Talk about higher education…
It is little known that the United States Military Academy at West Point, which since the Jefferson administration has trained officers for the Army, has also played a major role in the U.S. space program going back to the Gemini launches in the early 1960s.
More than 20 graduates have served as astronauts, among the best known: Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (Apollo 11); David Scott (Commander of Apollo 15); Ed White (perished in an Apollo 1 launch pad fire along with Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee); and Frank Borman (Commander of Apollo 8, and first to orbit the moon).
At the moment, two West Point astronauts are on active duty — in space or eligible for deployment — out of a total current corps of about 20 alum (seven are officially retired but remain active at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas).
Lieutenant Col. Anne C. McClain (’02), a former helicopter combat pilot in Iraq, is expected to return from the International Space Station (ISS) on June 24. Dr. Andrew Morgan (’98), of Morgantown, West Virginia, is an emergency care physician in the U.S. Army with a sub-specialty certification in sports medicine, and is assigned to launch into space July 20 — the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Both were selected for astronaut training in 2013.
West Point grads are particularly well suited to careers at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). The school’s four-year curriculum is weighted toward the sciences, and emphasizes leadership abilities, working as a team, composure under stress, and survival skills.
If you are thinking about a career as a NASA astronaut, consider this: You have a better chance of taking Tom Brady’s quarterback spot this season. Every couple of years, NASA accepts applications from a thousand or more prospective candidates, of whom a minuscule percentage are chosen for physical and psychological assessments. Typically, only a dozen or so are selected as “Astronaut Candidates.” They, in turn, train for two years in order to become full-fledged astronauts.
“I learned in the Army to be both a follower and a leader,” says McClain, who commanded a company of more than 60 pilots. “I learned that my job was not to lead the way all the time and show them where to go, it was sometimes to step back and see what they thought…how they saw best to do the mission, and then break down the barriers to enable their success.”
Every year, some 6,300 aspiring astronauts participate in an 18-month tryout. Only 7 percent make the grade.
Compared with the swashbuckling days of early space voyages, today most astronauts are scientists who study everything from the effects of extended weightlessness on humans and animals (even goldfish), to the properties of glaciers, extraterrestrial astronomy, and the reasons why rose petals smell differently in zero gravity.
Many of today’s ISS missions carry international crews. McClain is sharing her cramped vehicle with astronauts from Russia and Canada. Before setting off, she spent five months studying Russian at the Yuri A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, about an hour’s drive east of Moscow (Morgan did the same before his launch).
Both astronauts cite West Point mentors who facilitated their passages from Army officers to galactic explorers.
“I’ve had so many mentors over the course of my Army career and around my life,” recalls McClain, a native of Seattle. “I remember early on, Col. Kip Nygren at West Point. When I walked in as a 19-year-old plebe and said I wanted to major in aerospace engineering, he gave me the confidence to do it. That situation repeated itself so many times throughout my Army career, from flight school to test pilot school to when I was a company commander.”
Morgan cites a number of senior cadets who encouraged him along the way.
“Col. Patrick Forrester (’79) and Col. Jeffrey Williams (’80), were both selected as astronauts while I was still in school. They are still serving at NASA as astronauts, and have become valuable mentors to both Lt. Col. McClain and I.”
Forrester, who carries the title chief astronaut, has assigned flights to both McClain and Morgan.
The natural question is, what lies ahead?
Says McClain: “We have been flying to the space station for about 18 years, and the thing we are always doing at our agencies is thinking, ‘What’s next? What is the next step we can take, where mankind has never been before?’ For us, that is deep space — that’s the next frontier.”