To infinity and beyond
When the SpaceX Crew-6 mission heads to the International Space Station (ISS) in spring 2023, Berkeley Engineering alum Warren “Woody” Hoburg (M.S.’11, Ph.D.’13 EECS) will be, quite literally, launching a new career. A NASA astronaut since 2017, Hoburg will be taking on the role of pilot on the spacecraft Dragon for the first time, applying years of intensive training.
“I always thought being an astronaut would be the coolest job ever, but I had no knowledge of how to get there,” he said. “It was only in hindsight that my skills and background made sense.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, Hoburg came to Berkeley to earn his master’s and Ph.D. degrees under adviser Pieter Abbeel, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. But after two years, his original plan to research machine learning for robotics changed direction. “While studying convex optimization, I realized that a special type of optimization, geometric programming, was well-suited for aircraft design,” he said.
“The first time I met Woody, he already had an exceptionally clear vision: he wanted to become an astronaut, and his Berkeley Ph.D. was one step toward that,” said Abbeel. “His thesis demonstrated that sizing all the parts and subsystems of an aircraft can be formulated in a way that’s mathematically reliable and efficient to solve, enabling each design cycle to take seconds or minutes instead of hours or days.”
Much of Hoburg’s doctoral study was completed from a staging area in Yosemite National Park, where he worked during the summers of 2010 and 2011 on the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team. He trained as an EMT and learned to hang off ropes to save stranded rock climbers. It exposed him to high-stakes decision-making — the kind you’d need when encountering unexpected situations on a space mission.
Having earned his Ph.D., Hoburg spent a year at Boeing Commercial Airplanes and then joined the MIT faculty, leading a research group that developed software for aircraft design. But when Hoburg heard through a friend that NASA was accepting applications, he took a shot and applied. “Somehow I was lucky enough to get that once-in-a-lifetime phone call,” he said.
Hoburg joined NASA as a member of the 2017 astronaut class. Five years later, he is in the thick of mission training, focused on two separate functions: first, preparing to fly Dragon to the ISS and back; and second, training for six months of living and working in space.
To train for the launch and return phases of flight, he’s spending time at SpaceX, learning how to handle emergencies and malfunctions with the Dragon spacecraft’s many systems. Hoburg and his crew mates are also training for spacewalking at NASA’s neutral-buoyancy facility: a 40-foot-deep tank that holds 16.2 million gallons of water and a full-scale mock-up of the space station.
Hoburg has now found the right balance between his technical, engineering side and his operational side. “I was always seeking ways to combine these two passions, but they never aligned perfectly until I got to NASA,” he said. “This is a place that needs highly technical people who love math and problem-solving, but who also want to do operations. I finally feel truly at home.”
Clearly, for Woody Hoburg, the sky’s the limit.