Sterling teacher returns from testing at NASA

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

Allan Miller is back from a week at the NASA headquarters in Houston and has only one word to describe the experience: exhilarating.

"It really was," Miller said. "The entire week, I kept pinching myself: Am I really here? Is this really possible?"

It's easy to understand why.

The sixth-grade teacher at Sterling Elementary School is one of about 30 teachers across the country selected as finalists for the NASA Educator Astronaut program. He spent last week among the nation's top minds not to mention more than 25 astronauts undergoing a myriad of tests that will help the space program select three to six teachers to train for space flight.

While the chance is a lifelong dream for Miller, he said he didn't really know what he was getting into when he was selected as a finalist. After a week, he was more sold on the opportunity than ever, he said.

"I'd gone in expecting Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun,' that kind of arrogance," Miller said. "But I never saw that. They're good folks, they wanted to talk about families and Alaska."

The briefing on the first day is a prime example, Miller said. He said he thought astronaut John Glenn was going to be at the session, but was mistaken. Rather, it was John Young, the astronaut who holds the record for the most space flights.

"All these NASA folks are up front, and we go on break," Miller recalled. "(John Young) comes up to me and says, 'Allan, I have always wanted to go to the Kenai Peninsula. ... We spent the whole break talking about fishing.

"That set the tone for the week. I realized, 'OK, these people are human.'"

Still, he said, there were plenty of overwhelming moments.

The week of training was one of about five sessions NASA will conduct this fall. Each has about 20 candidates, and they're not all teachers, Miller said. There also were military pilots, scientists and doctors "People you look at and think, 'Why am I here now?'" Miller said. "I felt like a fish out of water."

During first-day introductions, for example, Miller was sitting next to a fighter test pilot from Edwards Air Force Base in Califor-nia.

"The day before, he was doing max-G tests. That, to me, is what gets someone into space," Miller said. "I teach sixth grade in Alaska. (A couple weeks ago) we were talking about Newton's laws of physics, but I don't live it."

But, Miller said, the interviewers made it clear that teachers are just what they're looking for.

"What they talked about is how many skills teachers have," Miller said. Among those skills are the ability to multitask, to work well with other people, to study and learn and to inspire others.

While Miller acknowledged these are skills he possesses, he said it will take more to be an astronaut, and the tests he underwent last week prove it.


A mock-up of the U.S. space shutle has more than 3,200 controls, all of which Miller will study if he is selected as one of three to six teachers to be trained as an astronaut.

Photo courtesy of Allan Miller

"From Sunday morning at 6 until we were done at 10 Friday night, we were in some way being evaluated," he said. Those tests included hours of intelligence exams, interviews with psychologists and manual tests to see "if we could do the job of an astronaut."

Among Miller's favorite tests were the ones involving NASA simulators. Virtual reality equipment let the candidates experience what life would be like in space. Computerized gear allowed them to simulate partial gravity conditions. And they got a chance to use some of the real tools astronauts use in space.

He also had what he called "the best physical a human being can get."

"I've seen EKGs of my heart, sonograms of every internal organ and a full-body X-ray," he said. "They did strength tests in every joint and an incredibly thorough eye exam."

With a laugh, he added, "They took, I think, 8.2 gallons of blood and put probes in my body in places probes should never go."

But, though he will get the medical results when the selection process is finished, Miller said he had no feedback as to how he did through the week.

"They were always very stoic," he said. "You'd want to ask how you did, and they'd say, 'You know we can't tell you that.'"

He said the competition was intense.

"At times, it felt like 'Survivor' a bit," he said. "You'd look at each other and wonder if you did a bit better. But also, you'd look around and know somebody did better than you. It was an incredible group of people."

Does he think he'll be selected?

"I don't know. I don't want to jinx it," Miller said. "But I did as well as I've ever done in an interview."

And, he said, he already speaks Russian and is a certified pilot, which gives him at least a bit of an edge.

"Whatever educators they choose, they'll have to teach those things," he said. "I'm incredibly hopeful."

If he doesn't get chosen, Miller said it will be a huge disappointment. But, getting this far already is an asset to his students, his school and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Dr. Adena Loston, NASA's associate administrator of education who happened to visit the Kenai Peninsula last month spoke to the teacher candidates on the last day of the session, saying they all are crucial to NASA's mission.

"She said, 'Maybe one or two of you will become astronauts, but the other five or so are hugely important to NASA,'" Miller said. He explained that whoever is selected as an astronaut will be pulled from a classroom, while the others will continue to have an opportunity to influence kids.

The finalists who are not selected as astronauts will continue to be liaisons between NASA and future generations, and NASA has prom-ised to provide teaching resources for their school districts.

"There are tremendous possibilities for the district, even if I don't get selected," Miller said.

Superintendent Donna Peterson agreed.

Miller, she said, is not the only person in the district with aspirations of space travel.

Danielle Martin, also a former teacher, now is working to become a fighter pilot and hopes to become an astronaut, as well.

"We've had a lot of contact with NASA recently. It's good for the district," she said.

"It speaks highly of the people we have in the district," she said. "Our students can reach out and touch the people who are going to be heroes.

"It's just cool. I'm just excited for (Allan)."

In fact, Miller said the entire community has been incredibly supportive of his pursuit.

School board member Sammy Crawford, Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey all wrote letters of recommendation for him. People on the streets are stopping him constantly to talk about his trip. And when he returned from Houston, the words, "NASA teacher astronaut finalist Mr. Miller" were proudly displayed on the announcement board in front of his school.

"It's heartwarming, how excited people have been," Miller said.

And in return, he's ready to do his part for the community.

He spent Monday telling his students about his experiences in Houston and giving them signed pictures of some of the astronauts he met.

"I hadn't thought about it, but about half the pictures I brought back were of women," Miller said. "The girls in the class wanted pictures of 'Janet the Astronaut' or 'Tracy the Astronaut.' They hadn't thought of themselves as candidates. But every student on the Kenai Peninsula is a candidate."

Other students were equally impressed.

"They look at me like, 'You're just the guy who stands in front of my class. If you can do it, I can do it,'" Miller said.

He also brought back a computer simulator program from NASA that he is allowed to copy for any student who wants it, and he is planning to present a talk and slide show on his trip during Sterling Elementary School's family science night in November.

"It was a life-changing week, even if I don't go into space," Miller said. "It would be almost as rewarding if one of my students became an astronaut as to get the call in January that I got the nod.


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