Auburn University unveils sixth portrait of astronaut and alumna hero

Published: Apr 12, 2024 7:45 AM

By Austin Phillips

Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering unveiled a portrait Wednesday at the Auburn University Research and Innovation Campus in Huntsville of the university’s sixth NASA astronaut, Jan Davis.

Davis, ’77 mechanical engineering, enjoyed a distinguished career at NASA as an engineer, astronaut and executive, and later as a leader in private industry.

“This is a tremendous honor to be recognized by the university in this way, as my Auburn experience and the Auburn Creed helped reinforce my core values of believing in hard work, education, love for country and faith in God,” Davis said. “My hope is that this portrait will inspire others and give them tangible proof that with these values they too can accomplish anything.”

Davis is one of four astronauts from the College of Engineering which includes Clifton Williams, ’54 mechanical engineering; T.K. Mattingly, ’58 aeronautical engineering; and Jim Voss, ’72 aerospace engineering. College of Sciences and Mathematics graduates Hank Hartsfield, ’54 physics, and Kathryn Thornton, ’74 physics, also served as NASA astronauts.

After beginning her career at Texaco, Davis joined NASA as an aerospace engineer in 1979. Following Challenger, Davis made a lasting impact on the Space Shuttle design by leading a multicenter team for the redesign of the solid rocket booster aft external tank attach ring.

From 1987-98, she was an astronaut mission specialist, serving on three space shuttle flights and logging more than 673 hours in space. Later in her NASA career, she served as director of the Flight Projects Directorate at Marshall Space Flight Center from 2001-03 and as director of the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate there from 2003-05. From 2005-20, she served as vice president at Jacobs Engineering and then served as a program manager for Bastion Technologies before retiring.

“Jan is truly an inspiration to all past, present and future Auburn engineers,” said Mario Eden, dean of engineering. “We are thankful and grateful for her service to our beloved university, state and country.”

During her illustrious NASA career, she served as an astronaut on three missions including once on the Space Shuttle Endeavour and twice on Discovery. Her first mission aboard the Endeavour was NASA’s 50th space shuttle mission. The cooperative venture between the United States and Japan completed 126 orbits of the Earth and conducted 43 experiments in life sciences and materials processing during the eight-day mission. During this time, she was responsible for operating Spacelab and its subsystems and performing a variety of experiments.

“Dr. Davis’ contributions to the agency have enabled immense discoveries, advancing our knowledge with technologies we’re still using today for our missions to explore even further in the universe through the Artemis generation,” said Joseph Pelfrey, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a 2000 Auburn aerospace engineering graduate.

Her first flight aboard Discovery was the second flight of the Space Habitation Module, also known as Spacehab, and the first flight of the Wake Shield Facility. This flight was also the first Space Shuttle flight on which a Russian cosmonaut was a crew member. During the eight-day mission, Discovery completed 130 orbits of the Earth. Her prime responsibility during this mission was to maneuver the Wake Shield Facility on the Remote Manipulator System to conduct thin film crystal growth, and she was also responsible for performing scientific experiments in the Spacehab.

Davis served as the payload commander during her final spaceflight aboard Discovery. During this 12-day mission that completed 189 Earth orbits and traveled 4.7 million miles, Davis deployed and retrieved the Cryogenic Infrared Spectrometers and Telescopes payload and operated the Japanese Manipulator Flight Demonstration robotic arm. The mission also included several other scientific payloads to conduct research on astronomy, Earth sciences, life sciences and materials science.

In addition to her many awards from NASA and other professional organizations, Davis is a member of the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame and the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. Davis is also a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She received the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Senior Executive in 2002. In 2023, she authored a book “Air Born: Two Generations in Flight.” In its second printing, the book is about her father, a World War II B-17 pilot and POW, and her journey to flying in space while drawing parallels between the two aviation careers.

“While Jan has been a hero and an inspiration to many aspiring astronauts, she has also been a shining example of what an Auburn engineer can be,” said Mike DeMaioribus, a 1976 and 1977 electrical engineering graduate who serves as the Auburn University Board of Trustees District 8 representative. “We are so proud of you, Jan, and congratulations on this portrait that will honor your legacy for many years to come.”

Media Contact: Austin Phillips,, 334-844-2444

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