sealPurdue News

May 1, 1998

Aspiring astronaut launches career
after Purdue graduation

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Most of the Purdue University students graduating this spring have their feet firmly planted on the ground -- but not Scott Schoenherr. The Elkhart, Ind. , native is planning a career where his feet sometimes float free.

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Schoenherr hopes to join the 21 other Purdue alumni who have been chosen for the astronaut program. He will receive his bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 17, during graduation ceremonies at Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music.

"Purdue has such a strong tradition in the space program," Schoenherr says. "You can't help but be inspired as you see all the photos of Purdue astronauts in the halls of Grissom Hall (the aeronautics department building named after Purdue astronaut alumnus Gus Grissom). It's just a great atmosphere."

Schoenherr, a pilot who already has experienced weightlessness four times on board a special research jet used to train astronauts, plans to be a flight surgeon for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This year he completed his premed requirements and will apply to medical school this summer while working at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Schoenherr has considerable experience in the space program, working at the Johnson Space Center for five semesters through Purdue's cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of classes at Purdue with semesters of paid work experience. On his first and second co-op tours, he worked to help develop computer software used on the space shuttle and flight software for the X-38, a prototype "lifeboat" that will be used on the International Space Station.

"I worked two semesters on flight software and discovered I really didn't want to do that in my career," Schoenherr says. "That's the great thing about co-ops."

It was during Schoenherr's remaining tours at NASA that he decided he wanted to be a flight surgeon. He worked in the medical operations office, the biomedical hardware office and the office for extravehicular activities -- EVAs for short. An EVA is a spacewalk outside a spacecraft.

On one of his co-op stints, he helped develop and manufacture a duffel bag that can be placed in the shuttle's airlock, filled with tools or other equipment, and taken outside by the astronauts. It was a new type of bag, designed to fit in the airlock of the International Space Station.

"I was back on campus flipping through the TV and came across the NASA channel, where I saw astronauts carrying one of my bags," Schoenherr recalls. "I ran out in the hallway yelling 'Hey, they're using my bag!' It was a great feeling."

Schoenherr also worked with astronauts in simulators, including the large water-filled pool where astronauts train for EVAs, and he was in mission control during actual spacewalks. "That's where I started to get interested in the medical aspects of space walks," he says, "and where I decided to be a flight surgeon."

Flight surgeons are medical doctors who are attending physicians to the astronauts and their families. They are involved in all medical aspects of NASA missions, from designing space suits to monitoring astronauts before, during and after shuttle flights, to coordinating rescue efforts should an accident or medical emergency occur during a mission. They can be members of the astronaut corps, flying on the shuttle or serving aboard a space station.

On his fourth co-op tour, Schoenherr worked with flight surgeons to develop plans for emergency crew returns from the space shuttle, such as how to keep a crew member prone during re-entry. The flight surgeon console in mission control now has a binder with photos and descriptions of procedures for various medical emergencies.

"Flight surgeons have to know a great deal about aviation, so they fly with the test pilots and astronauts on NASA jets," Schoenherr says. "This way, they know firsthand what physical experiences the pilots and astronauts go through."

This summer Schoenherr will work again at the Johnson Space Center in the EVA office, where he will be involved in designing a prototype space suit for a future Mars mission, as well as working on other medical issues associated with spacewalks.

"Before astronauts take a spacewalk, they must breathe pure oxygen for about four hours to eliminate nitrogen from their bodies," Schoenherr says. "It's called prebreathing. If they don't eliminate nitrogen, astronauts can get decompression sickness, which is similar to the 'bends' that scuba divers experience when they surface too quickly.

"By changing the cabin pressure, you can reduce prebreathing time to about 75 minutes, but we'll be looking at other ways to lower this time."

After taking his medical school entrance exams this month, Schoenherr plans to apply to medical school. The interview process begins in the fall, and he expects to begin taking classes in August 1999. He says he'd like to stay in the state and will apply to Indiana University.

While at Purdue, Schoenherr has been a member of Triangle Fraternity, a member of the aeronautical engineering honor society Sigma Gamma Tau, and a tour guide for the Visitor's Information Center. During the fall 1997 Old Masters program -- where working professionals come to campus to share experiences and observations with students -- Schoenherr was the student host for Roy Bridges, a Purdue engineering alumnus and former astronaut who now is the director of the Kennedy Space Center.

Schoenherr also is a member of Purdue Pilots. He received his pilot's license in the summer of 1995 and is certified to fly single-engine planes.

Source: Scott Schoenherr, (765) 743-9529 ext. 171; e-mail,; after May 17, (219) 875-6929
Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Video b-roll of Schoenherr weightless on a NASA research jet is available from Grady Jones, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2079.

Scott Schoenherr, left, a Purdue senior from Elkhart, Ind., and Alex Morgan, a junior from St. Louis, mill a piece of equipment for use in an experiment that flew on board a NASA research jet, called the "Vomit Comet," in March. As a member of the flight team, Schoenherr experienced weightlessness on the jet, as did the experiment, which studied how fluids behave in microgravity. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)
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