Astronauts at the pinnacle of scientific efforts

Space Summoned ‘Elite Scientists’

Jim Reilly
Jim Reilly

“There are just so many astronauts in the whole world and … I’m one of them! It’s a big part of me.”

That was how the character of Garrett Breedlove, played by Jack Nicholson, explained what it meant in the Academy Award-winning film “Terms of Endearment.”

AAPG member James F. Reilly, a former NASA astronaut who logged over 853 hours in space (about 35 days), knows as well as anyone how unique this club is, for only 505 people from 38 different countries have ever done what he has.

“I feel like I have been very lucky to have been part of a very select team,” he said. “I imagine it is a lot like the feeling players have when they go to the World Series or to the Super Bowl – awe, wonderment, ecstatic joy at just being there.”

He knows there is a certain amount of luck and circumstance, too – and that dynamic, plus a lot of other thoughts, memories and insights about his experiences is what he’ll be talking about as one of four NASA astronauts to speak at the All Convention Luncheon at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston.

The topic is “Taking Geoscience to Greater Heights – American Geoscientists in Space.”

The cliché calls out: You can take the scientist out of space but you can’t take space out of the geoscientist.

“I do miss the experience of being there,” says Reilly, who over a 14-year span flew on Space Shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis (twice) – but he doesn’t miss the rigors of the preparation.

“I found that three was my magic number,” Reilly says.“I had done everything I could have in my career path of a spacewalker and I would have likely been doing things over again. I had gotten to a point where I had done enough and it was time to step away to let others experience this incredible event.”

Some of those “others” will be joining him as speakers at the luncheon represent three other distinct eras of NASA exploration stages:

  • AAPG Honorary Member Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17, when he became the only geologist to have walked on the moon).
  • Geoscientist Kathryn D. Sullivan (Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis – and in 1984 she became the first woman to walk in space).
  • Andrew J. Feustel (a former ExxonMobil geophysicist who flew on Atlantis and is set for the upcoming Endeavor mission).

Reilly, who has a doctorate in geology from University of Texas-Dallas, has participated in similar-type events before and knows first-hand that the mutual respect among the different era astronauts is cross-generational – he expected that.

One moment he didn’t expect, however.

“The one thing that did surprise me was meeting one of the Apollo guys, and I expressed my admiration and how I would have loved to have been able to do what they did,” Reilly said. “His response was classic: He wished that he would have had the opportunity to fly the Shuttle.”

Thinking about it, Reilly admits, “The Gemini and Apollo guys did have it a lot tougher than we did.”

Today’s ‘Huge Challenge’

The former astronauts are getting together, not to just reminisce like comedians at a back table at the Carnegie Deli, but in part to be honored on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” speech – and, perhaps most importantly, to talk about the future of science, which, Reilly knows, means the future of science education.

“We have a huge challenge in front of us,” says Reilly, who is now dean of the School of Science and Technology for the American Public University System. “The currency of the future will be the knowledge we gain from staying on the frontiers.

“For the last 50 years, we have challenged three generations of engineers and scientists to do things that have never been done before and in ways that we had to invent,” he said. “That knowledge filtered out into almost every aspect of our lives and helped build the technological lifestyle that we are so dependent on.”

Reilly believes there is an education chasm today that is affecting all the sciences, not just his.

“We have to stay on the frontiers, not only in space, but in the oceans, in Antarctica, in information technology and, most critically, in the investments that drive the advances in our knowledge,” he said. “We also have to keep it relevant – it has to be understandable and not cloaked in the ‘high priest’ language that so often turns our kids off to science and math.

“Space is a lot like geosciences,” he continued, “in that it is a ‘relational’ subject. It contains a little physics, biology, chemistry and certainly a lot of math.”

Reilly says his colleagues at the luncheon, and others like him, have a special advantage in teaching the disciplines.

“Fortunately, when those of us who have been to space talk about the experience, we ‘sneak’ the science and math into the message,” he said. “I can only hope that we as astronauts can be the unintentional mentors that spark an interest in our successors.”

A Great Bargain

The competing interests of politics and science education – and the land-mine of how much or how little religion will be included in science curriculum – is something Reilly is aware will take some negotiating in the classroom.

“As a practicing Christian, I have no issues with my religious beliefs coexisting with my life as a scientist,” he said. “To say, all we need to know about the universe is contained in the Bible, the Torah or the Koran just isn’t feasible – and it is my personal opinion that God gave us reason so that we could progress in our knowledge.

“Nothing in science is taken on ‘faith,’” he said. “Creationism, as I understand it, requires that we take a great deal on faith. So, to say ‘creationism’ is a credible scientific model just doesn’t make sense.”

But Reilly also believes the divide may, in fact, not be that great.

“Now, all that being said, I tend to follow the spirit of the statement made by John Paul II, when he said that God is truth and pure science is the search for truth and, as such, they are not in conflict,” Reilly said. “My personal position is that the more we understand the world around us, the greater and stronger is my faith.”

NASA is in a unique position to strengthen that knowledge and differentiate fact from faith – and Reilly wishes taxpayers knew what a bargain it was.

“At something less than $20 billion to fund aeronautics research, computational research, robotic missions, human missions, earth observation missions and developing new engineering methods, NASA is one of the best bargains we have going in the national budget,” he said. “In terms of the total cost of the budget at $3.55 trillion, this is less than 1 percent of the federal outlays.”

That comes out to about $90 per share for Americans, or, as Reilly puts it, “a nice meal out or what we spend on New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

When measured against the future of knowledge and discovery, he concludes, “It seems like a pretty small investment with a lot of benefit to me … but then I readily admit to a bias.”

It’s a bias shared by at least 504 others.

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