“One of the real triumphs of the ISS, besides the engineering and the operation, is the international partnership, and how we made this work.”
John L. Phillips

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John Phillips

“Heavy Lifting In Space” – Astronaut Dr. John Phillips delivers the 2011 Austin Lecture

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) is nearly complete, and during its construction there has now been a continuous human presence in space for over a decade. The in-orbit assembly of the ISS constitutes an unprecedented achievement in science and engineering. Dr. John L. Phillips takes pride in having been part of that accomplishment, and he spoke about his experiences at this year’s Austin Distinguished Lecture in Science on the evening of October 13.

Dr. Phillips’ talk was full of anecdotes and insights into what it is like to experience launch, work and live in space, and return again to earth. He described his three trips to the ISS between 2001 and 2009, including a six month stay aboard the station in 2005, and gave glimpses into the quirks of the process and the talents and personalities of those he worked with. But most of all he emphasized the pride with which we should view the ISS and what it represents in terms of human cooperation and ingenuity.  “One of the real triumphs of the ISS,” he told the audience, “besides the engineering and the operation, is the international partnership, and how we made this work.”

In the talk, Dr. Phillips described the obstacles to construction in space, and how those obstacles were overcome. He detailed his work with controlling the robotic arm used in coordination with space walks to assemble some of the larger components of the ISS, including the solar panels his mission helped to deliver. Near the conclusion of the talk, he described the significance of the end of the space shuttle program, the impact that will have on the ISS, and the possible directions that space exploration might take from this point. “In a sense,” he said, “we’ve ended this era of … heavy lifting in space. We’re going to have to develop new methods of building things in space.”

Before fielding questions from the audience, Dr. Phillips presented a memento to Dean Scott Wood from his last shuttle mission, STS 119 in March 2009. This included photos, a mission patch, and an Idaho state flag that went into space on the mission.

During his stay in Moscow, Dr. Phillips also visited K-12 school classes as well as a Physics 103 Astronomy class on campus.

Dr. Phillips received a B.S. degree in mathematics from the U.S. Naval Academy, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in space physics from UCLA. He served in the U.S. Navy as a pilot from 1972 to 1982 and then continued in the Navy Reserve for another 20 years. After completing graduate school in 1987, he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a J. Robert Oppenheimer Fellow and then as a staff scientist for a total of nine years. He was principal investigator for the plasma experiment on the Ulysses spacecraft as it flew over the poles of the sun, and has authored over 150 scientific publications. He was assigned in 2009 as the NASA Chair Professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, teaching classes on the space environment. Dr. Phillips retired from NASA in 2011 and now lives in Idaho.