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The Right Stuff

Are his students in awe? “I think there is a bit of that.” – James VossAn engineer-astronaut lends his unique experience to a spaceflight course.

By Thomas K. Grose

Only about 500 people have had a chance to go into space, so far at least. Fewer have walked and worked on the surface of the international space station for six-plus hours at a stretch. That gives former NASA astronaut James Voss a special perspective in teaching an aerospace class, as he’s been doing for two years now at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. “It is the only course like it anywhere,” Voss says, “because the focus is on the human side of spaceflight.”

Voss not only draws upon firsthand knowledge, he also covers the history of humans in space, as well as the political, scientific, economic, and social effects of manned spaceflight. The class also gets into the psychology of spaceflight: how astronauts deal with isolation and being so far away from planet Earth.

Hugely popular, Voss’s Introduction to Human Space Flight numbered 128 students in the first year. He found the size a bit unwieldy, so in 2010 it was pared back to just 48. But demand is so great, it may go back to 128 this fall. Aerospace engineering students get first dibs on enrollment, and they pretty much dominate the class, although students from a few other engineering disciplines have managed to squeeze in.

Most of the aerospace engineering students who enroll are keen to work in the space industry.

Voss thinks the class is important in broadening their grasp of what goes into spaceflight: “This is more real-world stuff.” He explains to them the physiological needs of astronauts that engineers need to take into account when designing spacecraft and spacesuits – things that engineers typically take years to understand. For example, astronauts, like scuba divers, are susceptible to both nitrogen narcosis or, more seriously, decompression sickness (the bends) because the low air pressure needed to keep spacesuits flexible can bring the nitrogen out of solution in their blood. So Voss offers examples of alternate suit designs that can alleviate those risks.

Voss joined the U.S. Army in 1972, after earning a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering at Auburn University (while in the Army, he gained his master’s from Colorado in 1974). He later spent three years teaching mechanical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While still in the Army, Voss joined NASA in 1984 and became an astronaut three years later, fulfilling an ambition he’d harbored since he was a child reading science fiction.

During his five years as an astronaut, he took five trips into space as flight engineer aboard the Atlantis, Endeavour, and Discovery shuttles, did four space walks and spent 163 days aboard the international space station. Besides serving as the “hands and eyes” of scientists conducting experiments, he gained valuable insight into the U.S.-Russian partnership, watching it evolve from rocky beginnings to the point where the two nations’ astronauts could develop joint emergency procedures.

While he was on the ISS, Voss’s thoughts often returned to his teaching days at West Point, and he realized he wanted to eventually return to academia. “I really like teaching,” he says. “It is important for all of us to give something back.” That’s why in 2003 Voss joined Auburn as an aerospace engineering instructor, teaching human spacecraft design, and as associate dean of engineering for external affairs. During the summers of 2004 and 2005, he returned to Boulder as a visiting professor. After spending a couple of years working for commercial aerospace companies, Voss rejoined Colorado’s aerospace engineering faculty in 2009 as a scholar-in-residence. Besides the human spaceflight class, Voss teaches an introductory aerospace engineering course and a graduate class.

So, are his students in awe of him? Voss chuckles slightly before answering. “I think there is a bit of that,” the former astronaut admits. “One reason that I teach is to draw upon my unique background. It’s an experience that most people don’t have.”

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.




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