Astronauts Trade in Spaceflight for Student Contact

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Former astronaut Jim Voss advises CU graduate students on the optimization of a design for a commercial spacecraft called the Dream Chaser.
CU students try out the cockpit of the model Dream Chaser spacecraft.
Joe Tanner works with CU students in a mockup of a lunar lander.
Former astronaut Joe Tanner is a senior instructor in CU's aerospace engineering sciences department.
With Jim Voss are students Christine Fanchiang and Taylor Donaldson.

CU engineering students are getting an “out of this world” education from two former astronauts now serving on the faculty in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. For students pursuing careers in human spaceflight—including some who say they have long dreamed of becoming an astronaut—it’s an incredible opportunity to learn from those who have been there.

Astronauts Jim Voss, who received his master’s in aerospace engineering at CU-Boulder in 1974 and an honorary doctorate in 2000, and Joe Tanner, a graduate of the University of Illinois, both signed onto the aerospace engineering sciences faculty in the last 18 months.

CU-Boulder is the only university other than the Naval Postgraduate School to have two former astronauts on its faculty. Voss and Tanner bring 43 years of combined experience at NASA, including nine spaceflights, 11 spacewalks, and more than eight months of total time in space. Voss lived aboard the International Space Station for more than five months in 2001.

Tanner retired from NASA and joined the aerospace department as a senior instructor in fall 2008. Voss came on as a scholar in residence and the Roubos Chair in Engineering the following year. He retired from NASA in 2003, served as associate dean and professor at Auburn University for two years, and then was a vice president at two companies doing business in the aerospace industry.

They are teaching graduate and undergraduate students, advising students in hands-on design projects, and helping to advance the graduate program in bioastronautics led by Associate Professor David Klaus. From 1989 to 2008, the program (which is one of four graduate focus areas in the department) has graduated upwards of 100 master’s and 40 PhD students, more than half of whom are now working directly for NASA or with related human spaceflight contractors, according to Klaus.

“I’m happier than I’ve been in years,” says Tanner, a former resident of Frisco, Colorado, who is coordinating master’s-level design projects after working with undergraduates in the senior design course last year. “I love Colorado and the whole college atmosphere. The main reason I’m here is to help students along their path to achieving their goals.”

Likewise, Voss says he was attracted to the faculty position at CU because it combines his interest in teaching with the specialty in human spaceflight that he has made his career. Very few other colleges offer graduate study in bioastronautics, and “CU has the most focused program on human space- flight anywhere in the world,” he says.

Jonathan Metts was a student in Voss’s senior design class at Auburn several years ago and is now pursuing his PhD in bioastronautics at CU-Boulder. “Being taught by an astronaut was a dream come true,” he says. “It was really exciting when Colonel Voss joined the faculty at CU. He’s a very involved teacher and he loves working with students.”

Graduate students Jeff McCoy and Christine Fanchiang are working with Voss and Tanner this year on their graduate-level design project—the development of a software package that optimizes the arrangement of life support and other components vital to astronaut operations in a spacecraft. The project was made possible through Voss’s connections to Sierra Nevada Corp., which is interested in developing a commercial spacecraft called the Dream Chaser that is based on NASA’s HL-20 design.

“At first, talking to Joe and knowing he was an astronaut, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really impressive,’ “ says Fanchiang. “Then, when we had a lot of questions about the space shuttle, I came to realize how helpful it really is to have him and Jim as advisors.”

McCoy agrees: “They’ve been there and done that, so they really know what’s needed.”

Fanchiang, who has wanted to be an astronaut since she was a child, said the two are also great mentors, sharing things about the challenge and adventure of being an astronaut that continue to inspire her.

Voss also has introduced a new undergraduate course, Introduction to Human Spaceflight, which attracted more than 100 engineering students this spring.

“When I taught it before in the summer session (he was a visiting faculty member in 2004 and 2005), I had 20 or 30 students,” Voss recalls, “but this time it kept growing and growing because more students wanted to be let in.”

Aerospace department chair Jeffrey Forbes says if the assigned classroom had had 400 seats, there’d be 400 students enrolled in the course.

“Jim Voss and Joe Tanner bring a wealth of experience to the classroom in terms of human spaceflight, systems engineering, project management, and ethics.  Their use of first-hand experiences to connect textbook knowledge to reality is a real plus for our students,” Forbes says.

Voss also will take over the Introduction to Aerospace Engineering course for first-year students in the department next fall. “I volunteered to teach it because I thought it would be a good way to motivate students to continue to pursue engineering as a career,” he says.

From the look of things, that’s very likely to be a success.

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