Sterling instructor finalist for NASA Educator Astronaut program

Teacher shoots for the stars

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

Many of his students already think Allan Miller is out of this world, but soon, the Sterling Elementary School teacher may have the opportunity to prove it.

Miller is one of 15 educators from across the country selected as finalists for the NASA Educator Astronaut program.

Tonight, he leaves for Houston, where he will undergo eight days of strenuous psychological and physical testing before NASA chooses six teachers for the program in January.

"I'm really excited," Miller said. "This is something I've dreamed about since I was a kid."

In fact, the opportunity has been at least 17 years coming.

The Educator Astronaut program is a spinoff of NASA's Teacher in Space program, which began in the early 1980s. Miller applied for the program in 1985, during his first year of teaching.

The Teacher in Space program was put on pause, however, after the first participant, Christa McAuliffe, was killed during the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion Jan. 28, 1986.

Despite the program's hiatus, NASA has continued working with educators across the country to bring a passion for science, math and space exploration to the nation's youth. Recently, the space program announced that McAuliffe's back-up, Barbara Morgan, would be given an opportunity to join a space mission in the relatively near future. NASA also began screening applications for future educator astronauts, starting with the original applications.

"That's how they got my name," Miller explained. "They called and asked if I was still interested."

The original applicant pool of about 8,000 was narrowed to 100 based on applications and educational background, then to 15 with further scrutiny of physical ability and health.

Miller said his experience as a science teacher, as well as his master's degree in exercise physiology and knowledge of the Russian language, probably helped his chances.

Next week's testing will include long days full of psychological interviews, dexterity tests and exams covering information NASA sent applicants about the shuttle itself.

"What they're looking for next, I don't know," Miller said.

He does, however, know that veteran astronaut John Glenn will be among the interviewers.

"I'm excited just to meet him," Miller said. "I don't know how I'm going to answer his questions: 'Are you sure you want to hear my answers, Mr. Glenn? I'd rather just have you talk.'"

Still, Miller said, if he is selected as one of the six program participants, it's an opportunity he won't pass up.

Participation would require a five-year commitment, starting at the end of this school year, meaning Miller, his wife and their two young sons would move to Houston. Miller would spend two years in full-time training, then three years on active duty, which may include space flights and stints on the international space station. It also will include visiting schools around the country and science and space education for young people.

Miller, who has spent the last 13 years in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District working as a middle and high school science and Russian teacher, Skyview High School assistant principal and now a sixth-grade teacher, said he would miss Alaska. But, he added, he's not worried about a possible move (except for the climate transition).

"I love Alaska, but I'm too excited about this opportunity," he said. "If it comes, I'm moving."

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