San Jacinto College students got an opportunity of a lifetime witnessing an astronaut training session firsthand at the NASA Johnson Space Center's Sonny Carter Training Facility/Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
Named in honor of the late astronaut M. L. "Sonny" Carter, who was instrumental in developing many of the current space-walking techniques used by the astronauts, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is also famously featured in the Hollywood films "Armageddon" and "Space Cowboys."
Students were taken on a tour by Shawn Alexander, Raytheon project engineer and San Jac alumnus. Besides seeing a life-size model of the International Space Station underwater in the facility's giant 6.2 million-gallon swimming pool, students also got a rare experience to see Astronaut Chris Cassidy perform an underwater repair training exercise. Just getting Cassidy suited up for the training took four staff members and a crane to lower him into the pool since his suit, once on and secured, weighs more than 300 lbs.
"Seeing the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in all its glory never gets old," said Alexander. "Every day there's something new to experience. Bringing students in to see what goes on behind the scenes is one of my favorite ways to pay it forward. San Jac helped me find my passion and achieve my career goals. I hope that by seeing what opportunities are available in engineering and the space industry, other students will be inspired to explore their interests in STEM and see where it takes them."
Faculty were just as amazed as the students were. Biology professor and NASA field trip coordinator Dr. Sheema Nasir said collaboration is always key.
"I am so thankful to have been able to work with Sean and his team to coordinate this event," Nasir said. "These opportunities for our students would not be possible without the wonderful collaborations and partnerships we have with industry leaders like NASA. College leadership, especially our life sciences department chair Lambrini Nicopoulos, is always supportive of how we can go above and beyond for our students with experiences like this."
Dr. Christopher Wild, San Jacinto College South Campus department chair of physical sciences, added that opportunities like these help the College remain a leader in STEM education.
"When students get to see what's out there and how their degrees pay off, it ignites a spark that encourages them to keep going," said Wild. "It broadens their perspectives about what a career in STEM entails. They see what they get to do in those careers, and it shows them how the opportunities are attainable and within their reach."
Learn more about San Jac's STEM programs.