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Former astronaut brings experience to LeTourneau University

By by Reese gordon
Aug. 10, 2013 at 10 p.m.

The newest professor at LeTourneau University has spent much of his career flying above the earth's surface. He's also been weightless in space.

After flying fighter jets in Vietnam and B-737 airplanes for Southwest Airlines, Byron Lichtenberg is no stranger to the air. But in 1983, he made history.

"NASA made a deal with the National Research Council many, many years ago to add another category of mission specialists called payload specialists," Lichtenberg said Thursday. "These would be scientists from universities that had experiments on a mission and they would be selected by other scientists from the Principal Investigators Working Group."

His experience from the Air Force and the successful completion of 138 combat missions as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War impressed the group, Lichtenberg said.

In 1978, he was chosen to be the first American payload specialist and trained for five years before he entered outer space aboard STS-9 in 1983. He was joined by Ulf Merbold, the first German payload specialist.

"We got the nod to go," he recalled, "And now we're going to go fly in the shuttle. After five years of training and working with all these people, to be able to go and sit on that rocket and hop into space in eight minutes was really amazing."

Lichtenberg's daughter, JessAnn, will be a freshman at LeTourneau University this fall. While on a campus tour in March, Lichtenberg said he felt called to teach.

"My daughter was accepted into the biomedical engineering department as a freshman," he said. "We were here and I was sitting in the orientation session and they were talking about the engineering school and how the labs here were one of three in the whole United States. One at MIT where I did my doctorate degree, one at Stanford, and one at LeTourneau. They then talked about the aeronautical program and I'm thinking, 'Geez, I've got my doctorate in biomedical engineering and all the flying aspects of it'. It just hit me right there and God spoke to me."

Lichtenberg said he then sent an e-mail to Dr. Ron Delap, Dean of Engineering, to see if he could help out in any way. Lichtenberg said Delap wrote him back six hours later and expressed interest in speaking more with the former astronaut.

Lichtenberg had several meetings with university officials and was offered the position of visiting scholar in April, he said.

"Our students can actually get to know Dr. Lichtenberg as an astronaut with a Ph.D. from MIT, but also as a person and as a friend here at LeTourneau," Delap said. " Unlike at some big universities with a thousand students in a lecture room. Dr. Lichtenberg's arrival continues a long tradition of our university recruiting top caliber faculty members from all over the world –researchers and teachers who are committed to developing relationships with our students, and guiding them to achieve their full, God-given potential as engineers."

Lichtenberg, 65, is a native of Stroudsburg, Pa. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Brown University in 1969. He holds both a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering and a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts. Institute of Technology. He piloted the B-737 airplane for 20 years with Southwest Airlines and retired in February.

Executive Director of Enrollment Services Carl Arnold said having a former astronaut with Lichtenberg's expertise has made an impact in recruiting top students.

"A few students I talked to were on the fence about whether they would choose LeTourneau or another school, but when I told them we had an astronaut who would be teaching here this fall, it made an impact," he said. "I can say that it definitely was a significant deciding factor for a few of our incoming engineering students."

Lichtenberg said his love for space exploration started when he was in high school.

"I read a lot of science fiction books," he said. "A lot of good stuff with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a whole bunch of folks I really enjoyed."

Lichtenberg said he is excited to be teaching both freshmen and sophomore engineering classes at LeTourneau.

"This is a great confluence of science, engineering, and aviation," he said. "I'm going to be getting my brain back into the sciences, math, and engineering in a formalized setting.



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