He didn't know it at the time, but as Ed Lu trained as a wrestler at Cornell, he was also preparing for his future job -- as a space-walking astronaut for NASA. On the side, Lu's hobby is trying to save the world from asteroids.
While Ed Lu was, he says, a "mediocre" wrestler who "got into matches here and there" at Cornell, he was unwittingly training for his future profession - as an astronaut.
"In wrestling you become aware of body position," he says, and "gain upper body strength, which is important in spacewalks." Lu should know. He's been on three space missions, totaling over 206 days in space, and has spent six hours and 14 minutes on spacewalks. Interestingly, according to Lu "there's an inordinately high number of wrestlers in the astronaut corps," pointing out that fellow astronaut Garrett Reisman wrestled at Penn.
Wrestling helped make Lu, who grew up around Rochester, aware of Cornell when he went there for a summer wrestling camp run by then-Cornell coach Andy Noel, now Cornell's Athletic Director. "I liked the campus," he says. "I went for the academics, but I did want to wrestle." While there he "spent a lot of time in the library studying. Everybody [on the team] had to study." An electrical engineering major, Lu built a radar calibrating antenna as a senior project in the midst of wrestling and a demanding academic schedule.
After earning a doctorate from Stanford in applied physics in 1989 Lu was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu when someone mentioned "around 1992 or 1993" according to Lu, that "you could send in an application" to be an astronaut. He did, and was chosen by NASA in December 1994.
Lu took a Cornell wrestling singlet with him when he flew as a mission specialist on STS-84 in 1997, and was a mission specialist and payload commander on STS-106 in 2000, when he made the spacewalk while working on the International Space Station. Then in 2003, Lu took on a space mission rooted in tragedy.
On February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry over Texas, killing all aboard. The shuttle program was grounded, but NASA still needed an American presence at the space station. Lu was chosen to fly to the space station via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. By doing so he would become the first American to launch as the Flight Engineer of a Soyuz spacecraft, and the first American to launch and land on a Soyuz spacecraft (Soyuz TMA-2).
But first he had to get trained. "I had nine weeks to learn how to fly the [Russian] ship - it usually takes one-and-a-half to two years," says Lu. "I lived in a Soyuz simulator 16 hours a day, seven days a week." On April 25 he made the flight to the space station, where he spent the next six months. "I knew Russian, but it got a whole lot better," he says of the experience.
For all his space experience, however, Lu is probably better known for a theory he has advanced on asteroids — or more specifically, how the earth can avoid being hit by an asteroid. "I've been thinking about it for quite some time," he says simply. In an article published in the November 2006 issue of Nature, Lu and fellow astronaut Stanley Love theorize that an unmanned spacecraft could be positioned near an asteroid and act as a "gravity tractor," with the gravitational attraction between the two bodies altering the asteroid's path. Such a satellite could, in theory, deflect an asteroid from hitting the earth.
It appears such a satellite would work. But it's a "good question where NASA is on this," says Lu. "They're holding back, waiting for Congress to tell them what to do." To Lu the path is clear. "Asteroids are an absolute certain threat," he says. "We need to build a search program. The cost is a couple of pennies per person."
For now Lu, who is currently not scheduled for a future space flight, is helping design NASA's new Orion crew exploration vehicle, to be used for moon missions after the shuttle is retired in 2010. "I do this as a hobby," he says of his asteroid work. "But I do think it's important. We're going to have to do this."
— Stephen Eschenbach