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Engineer’s Lifelong Dream of Becoming an Astronaut Comes True

Robb Kulin earned a Materials Science Ph.D. at UC San Diego and joins NASA’s new astronaut class


  • Ioana Patringenaru

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  • Ioana Patringenaru

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Robb Kulin

Jacobs School alumnus Robb Kulin is joining NASA’s new crop of astronauts. Photo: NASA

An alumnus of the University of California San Diego is part of the new class of astronauts NASA announced June 7, 2017. Robb Kulin earned his master’s and PhD degrees in materials science from UC San Diego. He made nearly every decision in his career with an eye toward going to space, according to his Ph.D. advisor, nanoengineering professor Kenneth Vecchio from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Kulin is currently a senior manager for flight reliability at SpaceX, where he has worked for the past six years. He is part of a class of 12 astronauts chosen from more than 18,300 people who submitted applications to NASA. He will report for duty in August to begin two years of training.

“Congratulations to UC San Diego alumnus Robb Kulin for being named one of NASA’s 2017 class of astronaut candidates today,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “UC San Diego is a great institution for space careers – two other alumni have already made their mark in space: Kate Rubins spent 115 days at the International Space Station, and Megan McArthur played a key role in repairing the Hubble telescope.”

Vecchio, Kulin’s PhD advisor, wrote him a recommendation letter for his astronaut application. “Robb was by far the most adventurous graduate student I have ever had in my research group here at UC San Diego,” said Vecchio, Kulin’s PhD advisor who wrote a recommendation letter for his astronaut application.

While working on his PhD, Kulin twice took leaves from his research to go on three-month excursions to Antarctica and work at facilities that drilled ice cores in the West Antarctic ice sheet. The cores are records of the planet’s climate.

“Robb has always wanted to be an astronaut, and the excursions to Antarctica were part of his personal preparation for going into space,” Vecchio also said. “He knew then what it would take to build a resume to be considered for the space program, and nearly every decision he has made in his career was with an eye toward being selected for the astronaut program, including his desire to work at SpaceX. I could not be more proud of the personal achievement for Robb to fulfill his dream of being selected as an astronaut.”

In Vecchio’s research group, Kulin co-authored several papers on composite materials and on dynamic bone fractures. His first job after earning his Ph.D. was drilling ice cores in Antarctica’s Taylor glacier. He then landed a job as a structures and integration engineer at Space X in 2011 and worked his way up to lead the company’s Launch Chief Engineering group in Hawthorne, Calif.

He somehow also found the time to earn a private pilot license and enjoys playing the piano, as well as photography, running, cycling, backcountry skiing and SCUBA diving. He also enjoys rafting in small, inflatable boats that can be carried long distances on the ground, a sport known as packrafting.

Before coming to UC San Diego, Kulin was a Fulbright Scholar in Italy and earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Denver. A native of Alaska, he has experience as a commercial fisherman. Kulin’s parents, Stephen and Karen, still live in Anchorage. He is the youngest of three siblings.

After their training, Kulin and his fellow astronauts could be assigned to missions on the International Space Station; launch from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, including Space X; and launch on deep space mission on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Incidentally, a company founded by UC San Diego engineering alumnus Robert Kolozs – San Diego Composites – manufactures and tests more than 1000 parts for Orion.

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