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An Astronaut’s Guide to Higher Education

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It’s bad form to look down on others when you have a good education, but Terry Virts gets a pass. In 2015, the Oakland Mills High School alum (class of 1985) looked down on the whole world from the International Space Station’s (ISS) Cupola observation module. If he felt any pride, it likely came from knowing that he helped deliver that particular component of the orbiting laboratory while serving as pilot aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor’s STS-130 mission in 2010.

All told, Virts has spent 212 days in space that include three spacewalks to rig the ISS wiring to receive International Docking Adapters. His most recent flight experience, as ISS Expedition 42 flight engineer and Expedition 43 commander, lasted 199 days and started with his launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in December 2014. During their time on orbit, the expedition crew observed the first flight test of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and also greeted two SpaceX Dragon cargo craft and one Russian Progress resupply vehicle.

“I’m in line to fly again,” Virts said, speaking from his current office at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Right now I’m tasked with helping our current Station crew prepare for spacewalks, and I’m helping with communications and day-to-day operations in the ISS branch.”

Virts’s journey to NASA was difficult and required pilot training, years of F-16 combat service with the U.S. Air Force, test pilot experience and intense training as an astronaut candidate.

None of it would have been possible, he said, without a strong educational foundation that started at the very beginning.

The Right Stuff

“I knew I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid,” Virts said. “The first book I read in Kindergarten was about the Apollo program. My father took me to airshows at Andrews Air Force Base every year, and along the way I constantly thought about what was required to get there. If there was even a slight chance it might happen, I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the opportunity.”

Oakland Mills provided the perfect preparation for advancement to the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he said. “That wasn’t the case with a lot of my classmates from other parts of the country, though.”

Virts had a passion for math, and even took a Calculus III class in high school. “I didn’t think English was very important,” he said, “but I soon realized that having a foundation in math and science could only take you so far without the ability to communicate effectively with other people.”

Based on his own educational experience with the Howard County Public School System and the other educational institutions he’s attended, Virts shared some thoughts on ideas and policies that could help strengthen the pipeline to higher education.

“I appreciate the focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, but secondary schools also need to focus on literacy skills to produce well-rounded students,” he said. “I think more emphasis on foreign language classes is also a good idea; having a second language opens up a lot of opportunities.”

Virts also recommended introducing computer coding to secondary school students at an early age.

“Kids use software and download apps, but they don’t understand what’s happening inside the computer, or how to write code that will enable them to do something they can’t otherwise do,” he said.

Domo Arigato

Moving beyond the ISS, deep space exploration can provide only so much insight through the sensors of vehicles like Curiosity, Philae and other robotic voyagers that have only begun to scratch the surface in revealing the secrets of Mars and nearby comets and asteroids.

“The real value will come from humans being on the surface of Mars and [other target destinations],” Virts said, something that experts argue will result in more significant scientific discoveries and ultimately economic development opportunities.

“Robots will still play an important role in helping astronauts perform extravehicular activities,” he said. “They can perform work, retrieve things and even help pick out the best sites for landing operations or habitation.”

Their human counterparts, of course, will have to know how to operate, care for and program them.

An abundance of robotics competitions for secondary school and college students in the local region is helping drive interest in the field, which will be critical for future missions.

Although more in-depth robotics courses aren’t available locally, Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) does offer an Introduction to Robotics course.

“We are finding higher demand from individuals with an understanding of robotics systems for more advanced robotics courses, which is something we may consider for development in the long term,” said AACC Mechatronics Team Adviser Kat Schorr.

Additionally, she said, AACC’s Mechatronics Technology program combines electrical, mechanical and computer software studies, although that program is focused primarily on manufacturing process and product applications.

Reaching Escape Velocity

Education never completely stops, and that’s particularly true for astronauts.

“There’s always a new mission, always something different you’re doing, and the international aspect makes continuing education even more important,” Virts said. “I had to learn how to communicate and interact with Russian and Italian crewmates.”

When astronauts aren’t training for specific missions, they need to be available to assist with administrative duties, to train and educate other astronauts, and to generally fill in as needed.

On orbit aboard the ISS, Virts was called on to conduct scientific experiments that had been designed by other people and participate in medical and physiological studies on the effects of weightlessness to the human body.

What he’s learned in his career about mindset and the approach to education applies to everyone, he stressed.

“Whether you want to be a graphic arts designer, policeman, astronaut or whatever, you have to have a strong vision for your future and match that vision to your strengths, and then get the education and training to make up for the difference and connect the dots,” Virts said. “Look to your parents and others for help, and if they can’t help, find another way. Whatever you want to achieve is waiting for you, but you’re never going to get there if you don’t make the effort and get the education you need.”