From College to Space

Some colleges are very proud of the number of graduates who have gone into space. With 50 astronaut alumni, from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo program, through the Space Shuttle missions and into the present, the US Naval Academy has a record that is hard to top. The US Air Force Academy has had 39 astronaut alumni; and Purdue, which claims the title “cradle of astronauts” has had 25 graduates in the space flight program. But these records largely tell a story of past astronaut cohorts, not the present or the future.

What these all-time records don’t reflect is the high diversity of undergraduate colleges represented in the ranks of current astronauts. The space flight program initially drew primarily from the ranks of military test pilots. In the modern space flight program, astronauts are as likely to be outstanding scientists as experienced pilots.

I went through the list of current astronauts and there isn’t a handful of schools that represent a singular “best path” to space. Of the forty-nine listed as active astronauts and astronaut candidates, only five schools were listed more than once as the source of an undergraduate degree (US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of San Diego). Around 40% of the list had their undergraduate time from one of these five.

The rest of the list was not only a diverse set of schools, but probably aren’t schools you would name as astronaut incubators. They include: Albion College, Boston University, Brown University, California Polytechnic State University – San Louis Obispo, California State University – Fullerton, Davidson College, Frostburg State University, George Washington University, Harvard University, LeMoyne College, Oakland Community College (Michigan) followed by Purdue University, Oregon State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rice University, Saint John’s University, Southeastern Massachusetts University, Stanford University, Tennessee Technological University, The Citadel, Tulane University, University of California – Los Angeles, University of California – San Diego, University of California – Santa Barbara, University of Illinois, University of Kansas, University of North Carolina, University of Washington, and Washington University (St Louis).

Read through that list again. Odds are there are schools there that you not only wouldn’t have predicted, but that you have never heard of. There are large, highly selective universities; engineering focused schools; and small liberal arts colleges. One astronaut completed an associate degree at a community college before transferring to a 4-year university. Several schools listed have acceptance rates higher than 50%.

Go to the NASA page for active astronauts. Pick a couple at random and read their background. What comes through is not that they got where they are by attending a particular undergraduate college, but that they are people of excellence, with intellectual curiosity and amazing professional experience. They hold patents, spent time in the Antarctic, worked in the Peace Corps, and studied medicine. The pilots have thousands of hours of flight time. One astronaut worked as an auto mechanic during college restoring classic Jaguars. Another trained geese to fly in a wind tunnel, so she could study how they fly in high altitude/low oxygen environments. (I really wish I could have listened in to departmental meetings where she outlined her research proposal.)

A college search should not boil down to scrambling for admission to a handful of schools that you think offer a golden key to the future. Find schools that are a good match academically, socially, and financially. Be engaged as a student, both inside and outside the classroom. Keep learning and keep challenging yourself. Don’t assume that where you start is where you will end.

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