NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Payload Specialist Astronaut Robert J. Cenker, a Rutgers-New Brunswick electrical engineering alumnus, was a crewmember on the 1986 space shuttle Columbia, where he changed the face of cable TV across the United States.
During his six-day mission, which began Jan. 12, 1986, he observed the deployment of an RCA satellite and conducted an experiment on an infrared imaging camera. In total, Cenker traveled more than 2.1 million miles in 96 Earth orbits and logged more than 146 hours in space.
The mission was the final flight before the Challenger disaster, which killed seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who trained with him. As a result, Cenker's Columbia mission was called "the end of innocence" for the Shuttle program.
On July 19, Cenker will join students from New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology, TARGET and EOF, to discuss his journey into space and offer a glimpse of what it takes to become an astronaut. He will describe how the political climate has changed since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and how the country needs to band together to return to the moon -- and perhaps reach Mars.
Here, he answers a few questions before the discussion.
How did your time at Rutgers help you travel into space?
Cenker: Prior to Rutgers, I received my undergraduate and graduate degree from Penn State University in aerospace engineering, where I focused on spacecraft dynamics and orbits. After I graduated, however, I worked for RCA Astro-Electronics and its successor company, GE Astro Space, on hardware design and systems design on satellite attitude control.
What I found out while working at RCA is that spacecraft were largely electronic, and it wasn’t going to be the spacecraft dynamics that would give me an edge, but rather an expertise in electrical engineering. So, I went to Rutgers and got a second master’s degree in electrical engineering. I needed a program that would allow me to take evening classes, so I could continue working at RCA, and Rutgers had an excellent program -- and I am sure they still do. RCA was looking to send a payload specialist, which is an individual selected and trained by commercial or research organizations for flights of a specific payload on a NASA space shuttle mission, with my skills into space. They wanted to launch satellites that held the technology to share cable TV communications across America. I was at the right place at the right time to be the right person needed to support RCA’s new technology in space.
Explain your role on the 1986 Columbia mission and your connection to the crew members on the Challenger?
Cenker: I worked on SATCOM KU-1, which was a commercial communications satellite built by RCA and deployed by the STS 61-C shuttle mission, which was the seventh mission of Columbia. RCA Labs came up with a new IR sensing technology that they wanted to test in space; and RCA Astro selected me to be there as an observer of the KU-1 deployment in case it needed troubleshooting while in space.
In order to prepare myself for spaceflight, I had to perform extensive training with both career astronauts as well as other payload specialists. Some of the people I met during training were going on the mission I was on and some were training for upcoming missions, such as the 10th flight of Challenger. One of those people was Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to fly into space. Sadly, her spacecraft broke apart before it ever reached space, killing the seven crew members onboard. I was on a flight to Los Angeles when it happened. I felt as though my body went into shock. There is this photo of us from our training, and it’s something I will never forget.
What are your thoughts on the importance of the Apollo 11 mission, and Trump Administration’s plans to send Americans back to the moon by 2024?
Cenker: I fully endorse the notion of going back to the moon and I truly believe we can make it, but the jury is still out as to whether it will happen by 2024. We have only been to the moon a half dozen times and we still have a lot to learn since Neil Armstrong took those first steps. Technically, it’s possible, but historically we don’t have the will that we did 50 years ago. When President Kennedy threw down the gauntlet, the country was united behind him and I think that unification is what propelled the momentum to get us to the moon. I don’t think the country is unified now and coming together plays a big role in space exploration. I even believe we can build a spacecraft to take humans to Mars someday, but aside from the psychological research, experiments and training, we still need to stand together for these things to come to fruition.
Why is space travel so important, and what skills should Rutgers students have if they’re interested in a space career?
Cenker: The benefits of space travel are innumerable. Because of space travel, we have weather data and predictions we could never have dreamt of and communications capabilities that never would have existed. If you look around at all the satellite dishes pointed at the sky, they are pointing at geostationary satellites and that technology is only 50 years old, with the first half dozen being the ones I worked on.
The big push is for students to study STEM fields, but looking back I can see how English and communication skills were needed in a space career. If you have the most brilliant idea in the world, but can’t explain it in a way people can understand, then it may never happen. The age of Alexander Graham Bell, where one man in a lab can do amazing things, is gone. We all have to collaborate, and communication is key. If I could go back in time, I would have learned another language because the space world is so global and we need to work together.
I want students interested in a space career to find something that they love to study, and there may come a time when NASA needs that expertise. I love engineering and even if I didn’t make it into space, I would still be doing what I loved. You can’t push yourself to study something you don’t love and do it as well as someone who does. What I want students to ask themselves is “how can I do what I love and how can that benefit spaceflight?”