Last week I met Christine Anderson, the recently appointed Executive Director of Spaceport America. She is wonderful to talk with, excited about the challenge ahead of her, and importantly, had moved to New Mexico by choice. She chose New Mexico because of its beauty, the art community, and the western lifestyle. We were getting along pretty well as I began to recall a conversation with John Hummer’s about the Sugerman Forum held last October.
While preparing for the Sugerman Forum, John Hummer and I discussed Spaceport America could possibly do for Las Cruces, what Werner Von Braun and the space industry did for Huntsville Alabama. John discussed the book the Rise of the Creative Class. It examines the potential for communities to focus on their arts, culture and public education programs as they recruit interesting and dynamic individuals who will contribute to the overall excellence of a community. Community arts and cultural programs are essential for people who are educated, and want to enjoy a full community life, while raising their children. The recent census data indicate over half of Las Crucens have attended higher education. When Von Braun left New Mexico for Huntsville, he said the commitment by the community leaders to increase investment in the arts including the creation of a symphony, and to increase funding for public education contributed to his decision to move to Huntsville.
When we met, Christine first asked about New Mexico State University. Her office overlooks the campus. While I arrived with a load of information about our upcoming launch, the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, and a host of other topics, she was most interested in the students. In fact, she told me I should write about the students I was discussing with her. I had just returned from a speaking engagement at the University of Central Florida where I mentioned I met one of my former students, Omar Mireles.
Omar is from El Paso. He now works for NASA in Huntsville Alabama at Marshall Spaceflight Center. When Omar was a student he was on a mission. He had a dream, he wanted to work for NASA and become an astronaut. He and another student of mine, Mike Schoenfeld , were determined to become members of the astronaut corp. I recruited Mike from New Mexico Military Institute. He too was driven by his ambition, his dream to be in the space program. Mike works for NASA now.
Both Omar and Mike became friends through a research program we were just starting in collaboration with NASA. Students design an experiment to fly on the KC 135 plane. The program, now called the Student Microgravity Program, allows students to submit a proposal to design an experiment that will use the unique environment of semi-weightlessness.
Omar and Mike eventually formed a club at New Mexico State University called The Flying Aggies. It still exists today. This club helps bring students into the teams that build and fly experiments on the NASA Zero G plane. This is the plane Ron Howard used to film to weightless scenes in Apollo 13. We have been flying experiments annually since 1999. Space Grant has funded approximately 150 students across New Mexico to fly, we have been preparing a long time for Spaceport America.
Ok, back to the guys wanting to get into the astronaut corp. In 2000, a number of astronauts were going to be in Albuquerque. Mike, Omar and three other students wanted to meet them. I said I’d drive. As usual, the astronauts were great. They told the students, get excellent grades, take on difficult challenging hobbies like flying, sky diving, scuba diving, sports where individual strength and constant danger became part of their lives. Oh brother. Omar has been skydiving ever since.
Another member of the Flying Aggies was Aaron Paz. Aaron was on one flight with Omar. While in Dallas on my way to Florida, I got a tap on the shoulder, it was Aaron. He was on his way to Johnson Space Center, he too now works for NASA. I have a photograph in my office from a campaign where Aaron and Omar flew. Bob Martin, a journalist from Albuquerque, flew on four of the Flying Aggie campaigns. Bob will be webcasting our Student Launch on KRQE TV. He was in the office this week, also met with Chris and we both agreed, she’s going to be just the right person to lead this project into the future.