details and discuss other possible collaborations. Engineering seniors Luis Alfonzo, Sokheang Chay, David Curtis, Pearse McManus, Robert Ouellette and Ryan Smith then met with Cook twice in the fall to discuss the proposed projects, stroll the grounds, take measurements and explore not only the topography but also the project parameters. For their second visit, the team deliberately chose a rainy day with the objective of understanding how precipitation drained off the sites.
Both projects are aimed at enhancing access and the Camp experience for campers. “It’s really cool to be a part of a project that’s more than just engineering,” remarks McManus, who hails from Madison, CT. “When we met with Mr. Cook, he emphasized how our work could positively impact the campers – the magnitude of the job from a quality of life perspective for these special children.”
One project involves the design of a new approach to the Camp’s popular horse barn, continuing to promote the best possible access for campers. Several specific requirements for the project include a large, flat area in front of the barn enabling hay wagons to maneuver and sufficient road width to accommodate both roadside parking and unimpeded traffic flow.
Cook notes that the new road design must also continue to provide campers easy access to the labyrinth of horse trails that begin at the barn and extend out around the property. “I had contemplated how the road might be redesigned for some time, but as I walked around the Camp with the students, I began to see the potential from their civil engineering perspective.”
Cost was another consideration. McManus says “The Camp is a nonprofit, so it was important to ensure our designs took into account the cost of materials, land preparation, construction and durability. For example, the Camp initially hoped to have a barn access road that would wind through what is currently a heavily wooded area with varying grades. It would have required tree removal and grading before a road could be installed. To avoid these expenses, we devised an alternative that takes advantage of an existing maintenance road, from which the new access road could branch off to provide safe vehicle and camper access to the barn.”
The second project involves the design of a meditative deck extending from a wheelchair-accessible path to Pearson Pond, located in the central core of the Camp. Cook explains, “The deck project is aimed at creating a multi-purpose spot where campers and counselors may come for quiet reflection or offer nature programs to our campers.” The pond is alive with fish, a variety of birds, ducks and geese, and several large turtles, he notes.
McManus says the team’s design includes a safety rail, follows the pond’s contours for 90 feet, assures a safe and quiet locale for campers, and rests about two-to-three feet above the existing grade atop stout posts.
During the current semester, the students will further refine their designs to include greater detail, such as specific recommendations for the construction materials, estimated site preparation and construction costs, and exact siting. McManus notes that during the holiday break, team members obtained topographical maps of the Camp that they will overlay with detailed CAD schematics. The team will also inspect existing boardwalks at the Camp and prepare an inspection report.
In late April, as the semester winds to an end and the seniors prepare to commence their engineering careers, the students will present the detailed design proposals and schematics for both projects to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
Cook, who began working at Hole in the Wall as a counselor in 1992 and served as director for 12 years before moving into his current role as director of the Camp’s wilderness-based Hero’s Journey program for older campers, has been pleased with the collaboration. “The students have been great – very professional and thoughtful in their approach. And I am grateful to professor Epstein for remembering us and offering us the opportunity to interact with the engineering team in developing ideas that may directly benefit the campers we serve.”