The Corps of Cadets filled both the Arnold and Robinson Auditoriums to attend evening lectures from NASA Astronauts Andrew Morgan and Mark Vande Hei on Sept. 8 and 14, respectively, at the U.S. Military Academy.
On behalf of the Departments of Physics and Nuclear Engineering and Systems Engineering, both educators spoke out to the young hopefuls with the intent to inspire the desire to lead with character through the groundbreaking examples left behind by past and current astronauts.
As Vande Hei went through his slides showing the cadets photos of Earth from the International Space Station, he confirmed, with a daytime satellite photo and a jocular smile, that “Yes, you can see West Point from space.”
Cadets in Robinson Auditorium erupted with applause as they took in the humbling image of West Point as a circled iota on an ISS satellite image.
Meanwhile, in Morgan’s lecture, Class of 2023 Cadet Samantha Gunn listened as he asked, “Who here is interested in space?”
She and other cadets raised their hands, and for Gunn she always had a fascination with seeing things from a bird’s eye view. That fascination turned into a passion when she joined the West Point Aviation Team.
Now, as a senior at the academy, she sat and listened with a keen interest in becoming a NASA astronaut one day.
“Space is something I’ve always been interested in since I was a kid. I’ve attended past NASA lectures and they’re all really interesting,” Gunn said. “It’s really cool to see it from a Systems Engineering perspective, because I’m not a physics major or a hard science major. But this lecture puts things into a better perspective. Even though it’s a very hard program to be successful in, becoming an astronaut is something that’s achievable.”
During their perspective lectures, both astronauts spent over an hour giving cadets a deep dive into the world of an astronaut and what it takes to work for NASA.
Morgan began his lecture by highlighting that 21 graduates, himself included, have ventured into space.
The first seven graduates were commissioned into the Air Force, with Frank Borman becoming the first graduate selected into the space program and taking command of the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned spaceflight past the Moon and back.
He then spoke about Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who were part of a three-person crew during the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the surface of the Moon.
Edward Higgins White was another pioneering graduate who was a member of the Gemini 4 and Apollo 1 missions and became the first American astronaut to perform a spacewalk.
Unfortunately, during Apollo 1, White, along with his crew members Virgil Grissom and Roger Chafee, were killed while rehearsing the countdown and launch of the flight due to a flash fire in the cabin.
“West Point graduate astronauts . . . like you, came to West Point to become leaders of character,ˮ Morgan said. “…That’s the message I want you to walk away with — becoming leaders of character. That’s why you’re here. Everything else is extra.”
Although not a graduate, Vande Hei taught as an assistant professor at West Point in the Department of PANE in 1999.
He would later go on to join the space program in 2009, where he would go through various training requirements to qualify as an astronaut.
In 2011, Vande Hei had finally become an astronaut. Not long after, Morgan would eventually join NASA’s ranks in 2013, becoming a full-fledged astronaut.
Between 2018-2022, both astronauts ventured on their perspective missions to space to support scientific research and to conduct maintenance on the ISS.
Vande Hei conducted two space flights: his first in September 2017-February 2018, where he spent about five and a half months performing maintenance on the ISS, conducting spacewalks and assisting with scientific research.
On July 2019, Morgan would board Soyuz MS-13 as a flight engineer and launch into space to join the ISS Expedition 60, 61 and 62 crews.
He would spend the following nine months of his mission successfully working with his international colleagues, Italian European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov.
Vande Hei would embark on his second spaceflight on Soyuz MS-18 between April 2021-March 2022. He served as a flight engineer alongside Russian Cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov.
During his voyage, Vande Hei managed to set the U.S. record for longest continuous spaceflight, totaling 355 days and would return to Earth aboard the Soyuz MS-19 with crewmates Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov.
Vande Hei spent 523 cumulative days in the ISS to become the third astronaut in American history with the most time spent in space.
Morgan reached the milestone of becoming the fifth American astronaut to spend the most time in the ISS during a single space flight.
Despite the knowledge and success that both men garnered from their experience, that success came with hardship that Vande Hei said was a combination of planning for failure, reiteration and luck.
“There’s going be lots of times when you think you can’t do something,” Vande Hei said. “Don’t let that be a reason not to try. You got to try. Try the hard things. Risk failure. Make a plan to avoid failure. But don’t let the feeling that you might fail prevent you from trying.”
Morgan added, during his lecture, that at NASA, data analysis is usually conducted to determine what can go wrong during a mission.
However, planning to prevent a possible problem during a mission usually comes with challenges.
In most critical cases, it’s about adapting to solve problems while sticking to doctrines and regulations.
“You have to spend time analyzing the problem. That’s why we have planning processes in the Army, standard operating procedures and operations orders that force you to think about things that inevitably will go right out the door the moment you’re executing,” Morgan said. “But at NASA we try to keep operations within a scripted boundary as best as possible.”
In order to stick to the Army script, Vande Hei said it’s about being a team player and embracing a people-first mentality.
“To be the best team member, you’ve got to do your best. But it shouldn’t be about being better than the rest of the members of your team. It’s got to be about the whole team being the best,” Vande Hei concluded. “Cadets should always do their best with this caveat: Put more effort into the people around you, being their best than you standing out as being better than everybody else.”