SIU’s NASA Connections


Southern Illinois University Carbondale alumni have played key roles in the exploration of space. A few notable examples are:

Former NASA astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham, a 1987 SIU graduate in electrical engineering, made her space flight as a mission specialist aboard Discovery on STS-116, which lifted off on Dec. 10, 2006, and spent nearly 13 days in space. The mission was the shuttle program’s 20th to the International Space Station and was focused on continuing its assembly. Higginbotham operated the station’s robotic arm, oversaw experiments and acted as the primary coordinator of cargo transfer between the shuttle and station. She also deployed small satellites after the shuttle undocked from the space station.

Jeffrey G. Spaulding, a 1987 graduate in mechanical and thermal engineering from Rockford, Illinois, served as one of NASA’s two shuttle test directors. He was responsible for the planning and execution of all shuttle launch countdown activities and for conducting the final portion of the count through launch. He also chaired the Emergency Egress and Escape Working Group.

Norm Tokarz, a 1987 graduate in electrical engineering, served as chief for International Space Station and Spacecraft Processing, Operations Division, at Kennedy Space Center. Tokarz worked with Spaulding on the Higginbotham mission. Tokarz’s division was responsible for day-to-day operations, scheduling and testing for space station processing at the space center.

Angela Brewer, a 1983 graduate in electrical engineering, served as flow director for the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Brewer, managed the day-to-day activities associated with the processing of Atlantis for launch.

Sue Gaines, a 1984 College of Engineering graduate, joined NASA in 1985 as a mechanical engineer on Orbiter mechanical systems, and worked as an orbiter project engineer responsible for integrating all systems testing and modification on Space Shuttle Discovery, according to NASA officials.

Richard Jurek, a two-degree alumnus and space artifact collector, co-authored the book “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program,” exploring how astronauts, rocket scientists, defense contractors, space enthusiasts and even the flavored-drink mix Tang played roles in one of the most successful marketing and public relations campaigns in history.


Our faculty have and are collaborating with NASA and other agencies on several many eclipse-related and space-related projects, including:

A team of researchers led by Harvey Henson is using a NASA grant totaling more than $2.6 million for the SolarSTEAM project. The grant, which runs August 2023 through June 2026, will pay for a multifaceted, national heliophysics public engagement and empowerment program centered on the April 8, 2024 eclipse and related events, including those at SIU.
A team of researchers led by Bob Baer and Matt Penn are equipping, coordinating and training teams of student eclipse observers across North America, using a $314,000 NASA grant for the Dynamic Eclipse Broadcast Initiative (DEB) effort. The citizen science project will have more than 40 teams largely made up of high school and middle school students – in sites spanning from Mexico up through the United States and into Canada – use telescopes to provide critical coronal data as the moon’s shadow traverses the continent.

A team of researchers let by Cori Brevik is using a two-year, $465,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to ensure young students living outside the eclipse-impacted area have a chance to witness the awe-inspiring total solar eclipse. The REAL Field Trip Model aims to pioneer methods that allow any school, regardless of location, to actively participate in large-scale scientific events such as space launches, aquarium and zoo events, volcanic eruptions, turtle hatchings and so on

A team of SIU researchers led by Lahiru Jayakody, assistant professor of microbiology, is conducting research as part of NASA’s µBites (pronounced “micro-bites”) contest. One of just 18 promising designs selected by NASA, the contest focused researchers on the challenges of deep space exploration, with its need to create nourishing, safe and palate-pleasing food with minimal resources and minimal waste.

Liliana Lefticariu, professor in the School of Earth Systems and Sustainability, is a longstanding NASA collaborator. NASA has sponsored her past and present research into Mars’ geology.

Sally Potter-McIntyre, associate professor in the School of Earth Systems and Sustainability, studies both the geology and magmatism of Mars, with several projects funded by NASA.

Tsuchin Philip Chu, professor in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, & Materials Engineering, has worked with NASA scientists and engineers to help resolve complex problems around developing software systems for more precise detection of hydrogen leaks in the nozzle of the space shuttle main engines.

Jeffrey Punske, associate professor in the School of Languages & Linguistics, has studied the means of communication for future interstellar travel, addressing the European Space Agency on the topic.