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Profiles in Badassery: Dr. David Wolf

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Purdue's place in the U.S. Space Program is unmatched. We had the second American in space, the first man on the moon, and the last man off of it. Today I wanted to go back into the list of 22 astronauts that hold Purdue degrees and feature perhaps the bravest of them all: Dr. David Wolf

Gus Grissom flew into space when we weren't very sure we could successfully fly into space. Neil Armstrong went to the moon and there were major questions if he would make it back. Why is Dr. Wolf the bravest? Well, he decided he was going to trust his life to out of date Russian engineering. He summed that up best when he was on the Bob and Tom Show a few years ago by saying, "You don't know silence until the power goes out while you're on Mir."

"Let me get this straight. You want me to spend 4 months on a Space Station that is 8 years past its expected lifepsan?"

Wolf's background

Wolf is an Indiana native, born in Indianapolis on August 23rd, 1956. He graduated from North Central High School on the north side of Indy. The 86th street Bridge over the White River, about a mile east of North Central High School, bears his name because of his achievements with NASA. He attended Purdue in the late 70's and early 80's, earning a degree in electrical engineering with distinction.

After graduating from Purdue he wanted to see how the other half lived, so he earned a second Big Ten degree. He received his medical degree from Indiana in 1982, but with the way he has pimped Purdue while in space I doubt there is one of those cheesy House Divided plates on his car. While earning his medical degree he trained as a flight surgeon with the Air Force. That gives him the fairly unique ability to not only re-wire the Space Shuttle while it is in flight, but he can also remove your appendix while you're up there too. If you ask me, that's a pretty handy guy to have along if you're going into space. He's kind of the Swiss Army knife of NASA.

NASA career

In 1983 Wolf joined up with the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston to study the effects of microgravity on physiology. Over time, he became NASA's chief guy on studying the effects of low gravity on humans. He helped to design the fitness and medical facility on the Space Station and was selected into the astronaut class of 1990. After 18 months of training, he was ready to fly.

Like many astronauts, he is not limited to only his area of expertise. He is also concerned an expert spacewalker, an expert in rendezvous navigation, and he is licensed to use the robot arm on the Space Shuttle. This is a guy you want with you if you need to win a prize from one of those grab machines that they have at bowling alleys. Perhaps that is the trick he used to impress his wife while they were dating. If this is a class in the engineering schools at Purdue it is just another reason that I picked the wrong major by choosing communications.

One does not become a badass at NASA without going into space though. By now, sitting atop a solid and liquid fuel rocket built by the lowest bidder (and, of which, 40% of them have either exploded or broken up on re-entry) is old hat for him. Wolf has been in space on five different occasions for a total of 168 days. I am trying to put that into perspective. I am an Eagle Scout. I was involved with Scouting throughout my youth and even attended the National Jamboree in 1993 and 1997. I don't think I have 168 days of camping experience despite all that. That's just camping too. That's not, "if you open a window, we all die," type of adventure.

Shuttle missions

Wolf's first shuttle mission was in 1993 when he Spent 14 days in space on Columbia. STS-58 was one of the longest shuttle flights ever and was dedicated to the study of physiology in space. As a mission specialist, Wolf conducted experiments in cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary, musculoskeletal and neuroscience. I would go into more detail, but science is hard when you haven't studied it since taking human anatomy during your sophomore year of college.

Wolf's second mission was STS-86 in 1997 aboard Atlantis. He was mostly on Atlantis in order to hitch a ride to Mir, the Russian Space Station.

Time on Mir

If the International Space Station is a seaside Villa, Mir was the equivalent of the Villa Harding Hotel and Suites. Mrs. T-Mill and I got booked into this hotel on one of our many trips to Miami. Long story short, we were there less than half an hour before we fled like it was on fire.  As I said in my TripAdvisor review, calling that place ghetto would be a complement.

It was on Mir that Wolf earned his true stripes of bravery and badassery. He spent 128 days on Mir, learning Russian during his training for the mission because he had to be trained at Star City in Russia. All the training was conducted in Russian, so he had little choice but to learn the language. Perhaps Mrs. T-Mill needs to take this approach with my Spanish.

It is a good thing that he learned Russian, because his time on Mir was fraught with technical problems that I would classify as "sphincter tightening". Here is a list of what he and the cosmonauts had to face over 128 days:

Atmospheric life support Failure (kind of important)

3 total System Power Failures (Again, Sphincter-tightening)
Loss of Attitude Control (so the station could start spinning out of control)

Primary Computer System Failure (Silly Russians, We went to the moon on less computer power than in a pocket calculator today. You think this scares an American Astronaut?)

Humidity Separation System Loss (Good thing he grew up with Indiana summers)

Airlock Hatch Failure (again, kind of important)

The Airlock Hatch Failure forced an emergency ingress while Wolf was spacewalking in a Russian spacesuit. Combine all these failures with the fact that the entire mission as conducted in Russian means that it is probably a good thing that Wolf had that Electrical Engineering degree. Wolf did manage to conduct studies on advanced microgravity tissue engineering techniques, electromagnetic levitation platform capability, colloid behavior, Radio-tracer studies of altered human erythropoetic function, and human microgravity physiology. I am sure this means something to people with a more advanced biology degree.

After 128 days Wolf came back to Earth aboard the Shuttle Endeavour. I am sure he was happy to ride back aboard something that didn't look like it was held together with duct tape and prayers. He did accomplish some pretty cool things up there, however. He became the first American to vote from space while about the station. Still, he was brave enough to fly up there after a series of incidents that included a fire and a collision that severely damaged the station.

After Mir

Wolf went into space two more times under much more mundane circumstances once he returned from Mir. He was aboard STS-112 and Atlantis when it visited the International Space Station in 2002. He also was aboard Endeavour again and STS-127 last year. It was during STS-127 that he and fellow Purdue alum Mark Polansky spoke during the 40th Anniversary Apollo celebration. This brings him in further connection with Purdue grad Neil Armstrong, who 40 years earlier became the first man to walk on the moon. Hearing a Go Boilers from space with a Purdue flag in the background is certainly a proud moment in the school's history.

Boiler Up indeed

For being an astronaut Wolf would normally be considered a badass, but for braving Mir for over four months and the trials he faced there, David Wolf has certainly earned his profile in badassery.