Naval Academy astronauts return to inspire next generation

The course is Human Space Flight. The subject for today: analogues — the scenarios found in the world or contrived in the laboratory that NASA uses to simulate work and life aboard a space ship.

Naval Academy professor Ken Reightler leads the class of 13 midshipmen through a discussion that traverses Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition of the Antarctic, deep-sea exploration and the experiments at Biosphere 2 — and how lessons from each will help astronauts prepare for the first manned mission to Mars.


The discussion in this Rickover Hall classroom symbolizes the academy's efforts to lure more alumni astronauts back to the campus — and to maintain a leadership role in space exploration.

Reightler, a retired Navy captain now teaching at the academy, served eight years in NASA's Astronaut Corps, flying two missions aboard the Space Shuttle. The midshipmen in the room, which is decorated with posters of astronauts, the Apollo-Soyuz Mission and the shuttle cockpit, include future Naval aviators who will be the right age to volunteer for NASA's inaugural manned flight to Mars, should it come as planned in the mid-2030s.


"These folks are right in the right spot," said Reightler, who graduated from the academy in 1973. "We approach it from that perspective. I assume that one of those folks that I'm talking to today is going to be flying on that mission.

"I definitely want to leave them with the impression of, 'Hey, if that guy could do it, I could do it.'"

Reightler, 61, and Navy Capt. Ken Ham, 48, are the third and fourth alumni astronauts to teach at the school. Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller told the academy's Board of Visitors recently that he wants to bring back more.

"We're fortunate that more astronauts have come from the Naval Academy than any other school," Miller said. "I would love to expand our program even further."

While there are no plans for manned U.S. space flights any time soon — President Barack Obama envisions missions to an asteroid in the mid-2020s, and to orbit Mars a decade later — NASA continues to train new astronauts, and the academy expects to continue providing candidates.

Annapolis has produced more than 50 astronauts, including some of the most prominent: Alan Shepard, who flew the first U.S. manned space flight and later walked on the Moon; Wally Schirra, another of the original Mercury Seven; James Lovell, who commanded the troubled Apollo 13 mission on its safe return to Earth; and Charles Bolden, the Space Shuttle mission commander who now heads NASA.

Academic dean and provost Andrew Phillips credits the success of alumni in the grueling astronaut selection process to what he says is the academy's unique program. A midshipman pursues four years of year-round education, training and professional development to earn a commission as an officer in the Navy or Marine Corps.

"There are lots of great institutions in the country that probably graduate people bright enough to do the work [of an astronaut]," he said. "But they haven't been through a program that has these other features — the leadership, the teamwork, the pressure-packed environment."


Reightler says the Navy entrusts midshipmen and junior officers with greater responsibility earlier in their careers than do the other services.

"Having an opportunity as a midshipman to go on a sailboat with eight other midshipmen at sea is pretty good preparation," he said. "When you're out there in the middle of the ocean in a storm doing navigation, doing planning, doing all the other kinds of things — damage control, fixing engines that break down, making sure that you take care of people that get sick — I mean, those are perfect analogues of the kind of things that it takes to be successful."

Reightler, who was born at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, drew inspiration from the first generation of astronauts when he was at the academy.

He was three weeks into his plebe summer in 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap.

"Crammed into a really small room on a hot July night with 150 of my classmates watching on this little black-and-white TV, the Moon landing is when it all kind of came into context," he said. "So I followed that path, from being an aerospace engineer to being a pilot to being a test pilot, and eventually having an opportunity to apply [to the astronaut program] and be accepted."

In early 1971, Reightler wrote home about a campus appearance by Lovell: "What a man. 4 flights into space including Apollo 13 — the one with all the troubles. He is a USNA Grad + and left us some mementos of his flights. He got me all psyched up for the Astronaut Program again."


Ham grew up wanting to be an astronaut, but said it wasn't a goal he thought "was even remotely achievable." It wasn't until he graduated from the academy in 1987 that he began to see a path.

The film "Top Gun" had been a hit the year before, "and we were loaded with Naval aviators at that time. So it wasn't like you graduated here and went straight into flight school. You had to go find a place to be an ensign for a little while."

For Ham, that place was NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he flew on the zero-G airplane — the climbing and diving 707 known as "the vomit comet." It was there that he began to meet astronauts and seriously consider a career in space.

After more education and training — including U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River — Ham served 12 years as an astronaut and flew two shuttle missions to the International Space Station.

Still on active duty in the Navy, he returned to Annapolis last summer to begin a three-year tour as chairman of the aerospace engineering department, where he is teaching "Introduction to Aeronautics and Elements of Flight Test Engineering."

Reightler, who retired from the Navy as a captain in 1995, holds a three-year appointment to a chair endowed by the family of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, a 1929 academy graduate. He teaches "Space Environment and Human Space Flight."


The other astronauts who have taught at Annapolis are Wendy Lawrence and Pierre Thuot, both academy graduates who flew on the shuttle. Bolden, the current NASA administrator, served as deputy commandant of midshipmen in the 1990s.

Ham described the opportunity to teach and influence midshipmen as a privilege.

"Most of these individuals are going to go be aviators," he said. "Which is what I've done my whole life, and I loved doing it. So passion comes easy.

"They're graduating to go be combat naval aviators. When I can speak at that level, in a mundane, I'm-one-of-you kind of deal, and then occasionally sneak in real-world problems in space flight, show a video, talk about some of these stories — for them, it connects the dots to reality."

Midshipman Brian T. Ma, a member of Reightler's "Human Space Flight" class, said being taught by an astronaut gives students an inside perspective of the space program.

"He was really there in the simulations, in training and in space," said Ma, a fourth-year midshipman from Nacogdoches, Texas. "It's a really interesting class."


Phillips, the academic dean, said it's important to put role models in front of the midshipmen.

"There's something about when you have that kind of individual who's lived it teaching you the material that it's going to stick," he said. "So that if that's what they want to do, they can approach somebody and ask, 'What did it take? Tell me about your time at the Naval Academy. What did you do? What about your time in the Navy? What are my chances?' "

In the 52 years since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin piloted Vostok I to an altitude of 200 miles and a single orbit of Earth, fewer than 540 humans have flown in space.

Reightler and Ham both spoke of the experience as life-changing.

"It makes you feel a little bit removed," Reightler said. "You feel detached. You feel not part of this planet that you've been on all your life and where all your friends are and all history has taken place.

"You see pictures of how big the Earth is and how thin the atmosphere is. But when you really see that, I mean, it really strikes home how fragile the planet is."


Ham said his "welcome to space moment" came on his first shuttle flight. He was looking down on Europe at night, admiring "the beauty of city lights from space," when a shooting star passed below.

"I'm convinced the more people in the world that go do this, the more our race will change," he said. "It is that altering of an experience, from looking back on the planet to the physical fragility of the planet, how politics might not really matter that much in the big scheme of things.

"It's just a different perspective that I think it would help us all."

Astronaut incubator


The U.S. Naval Academy has produced more NASA astronauts than any other educational institution. Here are the schools that have produced at least 10:

U.S. Naval Academy52

U.S. Air Force Academy36

Massachusetts Institute of Technology34

Naval Postgraduate School32

Stanford University21


Purdue University20

U.S. Military Academy18

University of Colorado14

Georgia Institute of Technology14

Air Force Institute of Technology12

University of Texas12


University of Washington12

California Institute of Technology11

Source: NASA