This past Friday, the Columbia Space Initiative hosted a once-in-a-lifetime video call with Astronaut Woody Hoburg live from the International Space Station to discuss the future of space exploration and life in outer space.
Leading up to the call, Altschul Auditorium buzzed with anticipation as 400 students, faculty, and community members took their seats. A few members of the Columbia Space Initiative (CSI) could be seen pacing while on the phone to Mission Control in Houston, confirming the timeline for the exclusive call with Astronaut Woody Hoburg.
Minju O’Rourke (SEAS ‘25) and Matthew Werneken (SEAS ‘24), CSI’s co-presidents, kicked off the event with a quick overview of CSI’s mission and recent accomplishments. The Columbia Space Initiative’s website describes themselves as a “group of students and professors dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in near-space, space, and beyond”. Among their most recent pursuits is their design and build of the Columbia CubeSat, a miniature satellite that will indicate how gas behaves in nearby galaxies. Last month, this satellite was accepted to be launched into orbit by NASA to explore the universe in the next few years.
O’Rourke and Werneken introduced Columbia professor and CSI advisor, Astronaut Michael Massimino, also known as “the first person to tweet from space.” As Astronaut Massimino took the stage, he explained that virtual call events “don’t happen very often” due to the fact that “astronaut time is very valuable.” Massimino emphasized that “we were selected because of the great students we have here and the great work of the Columbia Space Initiative.”
While O’Rourke and Werneken strategized with Mission Control, Massimino took a few audience questions. One audience member asked how the astronaut experience had changed between 1996 and 2017 (Massimino and Hoburg’s astronaut classes respectively). Massimino described the shift from manual to automated controls— “everything was very manually controlled with very little computer control, so you were responsible for all emergencies.” When Massimino was selected, he was required to learn “two years solid of space shuttle stuff to be qualified.” By contrast, things became more automated by 2017, so new astronauts were able to spend time learning a variety of different subjects in their training, such as geology, instead of spending large amounts of time training just for the space shuttle.
Another audience member asked Massimino what the most fascinating thing he experienced on the space station was. He described doing spacewalks as “the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever gotten to do in my life, getting the chance to get out of the spaceship and look back at our planet.” Massimino looked wistful as he described viewing the Earth from afar: “It’s extraordinary, we’re living in a paradise, a very fragile place. You could see the real brightness of the sun, the moon and stars around you.”
In the middle of the final audience question about how time zones work in space (they use Greenwich Mean Time), the final call came in from Mission Control. As O’Rourke informed Massimino that it was time to speak with Hoburg, he quipped “when space calls, you have to listen.” In his final remark to the audience, Massimino explained that the astronauts “can call from the space station and it comes in like it’s a local Houston number, so if you see a 281-244 exchange, pick up.”
As the audience looked up at the Zoom call on the projector, we began to see a video feed from Mission Control—a giant room full of comms teams working with quadruple monitor setups straight out of the movies. A collective gasp swept across the auditorium as the video feed switched to Astronaut Woody Hoburg live from the International Space Station. O’Rourke said “Station, this is CSI, how do you hear me?”, and after a ten-second delay, I felt a wave of chills as Hoburg declared “CSI I hear you loud and clear.” Although the audio feed was relatively quiet, the entire room maintained pin-drop silence to hear Hoburg’s speech for the call’s duration.
Due to the limited time Hoburg had for the call (precisely 11 minutes), O’Rourke and Werneken jumped straight into preselected audience questions. When asked to choose an exciting problem in aerospace that students could solve, Hoburg lit up as he said that “the next decade or so in space exploration is going to be incredible,” alluding to goals to explore the Moon and Mars. However, he stressed that many hard technical problems would need to be solved before going to Mars. Hoburg identified three such challenges—protection from radiation, extremely reliable clean drinking water (“if something breaks, we can’t go home”), and the communication delay between Earth and Mars. “When we go to Mars,” Hoburg explained, “we will have a 20 minute time delay” during communications between Mission Control and Mars. As a result, they’ll need “new operational concepts for doing this mission with long time delays.”
The next audience question requested Hoburg to recall a favorite story or fact about his time in space while floating upside-down. Hoburg laughed, but happily obliged to orient himself upside-down, receiving a round of applause from Altschul Auditorium. As for the question, Hoburg shared that the last date that all living human beings were on Earth was over 22 years ago, when the Expedition 1 crew launched to the International Space Station. “Since that date, we have always had a continuous presence on the ISS for over 22 years,” Hoburg said. For many of us, “everyday you have been alive, we have had people in space living aboard the ISS.”
When asked about a new amenity he wished the International Space Station had, Hoburg mentioned two crucial missing amenities—showers and laundry. To shower, Hoburg admitted “we do a wipe down and throw away the dirty towels,” while laundry follows a similar trend. “We wear clothes for a while until they get really dirty and our clothes are trashed.” Looking to the future, Hoburg expressed a need for more efficient solutions: “when we look at longer durations [of being in space], we’ll need to find ways to make that less wasteful so a way to do laundry would be great.”
In addition to needing better personal hygiene solutions, Astronaut Hoburg mentioned a desire for other improvements aboard the space station. For instance, there is only one stowage module on the ISS, leaving the astronauts with little room to store all of the equipment needed to complete their jobs. Hoburg also raised the need for more streamlined organization of the modules. Many modules have “a lot of cables and equipment and laptops all over the place,” so “having a little bit more stuff wireless” and “[getting] rid of some of the cabling” would be worthwhile endeavors.
One question referenced the International Space Station’s ongoing chess game with Mission Control, asking Hoburg who the best player on his team was. For those uninitiated, Hoburg explained that the ISS and Mission Control play chess games, making one to two moves per day. Hoburg’s team just finished their first game since arriving at the International Space Station in early March, and they are now beginning game two. “I love chess,” Hoburg grinned. “I’m just an amateur player but I did fly a chess board up here… it’s been such a blast.” In a later question, Hoburg also referenced looking out the window as another favorite hobby aboard the ISS.
When asked how Hoburg manages stress and keeps himself sane while “living 24/7 in the most high pressure environment in the universe”. Hoburg cited gratitude as an important source of stress management: “One of the things I’ve realized is how much I appreciate the opportunity to be on board right now—it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Anytime I’m feeling like I need more balance, what helps me out is the appreciation of how special this place is. Every day up here is an absolute blast.”
Responding to a question about how space has changed his perspective on the world, Hoburg professed that he’s developed “an appreciation of how fragile Earth is and how connected we are as a human species.” Being aboard the International Space Station has also given him the visceral sense of needing a team: “you can’t do spaceflight on your own, you have to be part of a team.” Connecting it back to the planet’s larger missions, Hoburg emphasized “we’re one team on earth as well and we need to come together to solve problems on earth, our beautiful home.”
When asked if there was anything he wished he knew as an undergrad or grad student interested in being an astronaut, Hoburg admitted that he wished he had “the confidence that following my passions was the right thing to do.” Hoburg earned a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley, but while pursuing an academic career, he developed an interest in search and rescue—a type of emergency service to find someone in immediate danger. Hoburg was unsure if he should divert time from his academic pursuits to do search and rescue, but was ultimately glad he did: “spending summers doing search and rescue in Yosemite were some of the best summers of life… I wish I had been fully confident that that was the right thing to do.”
Above all else, Hoburg seemed elated to be a part of space exploration in such a pivotal era, citing NASA’s plans to land humans on the moon and explore deeper into the solar system. “I couldn’t think of a more exciting time to be involved in space in general,” he smiled. The call concluded shortly after, but not before the members of CSI could rush to the stage to snap a photo with Astronaut Hoburg as he performed a series of zero-gravity flips in the module.
Astronaut Woody Hoburg via Elizabeth Walker