Astronaut fires up STEAM students

IGS thanks visiting astronaut Dr Greg Chamitoff, who fired up Year 10, senior Science and NASA tour students during a recent visit.

The University of Sydney Professor of Aeronautical Engineering shared his experiences as one of just 500 people who have ever been in space, as well as his tips for making dreams come true.

Professor Chamitoff, who also spends part of every year living and working in the US, grew up in Montreal, Canada, and was on holidays in Florida with his family when he saw the launch of Apollo 11.

“I was six,” he said. “I told my parents ‘that’s what I want to do’.

“Those dreams can come true. You just have to keep working hard and you can get there.”

Greg studied hard at school and university, gaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from California Polytechnic State University, a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from Caltech, a PhD in Aeronautics and

Astronautics from MIT, and a MS degree in Space Science from the University of Houston Clearlake.

He also became a certified divemaster and learnt to play guitar, perform magic tricks, win at chess and speak Russian.

“Pursue what you are passionate about to the very, very best of your ability and you will be able to do it.

“Never give up, never surrender. Get up when you fall down, learn from your mistakes, learn from the things you failed at, move on.”

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff inspires IGS students
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff inspired IGS students

Greg was accepted into the NASA astronaut training program after several knock backs.

“Training is similar to being in school. You attend classes, field training, survival training, water survival training, zero gravity training, and experiencing rapid decision making with real time impacts as a fighter pilot.”

Survival training included sleep deprivation with team mates in extreme cold in Russia and northern Canada.

“You see how your crew mates behave when they are not at their very best.”

When the time came to make his flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008 where he would spend six months, travelling via Space Shuttle, “it was hissing and breathing like it was alive”.

As they approached the space station, he could see the Earth bright below, against dark space.

“It’s the coolest thing to be in space and see another space ship there.”

In 2011 he was a mission specialist on the penultimate Space Shuttle mission, making two spacewalks and returning to earth on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, with the Great Barrier Reef ahead of him getting larger and larger as he approached home.

The ISS, made up of sections from the US, Japan, Russia and Europe, took 12 years to build and perpetually falls in its orbit 400km above the surface of the Earth, he explained.

On board, there are six astronauts who work 12-hour days, including exercising, eating meals, and especially carrying out experiments with teams of scientists back on earth. Greg said someone calculated that astronaut space time costs $70,000 an hour.

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff inspires IGS staff and students
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff inspires IGS staff and students

Experiments explore how seeds change, combustion behaviour, liquid surface tension and much more.

In his free time he said he juggled, played chess and slept. Performing daily tasks like shaving and cleaning teeth was interesting, he said, and he was allowed to phone home just once a week.

Dr Chamitoff said a Deep Space Gateway is being developed to assist further exploration of the moon, asteroids and Mars, adding that fuel and water can be supplied from the moon.

He described the astronaut program as “very international” and said the fact that IGS students speak additional languages would be an advantage.

In his work with the University of Sydney, Greg is assisting students to work on space robotics, satellite design, rocketry path planning and virtual reality simulation of missions.

Professor Chamitoff deserves our thanks for using his international connections to enable Australian students to take part in the Zero Robotics program in which students write code to manipulate robots on the ISS.

IGS thanks Professor Lisa Askie, mother of Charlotte in Year 11 and a friend of Greg and his wife, for helping arrange this extraordinary experience for our students.

We also thank University of Sydney Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies outreach officer Denis Qiu for outlining student opportunities at the uni.