Retired Astronaut Mike Mullane delivered a motivational keynote, “Countdown to a Dream,” to an audience of some 400 students, faculty and staff from the College and area high schools on Oct. 6 in the Bonnell auditorium. His presentation opened the College’s new Center for Science and Engineering Education.
If you think being an astronaut is all glamour and romantic adventure, think again, said the retired U.S. Air Force colonel. Mullane exposed some of the less than stellar aspects of an astronaut’s career.
Mullane, for example, revealed that beneath their high-tech pressure suits, space shuttle astronauts are wearing “temporary urinary disposal units,” a.k.a. adult diapers, and that weightlessness in free fall makes just about everybody vomit, which is not a pretty sight in the tight confines of a space shuttle cabin. He also said that the closest thing to a bath in space is a wipe down with a disposable wipe. As for body waste disposal, the less said the better, Mullane said.
But all of these petty discomforts are worthwhile, when compared to the view an astronaut has of earth some 240 miles away, said Mullane, who dreamed of becoming an astronaut from the time he was 12 years old.
Mullane’s presentation was preceded by a breakfast event that launched the fifth issue of Pathways, the College’s magazine. The cover story for the fall 2009 issue of Pathways features Lynn Elsenhans, chair, CEO and president of Sunoco. It focuses on the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, the College’s educational programs and the career opportunities available in STEM fields.
Elsenhans said she initially dreamed of being an engineer or chemist, but found she did not have a strong talent for either field. She did very well in math, however, so she decided to study applied mathematics.
As the first woman to head a major U.S. oil company, Elsenhans admittedly does not get to pull out her slide rule very often. But she does not regret the years she spent studying to be a mathematician. “If you think about what it takes to get out of this recession, you find it will take innovation and that’s all about math and science,” she told those attending the breakfast at the College’s Center for Business and Industry.
Mullane echoed those points in his presentation, urging students to consider careers in the STEM fields and not to be worried if they are not a wonder kid.
To prove his own self-described ordinariness, Mullane showed photographs of himself at various stages in his life as a naked tot squatting in a washbasin, a barefoot adolescent fishing in a stream, a scrawny teenager in Commencement robes and as a lanky undergraduate at West Point.
“I was not one of those super kids, but I had this amazing dream,” Mullane said. However, his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, a prerequisite for selection to the astronaut program, was dashed by poor eyesight. The Air Force requires its pilots to have good vision and not wear glasses. So, Mullane took the backseat in the cockpit as a spotter for the pilot. He said he figured if he could not be an astronaut, he could still join the NASA program as part of Mission Control. His dream was saved in 1968, when NASA changed its rules to allow non-pilots to enter the astronaut program as “mission specialists.” Mullane applied and was selected. He flew three space shuttle missions before leaving NASA.
“For 10 years, I did my best when I thought it didn’t count and when the opportunity came I was ready,” Mullane said. “You create your own luck by doing your best.”
Mullane urged the students to dream big, set lofty personal goals, take care of their health and make education their top priority. These principles are important for everyone to follow, not just for would-be astronauts, he said.
The space program needs thousands of people from a variety of professional and scientific fields to work on the ground and make it possible for a handful of astronauts to soar into space. But for those who really want to be an astronaut, there will be spots opening up, Mullane said. “None of the current astronauts will ever make it to Mars because they are all too old,” he said.
Mullane was introduced by Derrick Pitts, senior scientist and chief astronomer at The Franklin Institute, who reinforced Mullane’s message. “Don’t depend on luck alone to succeed in your career,” Pitts said. “Luck is the point where preparation meets opportunity.”