Since the 1960s, engineers, biologists, and even historians who graduated from Washington State have contributed to the exploration of our solar system. You can read about a few of them below. If you know of other Cougs who have been involved in space exploration, please send their stories and we’ll include them here.

Thora Waters Halstead ’50

Space biologist

Microbiologist Thora Waters Halstead pioneered the field of space biology and her research now is a critical piece of NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars.

Waters, who earned her undergraduate degree at Washington State University in 1950, was a trailblazer at NASA both as a female scientist during the space agency’s early years and in recognizing the importance of researching the effects of low gravity on cellular biology. She died March 9, 2016 at her home in Falls Church, Virginia at the age of 87.

Martian gardens
Detail of “Martian Gardens” (Illustration Courtesy NASA/SAIC)

“Thora was a mentor to many, and her work benefited thousands,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and the agency’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, wrote in a joint memoir of Halstead’s contributions to the space agency.

“She’s been credited with helping to establish the field of space biology before there was such a discipline.”

Both cite her research into how the cells of living organisms respond to low-gravity environments as well as how plants communicate with each other in micro gravity as key to NASA’s plans to eventually send astronauts to Mars. Recent advances such as the successful cultivating of a lettuce crop in outer space can be traced to Halstead’s work.

She retired from NASA in 1994 as manager of the Space Biology Program in the Life and Biomedical Sciences and Applications Division. She served as the program scientist for a 1992 space shuttle mission that was part of the Spacelab years.  And she was a founding member and past president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology.

Following her undergraduate work at Washington State, she earned a master’s degree at University of Texas at Austin and her doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, College Park.

John Fabian ’62

Space Shuttle astronaut

Former astronaut John Fabian, who graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering, was the first Cougar astronaut as mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger II in July 1983. He was honored by WSU that same year with the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award. He also flew aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985 and was the first space scientist to release a satellite from a spaceship and retrieve it after an orbit. Fabian, who grew up in Pullman, retired as president of ANSER, a not-for-profit research corporation in Virginia.

John Fabian
John Fabian (Courtesy NASA, JSC)

In 2010, Fabian was named a Distinguished Member of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) at the Association’s recent XXIII Planetary Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. ASE is an international nonprofit professional and educational organization of over 375 individuals from 35 nations who have flown in space. Fabian was only the third astronaut or cosmonaut to be so honored.

The ASE Distinguished Member award recognizes individuals who through their longstanding personal and professional efforts have significantly contributed to the mission, goals and objectives of the Association of Space Explorers.

Fabian served for 14 years as international co-president of the ASE and 2 years as president of the U.S. chapter, ASE-USA. Fabian co-hosted the VIII ASE Planetary Congress in Washington D.C., and currently serves on the Board of Directors of ASE-USA.

John Fabian and his wife, Donna, live near Port Ludlow, Washington. He is a leader of the Hood Canal Coalition, a 4,000-member nonprofit grassroots organization opposing industrialization of Hood Canal, a natural fjord in the Puget Sound. He and the coalition were recently awarded the Warren G. Magnuson Puget Sound Legacy Award by People for Puget Sound.

John Fabian and shuttle crew. Courtesy NASA
Inflight view of the crew on the flight deck of STS-7. Left to right are Norman E. Thagard, mission specialist; Robert L. Crippen, crew commander; Frederick H. Hauck, pilot; Sally K. Ride, mission specialist; and John M. Fabian ’62, mission specialist. Courtesy NASA.

Fabian also received the WSU Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1983.


David Lozier ’66

Pioneer Project engineer for NASA

David Lozier spent 40 years exploring the solar system while working at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. He was in the Pioneer Project that sent the first spacecraft to the outer planets. Pioneer-10 flew beyond the orbit of Mars through the asteroid belt and encountered Jupiter in 1973. After the flyby of Jupiter, Pioneer-10 was on an escape trajectory from the Sun. Hundreds of millions of years from now, it will enter an orbit in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Illustration of the Pioneer spacecraft. Courtesy NASA.
Illustration of the Pioneer spacecraft. Courtesy NASA.

Read how the Pioneer missions are still making news in “NASA’s Good Old Days” (Slate, July 15, 2013)

Gary Bennett ’70

Bennett is a consultant in aerospace power and propulsion systems. Previously he was manager of Advanced Space Propulsion Systems in the Transportation Division of the Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. until he took early retirement in 1994. At NASA, Bennett was responsible for managing a number of transportation technology programs including hybrid propulsion, electric propulsion, low-thrust chemical propulsion, and advanced propulsion concepts.

Gary Bennett with New Horizon spacecraft
Gary Bennett ’70 in front of a model of the New Horizons spacecraft which flew past Pluto in July 2015. The black cylindrical object on the right of the spacecraft model is the power source originally developed in the 1980s by the team of which Bennett was a member. The power source was used on the Galileo Jupiter orbiter spacecraft launched in 1989, the Ulysses solar polar spacecraft launched in 1990 and the Cassini Saturn orbiter spacecraft launched in 1997.

Bennett joined NASA Headquarters in June 1988. He also served as the program manager of NASA’s nuclear propulsion technology program, as well as being the first program manager of the advanced technology insertion program for the Pluto Fast Flyby (now NASA’s New Horizons Pluto Kuiper Belt) mission and the TIMED space physics mission. Prior to coming to NASA, Bennett held key positions in the Department of Energy’s space radioisotope power program, including serving as director of safety and nuclear operations for the radioisotope power sources used on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and on the Ulysses mission to explore the polar regions of the Sun.

Previous positions include chief of the research support branch in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission where Bennett was instrumental in creating and managing NRC’s reactor operational safety research program. Prior to that Bennett was the flight safety manager for the radioisotope power sources currently in use on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft and on Lincoln Laboratory’s LES 8 and 9 communications satellites. He also worked as a physicist in the nuclear rocket program at what is now NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. He did fundamental reactor safety research at what is now the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.

Bennett received a physics doctorate in 1970 from Washington State University; a Master of Nuclear Science degree (physics major; 1966) and a Bachelor of Science degree in physics (1962) from the University of Idaho; and an Associate of Arts degree (science major) in 1960 from what is now Boise State University. He is a member of the National Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma physics honor society, and Sigma Xi scientific research honor society.

He has received a number of citations and awards from NASA, DOE, and NRC for his work on space and terrestrial power and space propulsion including for his work on the Voyager, Galileo, and Ulysses missions. In 1996 he received the prestigious Schreiber-Spence Space Achievement Award for his outstanding leadership of the safety and nuclear operations for the Galileo and Ulysses radioisotope power source programs. In 1995 he shared in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aerospace Power Systems Award and Medal for his outstanding leadership of the Ulysses radioisotope power source program. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from BSU in 1990 and the Silver & Gold Award, the highest award from the University of Idaho Alumni Association, in 1994. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, The American Physical Society, and The British Interplanetary Society. In the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics he has served on the AIAA Technical Committees for Aerospace Power Systems, Electric Propulsion, and Space Science and Astronomy. He is also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Astronautical Society, The Planetary Society, The National Space Society, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. From 1988 to 1990 he chaired the Steering Group of the Interagency Advanced Power Group, the national coordinating group for federally sponsored space and terrestrial power research. During his tenure and under his initiative the IAPG saw its greatest increase in membership. He was a member of the Power Committee of the International Astronautical Federation. From 1980 to 1988 he was an adviser to U.S. delegations to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and he prepared the official U.S. position papers on the use of nuclear power sources in space. He has authored or co-authored over 150 technical papers, reports, and articles on power, propulsion, and space missions.

He has authored one book, The Star Sailors (St. Martin’s Press, 1980; Authors Choice Press, 2005), and contributed chapters to three other books (A Critical Review of Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion 1984-1993, American Institute of Physics, 1994; CRC Handbook of Thermoelectrics, CRC Press, 1995; and Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology, Third Edition, Academic Press, 2002).

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal ’04

NASA Historian

Working on her doctorate at Washington State University, Jennifer Ross-Nazzal ’04 was drawn to public history–a field that combines academic history with non-traditional methods of collecting and presenting historical information. The program has been in effect at WSU since 1979 and has produced historians who now work for public archives, historical sites, and museums around the country.

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal '04 at NASA
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal ’04 at NASA

Ross-Nazzal’s studies at WSU led to a focus on women’s history and an internship at a museum. “Though that was a good experience, I wanted to do another internship,” she says. Craving a very different experience, she found an offer at Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston and, “though I knew nothing about NASA, I applied.”

She was put to work assisting with the center’s oral history project and liked the work so much she went back to the space center the next summer. Her internship turned into a job, and in 2004 she became chief historian for the JSC and just one of a handful of NASA historians around the country.

Read more about Ross-Nazzal in “Space Chronicles” from the Spring 2009 issue.

Iris Fujiura Bombelyn ’83

Engineer at Lockheed Martin

Iris Fujiura Bombelyn began her career as an instrumentation engineer at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. She later became a payload operations launch conductor and progressed through increasingly responsible positions, including launch operations manager at International Launch Services, Inc., and program director at Orbital Sciences Corporation.

She later earned an MBA in leadership and global innovation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Fellows program before returning to Lockheed Martin as director of test systems.

Bombelyn is currently the vice president of protected communications at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.

She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Silicon Valley YWCA Tribute to Women in Industry award and the Asian American Executive of the Year. In 2012, she received WSU’s Alumni Achievement Award, the Alumni Association’s highest honor, where she was recognized for her leadership in global business and her accomplishments in the aerospace industry.


More Cougs in space research:


Rob Roberson ’66—Leader with NASA programs for 19 years, including at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., until 1982. He worked on lunar science, sun-earth physics, earth observation science and applications, and technology transfer.

David Atkinson ’80, ’89 PhD Elec. Eng.—Former systems engineer at the Ames Research Center

Jeff A. Estefan ’85 BS Math – Principal Engineer and Chief Architect of NASA’s Advanced Multi-Mission Operations System (AMMOS) managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Frank Picha ’90, ’92 MBA—Propulsion engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including Mars projects

Mihail Petkov ’98 PhD Physics—Failure analysis at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Amy Felt ’16 Mech. Eng.—Fluid systems engineer. Read her story.


Allen Storaasli ’72 MS Mech. Eng.—Communication satellites


Frank C. Hirahara ’48 Elec. Eng.—Starting in 1954, Hirahara worked on missile programs, and then with the Apollo Space Program as supervisor of the Systems Engineering and Test Integration Unit. After Apollo, Frank moved to the Space Shuttle Program as a system research specialist, then to the Skylab Project, where he assisted NASA in Houston on integrating the SIRA Radar Project. Frank worked on the space station proposal, and then was finally assigned to the Star Wars Project, where he was responsible for all ground operations until his retirement in 1988. [Hirahara is also recognized for his photography of Heart Mountain internment camp during World War II. Read more in “A Hidden History” from the Spring 2012 issue.]


Diane Lee (Dapper) Freeman B.S. (’63) and M.S. (’66) – Bacteriology and Public Health—Upon graduating from WSU and working for 3 years in a lab at University of California/Davis, Diane started work in 1969 at Martin Marietta first in Denver working on the Mars Viking Project (microbial contamination) and eventually in Houston until 1974 performing on-orbit flight planning and mission support for the NASA Skylab flights at Johnson Space Center (JSC). After that she worked for McDonnell Douglas (later merging with Boeing) in Houston working as a flight planner and mission operations flight controller at JSC in support of NASA’s Space Shuttle Flights, later supporting the development and integration of on-orbit Space Station operations. Diane in total had 40 years (1969-2009) of unmanned and manned NASA aerospace operations development, integration, and support.


Richard McKinney ’73 retired as a member of the Senior Executive Service on November 30, 2013 with his final position the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force (Space). As the Deputy Under Secretary of the USAF, he provided the principal support to the Under Secretary of the Air Force’s role as the Headquarters U.S. Air Force focal point for space matters and in coordinating activities across the Air Force space enterprise. Additionally, he directed the headquarters staff responsible for space policy, issue integration and strategy. He served as the co-executive secretary for the Defense Space Council providing oversight of the Space Virtual Major Force program and advising the DoD Executive Agent for Space. He is an expert on interagency space issues and advised a variety of government agencies such as the White House, Department of Transportation, NASA, Department of Commerce, Congress and the State Department. McKinney also had a distinguished career as an Air Force officer retiring as a Colonel in 2001. During his military service served as the first System Program Director of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program (Delta IV and Atlas V). from 1995-1999. In this capacity he and his team developed our nation’s primary means to place National Security Space systems into orbit. In total he has more than 33 years of experience in our National Space programs with the US Air Force.

McKinney received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from Washington State University in 1973, an MBA from the University of Montana in 1980 and a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1982.


Eric Sorenson ’85 Mat. Sci. Manufacturing and process engineering

Ronald Bliesner ’11, ’13 MS Elec. Eng. Fluid systems design engineer

Justin Bahrami ’12 Mech. Eng.

Andrew Linton ’13 Elec. Eng.—Avionics engineer

Patrick Gavin ’14 Elec. Eng.

Franco Spadoni ’15 Mech. Eng. Aerospace engineer

Brandt Pedrow ’16 MS Mech. Eng.—Aerospace engineer


Austin Skyles ’02 Comp. Sci. Software engineer

Thong Tran ’06 MIS—Programmer

Mohamed Nuur ’07 Comp. Sci. Software architect

Eric Brown-Dymkoski ’08 Mech. Eng. Computational physicist

Peter Kitzmiller ’12 Mech. Eng. Manufacturing engineer


Cassandra Evans ’07 Fin.


Jake Fisher ’10 Mech. Eng.


Paul Laufman ’61 Mech. Eng.