Coast Guard Academy grad poised to become astronaut
There are a lot of dedicated professionals willing to go where their employers send them, but seldom do they end up on the moon or Mars.
U.S. Coast Guard alumnus Andre M. Douglas is poised to be one of the rare exceptions now that he's been selected as a member of NASA's 2021 astronaut class. The agency announced Monday that the diverse team of 10 men and women was culled from a pool of more than 12,000 applicants.
Douglas attended Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Va., before matriculating at the academy. He graduated in 2008.
In a Tuesday phone interview, he said whether he ends up on the moon or the red planet, it'll be an honor to be there. "For me, NASA's really about being a team player, so wherever they need me to go is where I'll go."
He'll report to Houston's Johnson Space Center in January.
The last lunar landing was in 1972. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson last month said the much-hyped Artemis missions — billed as the first time the agency will land a woman and person of color on the moon — will take place no earlier than 2025.
NASA over the past couple of years has revealed plans for the so-called "Artemis generation" that includes a base camp on the moon with a lunar cabin, rover and mobile home. From there, the agency will use what it learns to prepare for the 34-million-mile trip to Mars.
Unlike the Apollo missions that came and went a half-century ago, Douglas emphasized that the planned lunar presence will be "there to stay." He described the evolution of the space program as a matter of survival.
"There are a lot of things going on in the world, chances of things not going the way that we'd like, so to have another ability to go to another planet would be the ultimate goal to make sure that we can survive," he said. "As we push ourselves to that goal, a lot of technologies are developed that even improve things on earth. So it's kind of twofold and I'm excited about that."
Douglas transitioned out of active duty with the Coast Guard in 2015, the same year he received the national Black Engineer of the Year award for being the most promising engineer in the government sector.
According to his NASA biography, he began work at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in support of space exploration, underwater robotics and ocean system missions. He was a key contributor to a development effort for improving the U.S. ballistic missile defense system and was an unmanned surface vessel pilot through numerous, real-time Navy operations. He also supported the Double Asteroid Redirection Test planetary defense mission for NASA.
Pam Melroy, former NASA astronaut and NASA's deputy administrator, told the candidates in a Monday event near Johnson Space Center that they share "amazing backgrounds."
"You bring diversity in so many forms to our astronaut corps and you stepped up to one of the highest and most exciting forms of public service," she said.
The agency in a news release said the astronaut candidates will embark in January on two years of training. After completing the program, they could be assigned to missions that involve performing research aboard the International Space Station, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, as well as deep space missions to destinations including the moon on NASA's Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.
Candidates for the first time must have a master's degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field. The team of four women and six men represent experience in the Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and civilian scientific communities.
Douglas, whose father's own Coast Guard career included a stint teaching at the academy for several years in the 1990s, said he spent his childhood in many different states as his interest in science fiction movies, astronomy and technology laid the groundwork for becoming an astronaut.
"So when I started seeing space shuttles and people walking on the moon and whatnot, and learning about it in school, I just said 'this is what I want to do. I want to do things that are going to push our species forward and go out in space,'" he recalled.
Coast Guard Academy professor and chairman of mechanical engineering Ron Adrezin described Douglas as an "engineer's engineer," whether the subject is sea or space.
While Adrezin joined the faculty just as Douglas was graduating and did not have the opportunity to get to know him then, the professor said they became acquainted in the past few years. First Adrezin made a pitch for him to join the faculty; then, when the pandemic hit, he brought him in for a virtual speakers series he put together.
Adrezin pointed to the astronaut candidate's extensive educational achievements, including a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the academy and dual master's degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering and mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He went on to earn master's degrees in electrical and computer engineering and most recently a doctorate in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
But Adrezin, who has worked with astronauts and NASA officials for years — and is traveling next week for another meeting at Johnson Space Center — said the agency is looking for more than the most accomplished men and women in their scientific fields to be the face of the nation's space program.
"There are a lot of super highly qualified people in terms of the technical things needed to be an astronaut," he said. "But who's NASA going to pick out their pool? Only the truly nicest people."
Douglas will join Cmdr. Bruce Melnick, '72, and Capt. Dan Burbank, '85, as the third Coast Guard Academy alum to become an astronaut.
Adrezin said the skills possessed by "extreme engineer-types" like Douglas are critical not only in getting to the moon and eventually to Mars, but in maintaining the aging International Space Station that may or may not be active by the time the manned lunar landings resume. And the astronauts need to be adaptable, because what works on the space station or the moon won't necessarily work on Mars.
Douglas said his research at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory focused on understanding how robotic entities work together when presented with different situations. He likened the humanmade creations to schools of fish or flocks of geese that have evolved over centuries to succeed in tough places.
Again, it's about survival. He said his work helps predict how these "swarming unmanned systems" will react in different environments — like rough terrain on the moon or hazardous radiation on Mars or unknown effects of space.
"So the beauty of the research is I've been doing that here on Earth and I'm trying to bring that to NASA so we can improve our robotic systems as we explore the universe," he said.
Coast Guard Academy mechanical engineering professor Capt. Michael Plumley recalled Douglas' enthusiasm working with the school's first robotics team. The then-cadet was among a group helping to guide students at the high school level through the New London area's inaugural competition.
In 2006, Douglas was part of the New England Men and Women's Track and Field All-Academic Team.
"He always had a lot of energy. None of us are surprised in any way, shape or form that he was selected" as an astronaut candidate, Plumley said.
Another example of Douglas' vitality and ability to connect with people came when he was chosen as regimental commander in his final year at the academy, serving as the top-ranking cadet responsible for running the corps.
"That big smile you see in all the pictures of him, he carried that around here as well," Plumley said.
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