Warren “Woody” Hoburg prepares the Jungle Hawk Owl for its first flight in May.

Veronica Padron

An MIT professor’s bittersweet departure for astronaut training

There was a time when aerospace engineer Warren “Woody” Hoburg wouldn’t have thought twice about swapping his tenure-track faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge for the chance to become an astronaut. But when NASA called in early June to say he had beaten the 1500-to-one odds of being chosen for its next astronaut class, Hoburg was deeply conflicted.

The 31-year-old, who joined the MIT faculty in 2014, had become deeply—and happily—enmeshed in his academic career. He and his students had just flown a lightweight, long-duration drone built with the help of a powerful software tool for optimizing airplane design, called GPkit, that he had created. The U.S. Air Force, which has funded the work, hopes to use the drone to maintain communications during disaster relief, but Hoburg was already thinking of many other uses. His research team had “so much momentum” that it was “hard for me to just end it,” he says.

Ultimately, however, Hoburg couldn’t resist NASA’s offer to become the first astronaut candidate plucked from the ranks of tenure-track faculty at a major U.S. research university. Next week, he will report for work at NASA’s training facility in Houston, Texas. But before leaving MIT, he’s finishing up a task unique to academia: making sure his students and projects have a continuing home. “I think we have a bunch of ideas that are really powerful,” he says, “and I want to set up my students to continue that research.”

Leave wasn’t the answer

Hoburg’s initial plan was to maintain a formal link with his many projects by going on temporary leave from MIT. Although Hoburg and the other astronaut candidates hope their 2 years of training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will be followed by a chance to go into space, he wanted to hedge his bets. “It’s a little unclear what will happen after the training ends,” he explains.

So Hoburg requested a 2-year leave of absence, which would have covered the initial length of training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But MIT said no. “I was basically advised to resign,” Hoburg says. “I’m not complaining. [Becoming an astronaut] is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. And it was pretty wild to be told, as a junior faculty member, that this other amazing dream of mine had come true.”

MIT’s response was dictated by how it manages the tenure clock. “We could have given him a 2-year leave, but the tenure clock keeps going,” says Jaime Peraire, head of MIT’s aeroastro department. So returning after spending 2 years at NASA would have put Hoburg at a severe disadvantage in terms of his research productivity, Peraire notes. Instead, MIT has made Hoburg a verbal promise that he would be welcomed back if “for some reason things don’t work out.”

“MIT’s actions were intended to give this respected faculty member a better option than a leave of absence offers,” Peraire explains. “We absolutely value his contribution, and all of us are thrilled that he is an astronaut candidate. His astronaut experiences will ultimately serve his students extremely well when he returns to the Institute, should he choose to do so.”

So on 20 August Hoburg will sever all official ties to MIT. And he has spent the last 2 months working nonstop to hand off his various projects. One big one is the drone, which the Air Force dubbed Jungle Hawk Owl (JHO). It was originally the product of a capstone design course for MIT undergraduates that Hoburg team-teaches with Mark Drela and R. John Hansman, two longtime professors in MIT’s AeroAstro program. Now, the aircraft is ready for more development.

Drela doesn’t dabble much in the branch of mathematics, called convex optimization, on which GPkit relies. But he is familiar with the software, which Hoburg believes has the potential to become a commercial product. And Drela, who works on physical models to simplify complex systems like commercial planes, has agreed to supervise two of Hoburg’s graduate students.

GPkit has “gotten a lot of attention, and people are using it,” Hoburg says. “One of the students is really excited about a possible spinoff. But right now that’s just one idea.”

Hoburg’s departure has created a more immediate problem for his colleagues—finding a third person to co-teach the capstone course in the future. “We’re disappointed that he’s leaving because Woody had put together the software for the course and it had worked out really well,” Drela says.

Another challenge, says Hansman, will be transitioning the drone project from “a student-class model to more of a research-based model,” and replacing those students who were part of the project but have graduated. Hansman has been co–principal investigator for JHO and will take over full responsibility, and he’s also taking a few of Hoburg’s graduate students under his wing.

The JHO team has been working with the Air Force to get government permission for the drone to carry heavier payloads, Hoburg says. He’s also been thinking about how a solar version of the diesel-powered aircraft could help climate scientists to monitor ice caps during the 24-hour polar summers. NASA threw a monkey wrench into those plans when it picked Hoburg out of a pool of 18,000 applicants.

Mental workouts

Hoburg knows his life will change dramatically next week when he begins his astronaut training. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be thinking about research.

“A lot of the training is physical, and some of my best research ideas have come when I’m working out,” he says. “So, yeah, I think I’ll still be able to think about these things.”

Despite his move to Houston, Hoburg expects to make periodic trips back to the Boston area. In addition to maintaining informal ties to his colleagues, Hoburg will be visiting his partner, Polina Anikeeva, an associate professor of materials science at MIT. “I’ve tried to interest her in Rice [University, which is in Houston],” he says. “But she really wants to stay in Boston and keep up her research group here. So, we’ll be accumulating a lot of frequent-flyer miles.”

Update, 8/17/2017, 12:05 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify MIT's leave of absence policy and its impact on the tenure process, and the discussion surrounding Hoburg's request for a 2-year leave.