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Out of this World with Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman

by Dan Price

On April 12, 1985, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, two people were looking towards the future. One knew their destiny: to be strapped to the back of a rocket and shot out past the atmosphere into the cosmos, only to return to a hero's welcome. He would travel into space four more times, then travel to Paris for a few years before the final touchdown in Boston, where he's taught for the last 20 years at MIT. His name is Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman.

The other person at Cape Canaveral in April '85 looking towards the future? That was me. I was 8. It was quite a sight to see. My friend's dad was going to outer space, and I got to watch the whole thing happen. A local hero, amazing skier, and fun uncle rolled into one was making history.

But let's back up. To hear Jeff tell it, it's always been about outer space.

"I was a space nut since I was six years old," Jeff told me via zoom from his office at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Back in the 1950s, it was really the beginning, the dawn of the space age… I was in 3rd grade in 1953, and already there were articles in magazines about the coming space age and how we were going to go to the moon and how we were going to go to Mars."

Even his teachers took notice of his predilection for all things above the atmosphere. "I remember my 3rd-grade teacher caught me doodling rockets on my math work. And luckily, she realized I was a smart kid and she encouraged me. And I never stopped being interested in space."

As Jeff went through school, he learned all about astronomy and he felt space represented the future. He even told me about going out the high school football field with his father and some friends to watch Sputnik fly over. "Nowadays, people don't look twice to look up up and see a satellite flyover, but then, it was extraordinary."

In the early days of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, Astronauts were all fighter pilots, so the path to space didn't seem to be in his future. Jeff continued towards a career in sciences but eagerly followed the space program.

He majored in Physics and Astronomy and received a Ph.D. from Harvard in High Energy Astrophysics in 1971.

Even then, he was interested in the aspects of space and went into what was then a new field of X-ray Astronomy which you could only study above the atmosphere. He used high-altitude balloons, sounding rockets, and eventually satellites.

After his doctorate, he moved to England for a fellowship at the University of Leicester, where he met his wife, Barbara. What was supposed to be a one-year stay, he returned three and half years later with a wife and a 10-week-old son.

"I came to MIT in 1975, and NASA, at that point, was working on what was then this brand-new space shuttle idea," Jeff explained. "And what was unique in space history was that shuttle going have room for a crew up to seven, and they only needed two pilots. I guess it was late '76 probably; they announced they were going to be looking for a new generation of shuttle astronauts. And they weren't going to be just taking pilots. They wanted scientists, engineers, medical doctors. So, there was no question that I was going to apply."

Then came the tough talk: telling Barbara. Jeff prepared himself for a serious discussion, but when Barbara heard the news, she just laughed and thought it was just a joke. Tough talk avoided! But, the application process moved forward. Jeff received a request for his fingerprints as part of the background investigation, so he told Barbara that he was going to the local police station.

"Why? What have you done?" Barbara asked.

Jeff explained the situation, and Barbara laughed, but she wanted to come along just for kicks. As the fingerprinting went on, Barbara's reaction went from joking to serious, and her eyes got bigger and bigger when she started to realize that this astronaut thing was a possibility.

"You're really serious about this, aren't you?" she said. But he was, and by that point, it was too late; the process was in full swing.

Jeff told me there were about 8,000 applications. It was whittled to 200 candidates who had interviews at The Johnson Space Center in Houston. Jeff hoped to hear something by the end of the year, but the new year came and went. In Sun Valley, Idaho, during a ski weekend with family, Jeff got the call.

"Jeff, this is George Abbey (Director of Flight Crew Operations) from Johnson Space Center," Jeff recanted. "You still interested in being an astronaut?"

¬¬ "yes, sir." Then George said, "Well, congratulations. We'd like to invite you to come down here and join us."

Jeff paused a moment and smiled. "And then, very cleverly, they put me on with Human Resources person and was told the salary he was going to be given." Jeff laughed. "What was I supposed to do, argue about a salary at that time?"

So, off to Houston he went with Barbara by his side and two kids, Sam and Orin, in tow. And that's where we met. The Hoffman's joined our synagogue, and our two families became fast friends, my dad and Jeff taking an instant liking to each other, my Mom and Barbara, as well. Same with the boys and me. With that said, there were a lot of holidays spent together; be it Thanksgiving or Passover, birthday parties, Halloween costume parties, family vacations from skiing to sharing a cabin at a dude ranch in Bandera. Plus, how many kids get to say they toured the shuttle simulator while eating NASA-approved freeze-dried space ice cream? So, when Jeff was ready to take on his first mission in space, it was natural that my parents and I make the flight to Florida and attend.

If you'll allow me an aside: my dad was a brash human, loved to chide the people he loved, and loved the movie The Right Stuff. He was also from England and would visit family and take care of business frequently in the UK. One time he decided to take British Airways now-defunct Concord jet. At Mach 2, it was the fastest commercial airliner, and before Jeff took his first flight, my father had gone faster than Jeff. But, on April 12, 1985, Jeff had the bet all sewn up.

"3… 2… 1…"

And the rest was history. STS 51-D, the Space Shuttle Discovery, pushed past the atmosphere that morning before our very eyes. Nicknamed "The Fly Swatter" mission, Jeff and the crew had to rescue and repair a satellite during the flight. Along with Dave Griggs, Jeff made the very first STS unplanned spacewalk. The mission was a success, and the crew came home safely.

Over his subsequent four shuttle missions, Jeff took part in numerous Extravehicular Activities (EVA's) or Space Walks. In December 1993, he served as an EVA crew member on STS-61. This team aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour captured, fixed, and restored the Hubble Space Telescope to working order. The trip was during Hanukkah, so Jeff, the first male Jewish American in space, brought some personal items with him, including a dreidel, which he proudly spun for the NASA audience on camera, a dreidel that now lives in the Jewish American Hall of Fame. (Search the footage out on YouTube. It's worth it.)

Jeff took a few items of Judaica to space during his voyages, including a mezuzah he gave me for my Bar Mitzvah that is framed and hangs near the front door of my house. But, the real item of interest to the population at large was on his fifth flight, where he brought a small Torah with him.

Jeff's Rabbi, Shaul Osadchey, had repeatedly asked Jeff over his last three missions if he could take a Torah with him to space. A frame of reference: The average Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses of the Old Testament, weighs around 25 or 30 pounds.

"Shaul, I can't take a Torah; it's too big," Jeff explained that each crew member only gets a small volume of space for personal items. "But (Rabbi Osadchey) finally found from a rabbi in New York who had a totally kosher miniature Torah… and I took it with me." During Shabbat (the sabbath) while the space shuttle Columbia traversed the stars, Jeff read from the book of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." This event became the subject of an award-winning documentary, Space Torah (watch the trailer at

Jeff eventually left the astronaut office. He and Barbara moved to Paris, where he worked as NASA's European Representative. They loved their four years in Paris but moved back to Boston in 2001, and he has been teaching at MIT ever since.

"I've been very fortunate. Part of luck, of course, is recognizing opportunities and being able to take advantage of them. I've always worked hard. I'm still working hard… but I've also had a lot of opportunities. Like getting delayed on my first flight and finally getting to do a spacewalk completely unplanned."

Opportunity comes knocking for all of us. For some, it's a new job, a new love, or a new experience. For Jeff, it was all three; working as an astronaut, following his passion and love for all things outer space, and taking a voyage only a select few will ever get to have. That's a lifetime of experiences that I would have to say is out of this world.

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