As a senior instructor in the Aerospace Department at CU-Boulder, Joseph Tanner was hired to formalize a course instructing seniors and graduate students with long-term projects. Even without a PhD or masters degree, Tanner’s impressive career as a NASA astronaut helps him guide students to find their passion in the Aerospace industry.
Q: I’ve read that youíve had experience as an astronaut for NASA- can you tell me a little more about your experience?
A: I started at NASA in 1984 as a pilot, and I worked there as a research pilot instructing the astronauts and so I was very familiar with the program, and I had already applied because I wanted to be an astronaut. They hired me as pilot instead and I wanted to be an astronaut so I kept applying, so perseverance is one of my messages to the younger generation. I got selected in 1992 and flew 4 times over the next 16 years. Iíve always been interested in the academic environment and this opportunity presented itself and they needed someone to instruct this course. They didnít really need a PhD and I didnít have one or have time to get one, so it was really a perfect marriage of me getting to be on the college campus in an environment that I really liked. Coming here I realized two things: It was a place that I really wanted to be, and Univ. of Colorado was definitely my top choice. My wife and I have property up in the mountains, and it makes sense to spend time working in an environment I really love. The second thing is that I feel blessed to have this opportunity. Having the opportunity to give a little back to [the younger] generation and helping them along the path they are choosing is great.
Q: I find it intriguing that you didnít get an advanced degree but ended up teaching at a large university. Has this influenced the way your colleagues/co-workers see you?
A: I was finishing my bachelorís degree at the University of Illinois and managed to cram four years into four and a half. After that, I got enticed into joining the Navy and that sort of helped me with my passion for aviation. I was going to go back to school, but then the position for a pilot at NASA opened up in Houston and I had to take it. I got down to Houston and started going to school for my Masters and never finishedóbecause I got selected! [to be an astronaut]. Ultimately, people judge more on your performance in that environment than your educational level.
Q: Are there any innovations in the industry that people should keep an eye out for?
A: There are some huge technical challenges ahead if people want to leave low-earth orbit. The earth has a magnetic field protects you in low-earth orbit, and it helps deflect damaging radiation particles. Once you get out into deep space, you donít have that protection any more, and one of the most significant challenges is figuring out how to tolerate those radiation levels.
Also [we're studying] the physiological effects of long durations of weightlessness. After being inactive for a long period of time, your bones de-calcify. Bones can break very easily, and this is a very active research area. We have a good relationship with the Osteoporosis research scientists. We feed information to that research group and they feed research to us.
Another area relates to plants: how to use regenerative systems that donít require re-supply to maintain human life in an enclosed environment. The way we used to scrub CO2 from the aircraft was with canisters, which obviously arenít an endless supply. There’s a whole research field on a CO2 scrubbing system.