Close Mobile Menu

To Infinity (Err, Umm, the Moon) and Beyond

NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg PhD ‘13 on life in space and why returning humans to the Moon matters

June 25, 2024
by Geoff Koch
Astronaut Woody Hoburg is standing inside a spacecraft, wearing a white spacesuit. He has a slight smile on his face and his arms are crossed. SpaceX/NASA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Space nerds are well aware, but the general public may need a reminder that NASA is on its way back to the Moon—with actual astronauts, that is, possibly including Woody Hoburg, Ph.D.’13, as part of the Moon-or-bust Artemis program. 

In Greek myth, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, which of course is also the appellation of the NASA mission that made astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin nearly mythological figures in their own right. And while the place of human spaceflight in the public imagination has waned since that first “giant leap for mankind,” astronauts still wield undeniable star power.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that when the announcement went out that Hoburg would return to Berkeley earlier this year for a February talk titled “From UC Berkeley to NASA: My Path to Astronaut,” seats were gone in just 10 minutes, a new record for Sutardja Dai Hall. 

Before the doors opened, there was a pre-concert vibe outside Banatao Auditorium, with plenty of NASA-branded hats and T-shirts and even some astronaut garb among the crowd. A small boy in a mock space helmet held his mother’s hand, his face hidden behind an opaque visor. 

As if to put a damper on the enthusiasm, NASA had, just a  few weeks prior, announced a one-year delay in the Artemis schedule, a culmination of months of news stories about various cost and safety concerns with the program. Yet Hoburg held the crowd rapt with his tales and stunning imagery from his recent half-year aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

In the Q&A, Eric, a third-year nuclear engineering major, stood to ask Hoburg what he was most looking forward to in the aerospace industry.

“I want us to have a Moon base,” Hoburg replied. “Moon bases and Moon rovers and nuclear power on the Moon and all sorts of exciting things.” 

After his talk and patiently posing for many dozens of souvenir selfies, Hoburg graciously sat with California for an interview, edited here for length and clarity, and talked Yosemite rock climbing, what to remember about public attitudes in early days of the Apollo program, and whether he had any spiritual epiphanies while orbiting above Earth. 

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station for docking, with Earth visible in the background.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station. NASA/Space X. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last summer you did a live interview from the ISS with fellow Berkeley alum David Friedberg ‘01, the tech exec and venture capitalist perhaps best known as one of the All-In podcast hosts. Friedberg posted your interview on X where it got more than 500,000 views. How did that interview come about? And are you actually listening to podcasts up there?     

We have an amazing behavioral group in Houston that uploads basically any content we want so that in our downtime on the ISS we can watch movies, TV, whatever. I was having them upload All-In as one podcast to listen to when I exercise. Part of what the behavioral group does is arrange conversations for astronauts to have, usually with someone well-known. Some astronauts try to talk to Tom Cruise or whoever. I wanted someone I would actually enjoy talking to, not necessarily a super famous celebrity. NASA reached out to All-In, and Friedberg was the one who bit, which is awesome since he’s my favorite. I’m a rock climber and also talked to the climber, Tommy Caldwell. On the ISS I listened to a lot of music, but yes, a lot of long-form podcasts too. Lex Fridman is another great podcaster. He is such a good interviewer and some of his shows go on for five hours or more. We exercise two and a half hours each day on the ISS so there is lots of time for listening. 

Another of your video calls from space was with Steve Jurveston, another big Silicon Valley investor. Does this mean you’re thinking of being a VC when you’re done being an astronaut? 

I don’t know. Not necessarily venture, but I’ve always felt like being in a startup would be a good fit for me. I’ve never had that experience. I’ve always thought, if I do leave, maybe that’s it. Maybe I’ll go and try to build something. 

 In your talk you included a grainy photo of a pull-up bar you installed in Sutardja Dai Hall during your Ph.D. What was that about? Were you working out instead of writing your dissertation? 

Well, sometimes in grad school you bang your head against the wall, stuck with some problem for hours. It was probably during some late-night session in front of the computer doing math. I felt like I needed a physical outlet. Whenever I thought I should go check the news to avoid the dissertation work, I would force myself to do pull-ups instead. So then it would be I’m either suffering doing pull-ups or doing the work. 

Woody Hoburg floats inside the International Space Station (ISS). He is smiling and works on a task, surrounded by various equipment and cables in the station's interior.
Woody Hoburg conducts maintenance on the treadmill located inside the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. NASA

In addition to being a NASA astronaut, you’re a rock climber. How many pull-ups can you do? 

As a climber, I don’t have a particularly strong upper body. I am good on low-angle, very technical stuff, but I am not a burly guy great on overhangs. Before my ISS mission, my max was around 16 pull-ups—not all that impressive. When I got back, NASA tested me pretty soon after I landed, and I was at eight, so I lost a ton. We don’t have a way to do pull-ups in space, though. I came back stronger on the bench press.

You spent lots of time in Yosemite climbing and doing search and rescue during your Ph.D. years. Cal engineering is world-class, but did you come to Berkeley because it was close to great climbing? 

I did my undergrad at MIT and staying in Massachusetts for grad school would have been easy. But something in the back of my mind told me I should have a new experience and see a different school and environment. I was actually admitted to the Stanford computer science program and told them I was coming. But after MIT I took the whole summer off and climbed in Yosemite. That same little voice in my head said I should take a year off before grad school. Back home on the East Coast I remember sitting on my parents’ porch thinking, ‘Should I really do this?’ I flew out to Stanford—I thought this was a big deal—and told them I would defer in person. I hadn’t even applied to Berkeley. I spent the year working as an EMT, also in a lab at MIT with a professor named Russ Tedrake. At some point, I became aware of Pieter Abbeel, and I thought maybe his work in AI, machine learning and robotics would be a good fit. I applied, Pieter became my advisor, and I wound up here. 

Berkeley alums will love it that you ditched Stanford for Cal. 

Both are great schools, obviously.

Hoburg takes a 'selfie' outside the International Space Station. The reflection in the his visor reveals part of the ISS. The Earth is visible in the background, providing a stunning view of the planet from space.
Hoburg’s ‘space-selfie’ during a six-hour and three-minute spacewalk to install a roll-out solar array on the International Space Station’s truss structure. NASA

You come across as optimistic and can-do. How important is that in the astronaut corps?

I’ve always valued both optimism and pragmatism, even when I was young. I see them as not necessarily opposed, maybe orthogonal. Pragmatism, even pessimism, is important to identify and avoid risks, and anticipate bad outcomes before they happen. But the more that I’ve gotten out in the world and worked, including as an astronaut, the more I value people who can get stuff done, which always takes a certain bit of optimism. And I do think human space exploration is an expression of human optimism in a very real sense. We don’t necessarily know what we’re going to get out of it. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain. You do it because it’s there. We’re collectively choosing to go on this grand adventure, and I’m really glad I have the opportunity to participate, and that we as a nation think it’s important. Some country is going to be the first one back to the Moon and the first one to put a woman on the Moon, which by the way is something we should do. I hope it’s the United States of America.   

Woody Hoburg speaking into a microphone while seated in front of a backdrop that includes an image of Earth and a model rocket. He is wearing a blue astronaut jumpsuit with various mission patches.
Woody Hoburg delivers the CITRIS Distinguished Lecture. Photo by Brandon Sanchez Mejia

I was a journalism grad student in the early 2000s at Stanford. I remember writing a column for The Stanford Daily lauding President George W. Bush in 2004 after he announced a U.S. vision for space, including an extended human presence on the Moon and going to Mars. Man, did I get hate mail…people complaining about the waste of money that could be better spent here on Earth. How do you respond to criticism like that?

I understand that the Apollo program was deeply unpopular in the mid-1960s. It was the Vietnam era, and the idea of spending lots of government resources on this obscure goal of putting someone on the Moon…there were lots of people who said, ‘Why are we doing that? We have so many problems at home.’ But today, so many people look back and say it was the greatest human achievement in the 20th century, so many people are proud of it. The Apollo program is far more popular now than it was then. And in the moment of the first Moon landing, there was excitement. Think of all the accounts of people remembering where they were when it happened. We’re lucky today to have bipartisan support for the Artemis program. And I think people today are generally positive about NASA, which is a great brand, one of the most recognized in the world. We seem to have really strong public support, even more than in the runup to Apollo.  

NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg, PhD '13, giving a presentation to an audience. He is standing at a podium and gesturing towards a large screen displaying a photo of himself sitting at a desk in an orange shirt.
At the Banatao Auditorium Hoburg shows a photo of himself as a Ph.D. student. Photo by Brandon Sanchez Mejia

Do you enjoy the public nature of your role as an astronaut? 

I’ll give you an honest answer: I enjoy some aspects…others, I don’t. I think, as astronauts, we have almost the perfect level of celebrity. When I take off this flight suit and go out into the world, almost no one recognizes me and when someone does, the interactions tend to be enormously genuine and positive. These are people who know about space, are excited about space exploration. You just witnessed me stand and smile for maybe a few hundred selfies. I appreciate the interest but these situations sometimes feel a bit shallow. That’s just my personality. I find it much more fulfilling to have interactions like we’re having right now, that are a little more substantive. Regardless, as astronauts we absolutely have a responsibility to explain what we’re doing to the public, explain the value of space exploration and get people excited. That’s why I’m here.  

Can you relate what was going through your head during your EVA (extravehicular activity) outside the ISS to unroll a solar panel. There’s an incredible video of you guys in action on YouTube with more than a million views. Years ago I did several climbs myself in Yosemite and remember getting over my fear of heights. But when I watched some of your EVA broadcast, my hands were sweating seeing the Earth floating in the background.

That was my favorite part of the mission for sure, just because of the challenge. There is an analogy to climbing – you train, get ready to execute, then go do it. It was really rewarding to work in the spacesuit, which is a unique skill set with so much training ahead of time in the pool…the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. The suit is pressurized and clumsy. Squeeze your gloved hand once or twice and you’ll say ‘oh, there’s some resistance.’ Squeeze it hundreds or a thousand times and you’ll be tired in the forearms. Climbing does help, both for building some reserve forearm strength and learning to continue moving forward in small steps, doing the next thing no matter what. Like in climbing, small refinements matter. It adds up to a lot if I can save one second on every motion since we were on the EVA for hours. And there’s something far cooler than what happens on a big climb, and that’s the team aspect. Hundreds of people in Mission Control are watching and analyzing everything, making sure we’re safe out there.

Warren Hoburg is lowered into the training pool for spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

So when was your heart rate highest? During the spacewalk? Or the launch? 

Well, to be accurate about it, probably while exercising doing cardio on the exercise bike. I mean, we do try to get to VO2 max. 

This reminds me of the story of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper falling asleep on the launch pad. Astronaut power move. 

In my work in the simulator, I assumed that, right before launch, my heart rate would be jacked. I always thought, ‘You’re going to be nervous on the day, even though you’re not right now in the sim, so be ready.’ But it’s funny, on launch day, while I’m sure my heart rate was elevated, I was much calmer than expected. I think it’s because everything flows just like it did in the sim.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars upward after liftoff from the pad at Launch leaving a bright arc of light across the night sky.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars upward carrying the Dragon spacecraft Endeavour. Aboard Dragon are Stephen Bowen, Warren Hoburg, Sultan Alneyadi, and Andrey Fedyaev. (NASA)
Astronaut Woody Hoburg is seen taking a photograph through the window of the International Space Station's cupola, capturing stunning views of Earth below.
Woody Hoburg photographs the Saudi Arabian coast on the Red Sea as the International Space Station orbits 258 miles above. (NASA)

You said in your lecture that during the mission the crew took maybe 10,000 photos. You showed several here today and others on NASA’s site are truly beautiful. Did you have any epiphanies looking down at Earth from up there? 

Everyone’s curious. I don’t think I had any real epiphanies. Over time, the experience of seeing Earth’s thin atmosphere makes a deep impression. Many astronauts talk about this, and I know it’s almost cliche, but it’s true. When you go out on an EVA and are in the vacuum of space, you really feel it. You leave the protection of the space station and it’s just you and the space suit. When I hold my hand up, between my visor and my hand…there is nothing there…it’s death. You feel viscerally on spacewalks that you’re surrounded by death. It’s sort of the same thing flying above Earth and seeing the tiny, tiny layer of atmosphere protecting it. On Earth, when I walk outside and look up at the sky, it feels infinite, that it must go on forever. Seen from above, you’re reminded that it does not. So that’s one thing.  

I also remember one of the first times being in the cupola, which is kind of our vantage point with a beautiful panoramic view of Earth. There was the sound of some fans running, that’s it, the only noise as you’re zipping along at five miles every second, 17,000 miles an hour, way faster than a bullet. I remember feeling pride in engineering… like ‘wow, we’ve put this machine here.’ That’s not much of an epiphany but I’m an engineer at heart.   

Geoff Koch is a writer and poet who lives in Portland, Oregon. 

Share this article