ALUMNI PROFILES — Summer 2008
   

 
Robert Behnken participated in the recent Endeavor mission to the International Space Station. Photos Courtesy of NASA
Reaching for the Stars

Ever since his days at Washington University, astronaut Robert Behnken, B.S.Phy. ’92, B.S.M.E. ’92, has been a hands-on-hardware kind of guy.

“I liked that professors were running hands-on experiments, making connections between bookwork and hardware,” he says.

No wonder then, given his interest in hardware, that he was keen on his recent trip to the International Space Station via the space shuttle, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls “the most complex machine ever built.”

For Behnken, an Air Force R.O.T.C. scholar and the University’s Outstanding Mechanical Engineering Senior of 1992, that urge to get his hands on the hardware also figured in his becoming an Air Force test engineer.

“I thought that flying was better than sitting behind an engineer’s desk—which I could always do when I got too old to fly,” says Behnken.

His work as a test engineer prepared him for entry into NASA’s astronaut training program in 2000. But nothing prepared him for the thrill of his first space shuttle liftoff on March 11, 2008, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“I’ve flown everything from high-performance fighter jets to single-engine Cessnas, but there is nothing like liftoff,” says Behnken, “where you’re just along for the ride, with a lot of noise, vibration, and light.”

He describes ascending through intermittent bands of clouds illuminated orange by the space shuttle Endeavor’s jets against the black night sky as “a good light-show and pretty exciting.”

Exciting, too, were his space walks where he was tethered to the International Space Station with only the clear bubble of his helmet between him and outer space.

“The panoramic view is incredible,” says Behnken, “the sense of motion with the Earth turning beneath you, watching a sunset or sunrise through a storm.”

Coincidentally, while Behnken was walking in space, fellow alum Barry Tobias, B.S.M.E. ’02, M.S.M.E. ’03, was on the ground at United Space Alliance in Houston, running the International Space Station operations room supporting the astronauts.

Behnken’s journey to space seemingly began at Washington University. His exceptional performance as a student catapulted him into work as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees and conducted research in nonlinear control, including software implementation development and hardware construction.

He then began active duty in the Air Force. At Edwards Air Force Base, he was assigned to the F-22 Combined Test Force, working as the lead flight test engineer for Raptor 4004 and as a special projects test director. He also flew in F-15 and F-16 aircraft before being selected as a NASA mission specialist in July 2000.

In addition to his space walks on the recent mission, which delivered the Japanese Logistics Module and the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator to the International Space Station, Behnken operated the space station robotic arm.

He says dexterity also was required in living for two weeks with six other astronauts in tight quarters. “You have to schedule everything,” says Behnken. “It’s like having a family with five kids.”

Now he’s looking ahead to more time in space—possibly another shuttle mission before the program is scheduled to close down in 2010. Then perhaps a long-duration mission as NASA prepares for a potential Mars flight. Or, possibly, a trip to the moon as NASA attempts another moon landing. For Behnken, at 37 the youngest NASA astronaut with space experience, time is still a crucial factor.

“If my health and age are good,” says Behnken, then those trips could materialize for him. —Rick Skwiot


Naomi Greenfield (left) and Sara Taksler made a feature-length documentary about balloon twisting, their shared interest. (Courtesy photo)
Twisting Their Way to the Big Screen

In Eliot Hall in fall 1999, students held an icebreaker to get to know one another, with each sharing a unique talent. When it was Sara Taksler’s turn, she shared that she knew how to make balloon animals. The student next to her said, “My name is Naomi, and I was going to say the same thing!” Naomi Greenfield, A.B. ’00 (English and American literature), and Sara Taksler, A.B. ’01 (psychology), soon became close friends. In addition to being balloon twisters, both had an interest in filmmaking and often discussed a future artistic collaboration.

After graduating, the two teamed up to form a film production company, Eliot Lives Productions, a tribute to the now-demolished dorm where they met. Greenfield and Taksler combined their interests in balloon twisting and filmmaking and made TWISTED: A Balloonamentary, a feature-length documentary. Ten film festivals later, they are still enjoying their film’s critical and popular success, as well as the reward of sharing their work with so many people.

The idea that balloon twisting can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives may raise a few eyebrows, but Greenfield and Taksler’s friendship is only a small case in point compared to the people featured in their movie. There is James, a grandfather in a tough Atlanta neighborhood, who uses balloon twisting to show kids there are better ways to make money than by selling drugs. There is Michelle, who makes “adult” balloons at parties and earns a six-figure salary doing so. There is John, a reformed felon who preaches the gospel using balloons. And there is Vera, an ambitious young woman from a trailer park who used the money from balloon twisting to get off welfare and become the first person in her family to attend college.

“We wanted this to be a story of depth,” Taksler explains, “and for us this is a story about people who find a passion.”

“The focus is really on the people, but the visuals of the balloons are striking,” Greenfield adds. “We wanted to take this world and put it up on the big screen for everyone to see.”

Greenfield, a creative producer at FableVision, an animation and multimedia studio in Boston, and Taksler, an associate producer in New York City for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, encountered many obstacles as first-time filmmakers. They relied on long weekends of traveling, favors from co-workers (The Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart narrates a brief animated sequence), and donations from friends and family to complete the film. They threw fundraising parties, sold T-shirts, and even auctioned off an executive producer credit on eBay.

Neither Greenfield nor Taksler attended film school; instead they learned the art of filmmaking firsthand by making TWISTED: A Balloonamentary. Their early footage sounded scratchy and was poorly lit, but in the course of making the film, they learned about lighting, sound, camera work, editing, post-production, and distribution. The final result is a polished, engaging, and moving film that premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007.

“We showed it [at the Independent Film Festival of Boston] and got a standing ovation,” Greenfield says. “When people came up to us afterward and said ‘that really touched me,’ or told us they laughed and cried, we knew it had evoked emotion, and we felt that we had done our job right.”

What’s next for these two filmmakers? “We’re still trying to enjoy what’s left of the ride with this movie,” Taksler says. That includes selling the film internationally through their television distribution deal, pursuing theatrical distribution, and preparing for their upcoming DVD release (to be available at www.twistedballoondoc.com).

A lot has happened since that day in Eliot Hall, and it is a testament to Greenfield and Taksler’s ingenuity and friendship that they were able to accomplish the dreams they set for themselves as students. The slogan for TWISTED says it all: “Once you can make a balloon dog, you can do anything.”
—Ryan Rhea, A.B. ’96, M.A. ’01


Stephen Yablon founded his own architectural firm, and he has won several design competitions and awards for his recent projects. (Courtesy photo)

Designing a Passion for Architecture

One of Stephen Yablon’s childhood hobbies led him to his true calling. Growing up in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, Yablon, A.B. ’75, was always drawing, but “it never occurred to me that there was a profession in which I could use my artistic skills,” he says. It wasn’t until he entered Washington University and met a fellow student who was studying architecture that he realized design could be a career.

Yablon visited the architecture school and was accepted into the program his sophomore year. Before completing the program, however, he took some time off to pursue music, his other passion. He played professionally in Charleston and later in Europe.

“While traveling, I spent most of my time there studying and sketching the architecture and public places of Paris and Rome and how Greek temples sat in the landscape,” he says. “I figured that if I was this obsessed, it must be my true calling.”

After graduating from the University, Yablon worked for architectural firms in Boston before earning a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University in New York. He then spent 13 years in several New York City firms, including Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and I. M. Pei & Partners, before forming his own firm, Stephen Yablon Architect PLLC, in 1995.

The firm designs academic, visual, and performing arts centers; health-care facilities; single family houses; community centers; and innovative workplaces. Their clients have included the National Park Service, the City of New York, Columbia University, St. John’s University, SONY, the New York City Housing Authority, and numerous private and nonprofit organizations.

Stephen Yablon Architect PLLC recently won an international competition for a visitor’s pavilion on the “Big Dig” in Boston and was awarded second place in a Royal Institute of British Architect’s competition for a sustainable corporate headquarters in Northern England. The firm has been selected twice for Mayor Bloomberg’s prestigious Design Excellence Program for the City of New York.

A dramatic light-filled boxing arena forms the centerpiece of one of Yablon’s most recent buildings, a $12.5 million community center in the South Bronx for the New York City Housing Authority. “The building is a focal point for the community and expresses its pride in a legendary youth boxing program [located there],” he says.

The project won a Design Excellence Award from the National Society of Registered Architects and was one of nine New York projects selected for the recent AIA exhibit Berlin/New York Dialogues, shown in both Berlin and New York.

With each project, Yablon tries “to create a clear, strong expression of an idea that synthesizes something unique about the site and client using contemporary materials and sustainable strategies. I’ve always been inspired by the modernist movement and find it an endless source of ideas.”

One thing Yablon enjoys most about architecture is being able to “work with people when things are going well for them … it’s very exciting to help clients create a physical expression of their aspirations,” he says.

Washington University helped him get where he is today, Yablon says. “I was lucky that the University had such a great architecture school. I had some very influential professors,” he says. “I also took a lot of wonderful courses in the liberal arts curriculum that gave me a more rounded education.”

Another of Yablon’s passions is his family. “What I am most proud of in my life are my two kids [a son and a daughter],” he says.

He has been married to his wife, Suzanne Nutt, for 24 years. She is the chief operating officer at his architectural firm.

“She and I work very closely on all strategic decisions,” Yablon says. “It’s amazing, since it has really worked and brought us even closer together.”

To learn more about Yablon’s work and view some of his recent projects, visit www.syarch.com.
—Blaire Leible Garwitz