I enter the classroom about ten minutes before my scheduled start time. As I go through the motions of signing on to the computer, opening my presentation and setting out my materials I think through the upcoming class. I’ve taught this material many times before, so I’m not worried. I finish getting things in place and settle into a chair as I wait for my student. Soon, she walks through the door, sets her backpack down, puts away her phone and looks up.
“Hi!” I say. “I’m Kristen and I’ll be your instructor today. I understand this is one of your last classes before you leave the country. How has the training been so far? Are you feeling ready to launch?”
Yes, launch. You see, my students aren’t your everyday students. They are the men and women that will fly on spacecraft and live on the International Space Station for months at a time. They come from all different countries and all different backgrounds.
Today, I will teach about the thermal system on the Station; radiators, coolant fluid lines that run through the modules, software that keeps the system running. My crew-member and I will go step by step through the system, ensuring they understand terminology and can work through a procedure. I expect that when we leave at the end of the day my student will be able to fix the system on board if they were ever needed to do so.
Tomorrow, I will be running a mission simulation to train new flight controllers. In the simulation I will “break” something and listen and evaluate how the flight controller responds, but I won’t step in and actively teach – not then.
The motivations of my students from day to day are incredibly different. An astronaut will spend about two years in training prior to launching to the space station. They will learn something about every system on board, every experiment they will be running and different languages they will need to speak while they are the prime crew. A flight controller will spend a year or more learning everything about just one or maybe two systems on board the Space Station. They will rely on others for information about everything else, but they will provide the on-board crew with support as they are needed. And yet, I teach them all. In the end, everyone needs to understand a lot of the same material, but for very different reasons.
Though I teach, I also work with these people on a day to day basis. I see them in the hallways and I support them in many training scenarios. They are not astronauts or flight controllers to me, but they are friends, family. Every time a vehicle launches I feel my nerves and I hope for a smooth mission. I think about my personal interactions with these people and I trust in the flight controllers that are keeping the space station safe in orbit. I know that we all work in a risky business, but we do everything possible to keep our crew safe.
When a crew returns I may see them in the hallway. I will smile, give them a hug and ask how they’ve been. “I haven’t seen you since you returned! How was it?” My friend tells me just how small the earth looks from space and about their new perspective on the world. I know, in that moment, that the years of classes and simulations were worth it for them, and knowing that is fulfilling to me. The conversation closes and I head to my next class. I’m teaching to a student just selected to the astronaut corps. Their class with me is such a small part of their journey, and yet, it is still a part of it; for that, I am proud.