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
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
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.