Astronaut Teaches U.S., Foreign Military About Space Technology

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
USINFO Staff Writer

Monterey, California -" In 2002 astronaut James Newman was tethered to the space shuttle helping to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Now he has traded spacewalks for teaching and working on a satellite from the ground with his students at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey.

Newman, a civilian pilot who earned a doctorate in physics from Rice University, was detailed from NASA in 2006 as a visiting teacher and researcher to the NPS Space Systems Academic Group under the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

A veteran of four spaceflights during which he logged 43 days in space, including six spacewalks totaling 43 hours, Newman spoke to USINFO May 21 about his new and different role as a teacher.

"Space flight is a wonderful adventure," he said, but teaching is a new challenge that also has its rewards.

Before joining NPS, Newman was detailed to the International Space Station program, where he spent three years in Moscow heading NASA's Human Space Flight Program-Russia. In that role, he worked with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), overseeing the Americans who flew on Russian space missions manning the International Space Station. Part of his job involved working at NASA's mission control center in Korolev and with NASA crews training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City.

Most recently, Newman said, he taught orbital mechanics, specifically, "how we launch [satellites and spacecraft] and how we maintain different kinds of orbits."

Departments within the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Physics include applied mathematics, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical and astronautical engineering, meteorology, oceanography, physics, space systems and systems engineering.

Newman said NPS's emphasis on "doing things" as much as theorizing about things impressed him. "If you're going to be an experimentalist of any stripe, then you're going to have to get your hands on [practical work].

"I think the real strength here" at NPS, he added, is that "they require a thesis for their students in a lot of areas, especially the Space Systems Academic Group, and this means they have to do research and work on projects like the satellite rather than just take classes."

In addition, the graduate students at NPS "are midcareer military officers," Newman said, so "they've had plenty of time to be out of school and are typically driven by the thought, 'What do I need to do to get a job done - to do the mission?'"

When they come to NPS, however, the teachers also "ask them to take a step back, away from a specific task, and learn more general skills -" the ability to think, to reason, to integrate information "- as opposed to simply learning a task and doing it. And that's what you want your future leaders of any organization to be able to do," Newman said.

He said he was impressed with the foreign military graduate students at NPS, who bring maturity and life skills to bear on their studies. The average age of students at NPS is 31. Ninety percent are married and have an average of one child.

After recently working with two foreign students - one from Taiwan and another from Greece, who is also working on a new satellite project - Newman said: "I am very impressed with them. They showed a lot of interest and they work hard."

Newman said he was excited about working with his student researchers on the new satellite NPS is hoping to launch. He explained that the new venture follows the first satellite constructed by NPS faculty and students, called PANSAT, which was launched in 1998.

That satellite, no bigger than a large can, carried a payload of several scientific experiments, Newman explained. It was launched from a shuttle mission on which former astronaut John Glenn traveled.

"We're building a second one now," Newman added, and "that's part of what I teach here now in the directed studies program. I have a thesis student right now working on that satellite."

For more information on international cooperation on science, see Science and Technology.