NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 on the Green, Green Grass of Alma Mater

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NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 came home to alma mater’s patch of planet Earth this week, after more than five months in early 2013 on the International Space Station. It was a pleasure to shake his hand after having been in touch by phone, email and satellite uplink!

(front, l-r) Tom, Grace and Ann Marshburn lead the way followed by Davidson resident sister-in-law Nancy Marshburn (rear, l) and Wendy Roberts, executive assistant to the president.

With grace and aplomb, my buddy Tom, the astronaut, gave several presentations on campus, as well as visiting the kudzu goats out by the cross-country trails (see previous post) and otherwise gadding about campus with his daughter Grace and wife Ann, two lovely and delightfully good-humored ladies.

Tom and a gang of Wildcats on the way to Vail Commons for lunch!

At a Common Hour talk on Tuesday—unofficially subtitled “Bean Dip, Stewed Prunes, ZZ Top and YoYo Ma”—Marshburn spoke of things like translational velocities and parabolic arcs that match the curve of the Earth, by way of explaining the concept of orbital micro-gravity. Then, he recounted how his Soyuz rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan (“like lying on your back in a building that becomes a live animal”) and traveled to an altitude of some 250 miles up, sometimes at speeds of five miles per second. (Yes, per second.)

Next, with plenty of video clips to illustrate, Marshburn recounted some of the “science of opportunity” experiments he and his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts performed with “objects of opportunity” including smuggled vanillin (an ideal viscosity) and duct tape (self-explanatory).

The Physics of Lunch, Part Deux

“You start to notice things,” he said. “A lot of our experiments started with ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and then ‘I wonder what would happen if….’”

• Spinning objects seeking a lower energy state behave differently on their spinning axes depending on whether they are liquid or solid, or both. Application: understanding how fuel tanks affect space flight physics.

Marshburn having a blast from the past in his old bedroom window in Julia Johnston House overlooking Main Street.

• Table salt in a zip-lock bag coalesces in a noticeable pattern at a particular rate. (The grains of sodium chloride are dehydrated from food saline, which is the safety norm on ISS, to prevent weightless grains of salt from flying about willy-nilly at mealtime.) Application: Understanding how the very matter of the primordial universe came together into stars and planets, solar systems and galaxies.

• An Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolves in a huge drop of water big as your fist, in mid-air. Application: Um, I forget exactly, but it is totally cool to look at. In general, weightless liquids in space share some behavioral characteristics with micro-liquids on Earth, particularly in terms of “capillary” flow. Applications range from inkjet printers to HIV diagnostic tools.

Me and my buddy Tom, the astronaut.

At the end of his presentation, when Marshburn’s PowerPoint relinquished the screen to his computer’s desktop, the juxtaposition of astronaut and regular guy came into focus: next to desktop folders marked “Cosmonauts” and “Award Debriefs” were others marked “Invest and Retire” and that old, familiar standby, “Files I Never Use.”

And in the “Launch Pad Tunes” folder? U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Joe Satriani’s “Summer Song” and Muse, maybe a little “Uprising”?….

Tuesday night, after dinner at the President’s House with classmates, roommates, professors and others, Marshburn gave a public lecture in Duke Family Performance Hall complete with Q&A for the kids of all ages and photo-opps for all at the reception afterward.

Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain and former advisee Astronaut Tom Marshburn share a pre-lecture moment against a video of Astronaut Mike Hopkins in a pre-launch press conference.

Wednesday afternoon, Marshburn made time in his schedule for a visit to College Communications—housed in the college’s Julia Johnston House on Main Street, where he lived upstairs as a sophomore when the building was student housing. He regaled staffers with stories of how he and his housemates cheered, in what is now the office kitchen area, for televised matches of the U.S. Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

He also regaled us with the story of the “party of the century,” held in the JJ House that year, a costume party with the theme of dressing up as your repressed desire. Already as a 20-year-old, though, he knew his own desire to be an astronaut, and showed up wrapped in tin foil and sporting a borrowed motorcycle helmet….

At a physics seminar hosted Wednesday afternoon by his erstwhile faculty adviser, Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain, Marshburn went in to deeper detail about all things physics, for instance radiation (astronauts in space are classified as “radiation workers” and can sometimes see solar protons flashing through their eyeballs). He talked about International Space Station experiments and observations that are adding mightily to the core of human knowledge about nutrition, mental health, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, fish and plants, microencapulation, antimattter, dark matter and “strangelets.”

As luck would have it, Marshburn’s fellow astronaut, Mike Hopkins, was blasting off from Kazakhstan during the seminar, so Marshburn toggled the NASA feed in at an opportune moment to watch the launch. (“I’m getting sweaty palms just watching.”)

Marshburn ended with a quote from Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers: “The most important words ever written on the maps of human knowledge are terra incognita — unknown territory.”

With awe in the spirit Tom shares with Davidson, with admiration for him as a fellow Earthling alumnus with “humane instincts and a creative and disciplined mind for a life of leadership and service,” and with thanks on behalf of Davidson to Tom, Ann and Grace for a wonderful visit, I’ll close with a quote from Tom himself, from one of the April satellite downlinks from ISS to the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room:

“I think space flight is actually the epitome of what is important about a liberal arts education. We see this absolute wonder that’s up here, we see it with the robotics of exploration on Mars and in our solar system and even leaving our solar system….

“But how that relates to humans is the most important part of it. We can have complete technical mastery over our world, but we can still do bad things with that. So it’s not just about enriching our culture, which is very important, but it’s actually essential for our survival, that we know what to do with the technical accomplishments we’ve made.”

For archival coverage on Marshburn, including links to Davidson and NASA video, explore here.



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