Rocket man: Local teacher close to space travel dream

Posted: Sunday, March 01, 2009

As a middle school science teacher, Allan Miller is used to broadening the horizons of young learners in a wide sweep of scientific concepts.

One concept he might not be expected to teach, however, is perseverance.

Since Miller was far younger than his students at Kenai Middle School, he has dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Miller has pursued this dream over the years through programs like NASA's Teacher in Space and more recently in 2003 through NASA Educator Astronaut.

He was disqualified in 2003, however, because of an "oddity" found at the back of his cornea.

"It's something that NASA has studied for the last five years and it's similar to having a birthmark on the back of your eye," Miller said.

With the mark deemed harmless, he was given the green light to reapply through NASA's astronaut selection process that takes place every five years and is continuing his mission.

Now Miller, and 40 other finalists, are waiting on a phone call to see if they'll make it to the next round of a selection process that will send some of them on a six-month mission to the space station or possibly even the moon.

Miller recently returned from a week of rigorous medical testing conducted in Houston to determine if he, along with other finalists, would be physically fit enough to spend such a long period of time in space.

"There's no big red flags that I know of yet," Miller said this week.

He expects to find out if he'll advance to the next round in May.

Miller said the intense testing is so comprehensive as the candidates likely wouldn't have mission assignments until 2015 or later.

"They're looking to see if in 10 years out I'll still be healthy," he said.

Additionally, astronauts can't get any medical attention on the moon or the space station.

Though Miller still has more interviews to go through, if he makes it to the next level, and years of training after that, the thought of finally becoming an astronaut is one he holds dear.

"The thought of walking on the moon sends chills through my spine," he said.

His dream is a passion he said he easily can share with his students, too.

Miller said that through his experiences he's been able to discuss everything from human anatomy using his recent medical tests, to the size of the NASA space budget that will determine the agency's future course.

"They're interested in it, they want to know what Obama will do with NASA's budget," Miller said. "Since when do seventh-graders care about the federal budget?"

While several of his students said they got a kick out of looking at some of the results of his most recent medical tests, that included images of his brain, eyes and even the results of a colonoscopy, they seemed most inspired by his will to succeed.

"He's really influenced us. He can show that somebody in a small town can do something, like be an astronaut," said Kyra Bodnar, a seventh-grader at KMS.

Her classmate, Austin Frederic, agreed, saying, "It sounds really cool, if you think about someone being in space, and that it's your teacher, that would be awesome. He believed in a dream and went after it."

Frederic said watching his teacher pursue his space dreams has ignited an interest of his own in space engineering.

Cody Donaway, another of Miller's students, also has been affected.

"I know I'm inspired to become a pilot. Mr. Miller's been a real big influence," Donaway said.

Miller said even if he doesn't get the affirmative in May, he'll have a chance to offer students a lesson on the importance of pursuing a dream.

"Whatever call I get, there's a message there," Miller said. "I've made it my life goal to be a role model for kids. I can show them how much better I am for having tried and taking a swing at that ball."

Dante Petri can be reached at

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