Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shooting for the stars — Kenai teacher in the running to become NASA astronaut

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Like many kids growing up in the Apollo era, Allan Miller wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Somewhere along the line of adolescence, college, adulthood, kids and careers, most give up that dream and make peace with being earthbound.

Not Miller. At 45, he’s getting another chance at outer space.

“I’ve always been fascinated by space,” Miller said. “My earliest memory is sitting on my dad’s lap, watching Neil Armstrong land and walk on the moon.”

The Kenai Middle School science teacher spent last week in Houston at the Johnson Space Center undergoing interviews and rigorous physical, psychological and intelligence testing to determine if he’ll be picked for NASA’s astronaut program. He and 4,000 other hopefuls applied for the program in July, and Miller made the cut down to the 120 selected for the interview stage. They’re being brought to Houston in batches of 20.

“I didn’t even think they’d give me a second look when I applied. I was very surprised when they gave me a call,” Miller said. “I lost 28 pounds because I don’t want to present myself as an overweight 45-year-old. I’m doing my best youthful impression. Anything to hide the wrinkles.”

Of the 450 astronauts in history, three were 45 or older, Miller said. But even so, he’s got some marks in his favor. For one thing, he’s already been through the selection process. He applied during the last round of applications in 2003 and also made it to the physical examination stage before NASA disqualified him because testing showed abnormalities with his eyes.

Tests since then show the abnormality was benign, and he was invited to apply again.

“Anytime NASA sees something they don’t understand medically, you’re out of the game entirely. It turns out I was just born with big optical nerves, bigger than most. They decided I just have weird eyeballs,” he said.

Being a military pilot is no longer the most direct route to becoming an astronaut, which is good for Miller because his early aspirations of joining the Air Force were squashed by his poor, 20/100 vision. Nowadays, NASA considers doctors, scientists, engineers and even teachers who can inspire the next generation of astronauts.

“When I walked into it five years ago, the most shocking part of it was to meet the other 19 people down there. I was just so humbled and feeling inadequate,” Miller said of the cancer researcher, Navy test pilot, people with multiple doctorate degrees and scientists in obscure fields of study who were in his interview group.

“You almost needed a translator when you asked, ‘What do you do?’ I spend my day hanging with seventh-graders. I just look at myself and go, ‘Why am I here?’ But they know who they’ve invited, and for whatever reason, I’m worth the recall.”

Miller speaks Russian, after teaching English in the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1988, teaching Russian at Skyview High School for six years, and being a translator for the Russian biathlon team in the 2002 Winter Olympics (he’s also been a cross-country ski and biathlon coach) and for an exchange program between Alaska and Magadan, Russia. That skill would be useful on the International Space Station working with its Russian inhabitants.

And he’s got a science background. Miller worked with the National Science Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., and participated in a research trip to Antarctica two years ago.

Since his last go-around with NASA in 2003, Miller has been actively involved with bringing outer space down to Earth in the classroom. When he taught at Sterling Elementary, prior to his sabbatical with the National Science Foundation, he established it as a NASA Explorer School, which opened up a host of projects in which students could participate. At Kenai Middle, where he teaches now, he just finished a project where students linked with the International Space Station and took pictures of Earth.

“The neat thing about NASA is they really have the corner on the market of inspiration,” Miller said. “What’s more inspiring than rockets?”

Science comes to life when it’s not just from a textbook, he said. Instead of reading about cells and cytoplasm on a page, he has students do a project simulating NASA’s Phoenix Mission, which put a lander on Mars to look for signs of life. So many of the advancements the space program has made seemed like science fiction 15 years ago, so it’s exciting to learn about new technologies and discoveries as they’re happening, Miller said.

“I just want kids to come away with an awe and wonder of science,” he said.

That’s a large part of Miller’s motivation for pursuing the astronaut program — he’s learning a lot that he can take back to the classroom.

“My passion is kids and education. For me, it’s just another part of being a good teacher,” he said.

NASA will continue its interview and testing process through the end of January and select 40 to 50 candidates to move on to the next round. From those, 10 to 15 will be picked for the astronaut program, Miller said.

The mission they’d be involved in includes spending three to six months on the International Space Station doing human physiological research to find out how to combat problems astronauts face when spending long periods of time in space, like bone and muscle loss from being in zero G, radiation exposure, immune system issues, and discovering ways to recycle water and grow food in space. Solving those issues would help make a manned mission to Mars possible.

If Miller is selected, he and his family — wife, Joan, and kids Xander, 9, Mackenzie, 7, and Sasha, 3 — would move to Houston. He’d spend four to five years training before flying a mission to space sometime in 2013 or 2014. Joan has been wonderfully supportive of him pursuing his dream, Miller said, and their kids are getting used to the idea.

“The big worry at this point is how much hockey is there in Texas. That’s the crisis decision,” Miller said. “They’re excited about it, but at the same time, it’s change. … The thought of Dad sitting on top of 7 million pounds of thrust is scary, and that comes with great risk.”

Miller said he wants to show his kids that some risks are worth taking if it means following your dreams.

“I think it’s a good life lesson. Sometimes life opens opportunities for you and you walk through the door,” he said.

He’s also prepared to show them how to make the best of things when they don’t work out as planned.

“This is so far from selected. It’s just a very, very remote chance,” he said. “It’s an honor to get to this level, especially to be there a second time. It could turn out to be nothing more than a wonderful pat on the back from NASA, and thank you for the time and some sunshine in December.

“If it doesn’t happen, sure, I’ll be disappointed, but so many things have happened in pursuit of those goals that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

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