Tennessee Tech alum blasts off with Space Shuttle Columbia

When the Space Shuttle Columbia blasts off for its 22nd mission now scheduled for April 4, the oldest ship in the shuttle fleet will embark on one of the newest NASA scientific missions, thanks in part to a Tennessee native among its crew.

Roger Crouch, a Tennessee Technological University graduate who hails from Jamestown, Tenn., will serve as payload specialist for NASA's first Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL-1) mission flight.

As chief scientist of NASA's Office of Microgravity Science and Life, the 56-year-old Crouch has managed research projects and been responsible for the success of space shuttle flight experiments since 1985 -- from Earth. But his lifelong dream will come true this April as he takes those experiments aloft aboard a shuttle flight.

"I have been extremely lucky," said Crouch. "I don't think I could have planned a life which would have led me to this place. Something greater than me has put obstacles and opportunities -- which really aren't that different -- in my life. And then It gave me the ability and strength to wind up in a better place."

The MSL program is a key "bridge" component between the shuttle's Spacelab module, where astronauts conduct the payload bay experiments, and the International Space Station. During MSL-1, Crouch and the rest of the payload crew will be responsible for the scientific payload of some 25 experiments in protein crystal growth, combustion, and materials science. The experiments are being conducted on behalf of researchers worldwide.

"Being a payload specialist has the thrill of being in the lab again, but we're trained to do only what the scientists have asked us to do," Crouch said "... We must be the hands and eyes of the ground-based scientists who have worked for many years to develop the experiments."

News of Crouch's selection as a Columbia crew member hit home last year, when the 1962 physics graduate of Tennessee Tech wrote his alma mater with an offer it couldn't refuse. To pay tribute to the university and get it some added publicity, Crouch wanted to take some school mementos with him on the flight -- a space-aged marketing opportunity, if you will.

Happy to comply, Tennessee Tech officials sent him a university pennant and a commemorative bronze school medallion for the flight, hoping for some coverage on the NASA Select Channel or CNN. They also commissioned a special patch for the jump suit the astronaut will wear on educational visits here on Earth. The university plans to honor Crouch during a launch-day countdown celebration which will feature a video Crouch produced himself with a special message for Tennessee Tech students and alumni. Also on the video are greetings from two other Tennessee Tech alumni helping with the MSL-1 mission -- Mission Manager Teresa Vanhooser, an industrial engineering graduate, and Mission Scientist Mike Robinson, another physics alum.

The university is no stranger to space missions, with more than 50 alumni working at NASA research and flight centers and many more working with NASA contractors around the world. In January, research developed in part by another Tennessee Tech graduate and assistant chemistry professor at the university, Jeffrey Boles, flew on the most recent Atlantis mission for delivery to the Russian Space Station Mir.

Not bad for a school that doesn't even have a space program.

Gearing up for the launch day, students have already sponsored a shuttle model contest and will take part in a paper airplane competition at the ceremony. University officials have arranged for the NASA Select Channel to be broadcast on the dormitory cable-TV system and will post a monitor tuned to the channel in the University Center building with a computer terminal linked to NASA and related web sites.

"We are proud to have Tennessee Tech represented by such an outstanding group of alumni," said Tennessee Tech President Angelo Volpe. "The accomplishments achieved by Roger Crouch and all the other Tennessee Tech graduates worldwide honor our institution and exemplify the quality of public education in Tennessee. Every citizen of our great state should stand a little taller on April 4."