The course is Human Space Flight. The subject for today: analogues — the scenarios found in the world or contrived in the laboratory that NASA uses to simulate work and life aboard a space ship.
Naval Academy professor Ken Reightler leads the class of 13 midshipmen through a discussion that traverses Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition of the Antarctic, deep-sea exploration and the experiments at Biosphere 2 — and how lessons from each will help astronauts prepare for the first manned mission to Mars.
The discussion in this Rickover Hall classroom symbolizes the academy's efforts to lure more alumni astronauts back to the campus — and to maintain a leadership role in space exploration.
Reightler, a retired Navy captain now teaching at the academy, served eight years in NASA's Astronaut Corps, flying two missions aboard the Space Shuttle. The midshipmen in the room, which is decorated with posters of astronauts, the Apollo-Soyuz Mission and the shuttle cockpit, include future Naval aviators who will be the right age to volunteer for NASA's inaugural manned flight to Mars, should it come as planned in the mid-2030s.
"These folks are right in the right spot," said Reightler, who graduated from the academy in 1973. "We approach it from that perspective. I assume that one of those folks that I'm talking to today is going to be flying on that mission.
"I definitely want to leave them with the impression of, 'Hey, if that guy could do it, I could do it.'"
Reightler, 61, and Navy Capt. Ken Ham, 48, are the third and fourth alumni astronauts to teach at the school. Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller told the academy's Board of Visitors recently that he wants to bring back more.
"We're fortunate that more astronauts have come from the Naval Academy than any other school," Miller said. "I would love to expand our program even further."
While there are no plans for manned U.S. space flights any time soon — President Barack Obama envisions missions to an asteroid in the mid-2020s, and to orbit Mars a decade later — NASA continues to train new astronauts, and the academy expects to continue providing candidates.
Annapolis has produced more than 50 astronauts, including some of the most prominent: Alan Shepard, who flew the first U.S. manned space flight and later walked on the Moon; Wally Schirra, another of the original Mercury Seven; James Lovell, who commanded the troubled Apollo 13 mission on its safe return to Earth; and Charles Bolden, the Space Shuttle mission commander who now heads NASA.
Academic dean and provost Andrew Phillips credits the success of alumni in the grueling astronaut selection process to what he says is the academy's unique program. A midshipman pursues four years of year-round education, training and professional development to earn a commission as an officer in the Navy or Marine Corps.
"There are lots of great institutions in the country that probably graduate people bright enough to do the work [of an astronaut]," he said. "But they haven't been through a program that has these other features — the leadership, the teamwork, the pressure-packed environment."
Reightler says the Navy entrusts midshipmen and junior officers with greater responsibility earlier in their careers than do the other services.
"Having an opportunity as a midshipman to go on a sailboat with eight other midshipmen at sea is pretty good preparation," he said. "When you're out there in the middle of the ocean in a storm doing navigation, doing planning, doing all the other kinds of things — damage control, fixing engines that break down, making sure that you take care of people that get sick — I mean, those are perfect analogues of the kind of things that it takes to be successful."
Reightler, who was born at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, drew inspiration from the first generation of astronauts when he was at the academy.
He was three weeks into his plebe summer in 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap.
"Crammed into a really small room on a hot July night with 150 of my classmates watching on this little black-and-white TV, the Moon landing is when it all kind of came into context," he said. "So I followed that path, from being an aerospace engineer to being a pilot to being a test pilot, and eventually having an opportunity to apply [to the astronaut program] and be accepted."
In early 1971, Reightler wrote home about a campus appearance by Lovell: "What a man. 4 flights into space including Apollo 13 — the one with all the troubles. He is a USNA Grad + and left us some mementos of his flights. He got me all psyched up for the Astronaut Program again."
Ham grew up wanting to be an astronaut, but said it wasn't a goal he thought "was even remotely achievable." It wasn't until he graduated from the academy in 1987 that he began to see a path.
The film "Top Gun" had been a hit the year before, "and we were loaded with Naval aviators at that time. So it wasn't like you graduated here and went straight into flight school. You had to go find a place to be an ensign for a little while."