Campus Currents

Reach for the Stars

Dr. Richard M. Linnehan '80 took 2,400 UNH graduates and their guests on a voyage beyond the reach of Earth's gravity during this year's commencement ceremonies.

Linnehan speaking - Photo by Ron Bergeron
Photo by Ron Bergeron/UNH Photographic Services

Linnehan, who has traveled on three space shuttle flights, offered to answer the question he's most often asked: What's it like up there? "Activate your imaginations and strap yourselves in," he told the crowd.

"You're lying on your back in a hot, heavy, orange pressure suit waiting for the final countdown. You feel the main engines gimbaling under you and then igniting, followed almost immediately by the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs, which slam you back into your seat and shake you like an earthquake. As the shuttle clears the tower, you accelerate out to three times the force of gravity. ... Your muscles are not used to working against this load, but in two minutes the SRBs are jettisoned and things get very smooth until MECO, or main engine cut-off, at about eight-and-a-half minutes.

"You are now traveling almost 18,000 miles per hour and are in orbit. As you float out of your seat, you look down on Earth through an incredibly thin skin of blue atmosphere. Cyclonic storms circulate in sapphire oceans as continents pass below you. You are able to see the curvature of Earth as the sun sets behind an atmospheric prism of color and light. ... As you gaze out into deep space, what had once seemed so immense now seems infinitesimal, fragile and unique. Welcome to space!"

Linnehan told the crowd that he'd always dreamed of becoming an astronaut without really expecting that dream to come true. "It's funny where hard work, study, a little stubbornness and a lot of luck will take you," he said.

Balloon - Photo by Lisa Nugent
Photo by Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

Two months before he gave the commencement address, he went into space to service the Hubble telescope. His task was to replace the main power control unit, a job that required a walk in space.

"For the first time in more than 10 years, the main power would be turned off," Linnehan told the UNH crowd. "If we took too long, made a mistake or the tools and equipment we had just didn't work, then Hubble was dead in space. It was a calculated risk, and it had to be done. But you can bet we did not want to be the guys who broke the Hubble Space Telescope. Fear of failure is a strong motivator."

Life, Linnehan said, provides chances for ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. "We were two ordinary guys with luck on our side that day. Luck occurs when opportunity and preparation meet." ~

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