If Brewster Shaw BS1968, MS1969 had his way, everyone would get the chance to soar thousands of miles above Earth as he did.
The former astronaut completed three space-shuttle missions — twice with Columbia and once with Atlantis — in the 1980s, helped to dissect the 1986 Challenger disaster, and then held key management positions for NASA before entering the private sector.
UW alum and NASA astronaut, Brewster Shaw. (Image courtesy of the UW Archives, #S17700.)
Being a pilot wasn’t a lifelong dream, Shaw admits. He’d come to the University of Wisconsin, his father’s alma mater, after casually flipping through a catalog until engineering mechanics caught his eye. He found a mentor in Professor Alois “Bud” Schlack Jr. BS1956, PhD1961, who taught celestial mechanics.
Shaw paid his way through college as a member of a rock band, The Gentlemen, and when the band’s drummer, a licensed pilot, took him flying one day, Shaw was hooked. Over the years, the flying time added up: he logged more than 5,000 hours in more than 30 types of aircraft as a combat fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut.
The sense of awe that came from orbiting Earth — something he did 80 times during his second Columbia mission — has never left Shaw. Speaking at his 50-year high school reunion in Michigan, his eyes welled up as he remembered that opportunity. “It’s an experience everyone should have a right to,” he said.
The urge to send ourselves into space, despite the proven risks, is part of our DNA, Shaw believes. “Human beings have always been explorers. Adventuring into the unknown challenges us to learn and grow. Having a vision, and the potential to realize that vision, keeps us alive and confident,” he wrote for the Atlantic in 2011.
And although he brought confidence to his role as an astronaut, Shaw has given credit to a different trait altogether. “I got to do the only two things that I professionally really wanted to do,” he says: “Fly in space, and see other people fly in space. How lucky is that?”