Dreams of space

Columbia teacher becomes finalist for space program
Friday, February 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:18 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008


Paul Mahoney never had elaborate childhood fantasies about being an astronaut. He never made space costumes out of tin foil or brought supposed moon rocks to show and tell.

Nevertheless, today Mahoney is one of 35 people, culled from a pool of 16,000, in line to become an astronaut.

Mahoney, a biology teacher at Columbia Independent School, is a finalist in NASA’s hunt for an educator astronaut mission specialist. If selected, he could spend six months aboard the International Space Station.

Mahoney’s past and present students said he’s well suited for space.

“He was a good teacher,” said senior Ellie Hock. “If you don’t understand something, he’ll spend extra time with you explaining it.”

Eighth-grader Max Vale said that if Mahoney ends up spending six months in the space station, “at least they’ll have someone to tell jokes.”

An educator astronaut performs many of the same duties as the agency’s mission specialists. But educator astronauts are also responsible for creating activities that better connect space exploration with the classroom.

“It’s really a win-win situation,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney’s journey from biology teacher to astronaut hopeful began after he read a newspaper story about the program early last year and “thought it looked like an interesting opportunity.”

This is the first time NASA has recruited an educator astronaut since 1986, the year the Challenger accident killed Christa McAuliffe, the first educator astronaut.

The risks associated with space travel did not dissuade Mahoney from applying. “You want big rewards, you have to take big risks,” he said.

Mahoney’s wife, Jeanne Erickson, who researches molecular biology at MU, hasn’t discouraged him despite the fact that the couple would have to move to Houston if he is selected.

“If he gets it, it’s great, and if he doesn’t it’s great because we’ll get to stay in Columbia,” Erickson said. “I’m happy either way.”

“She has been nothing but supportive,” Mahoney said.

In order to be eligible for the program, applicants must be certified K-12 teachers and have had three years of in-classroom teaching experience within the past four years. Mahoney, 46, has been teaching at Columbia Independent School since it opened six years ago.

Applicants must also have had an education with a concentration in mathematics, physical science, engineering or biological science.

Mahoney has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a doctorate in molecular biology, both from UCLA. He did his postdoctoral work at the University of California-Berkeley, and was a faculty member at MU doing research on cell adhesion and cancerous growth while also teaching undergraduate and graduate-level cell biology courses.

Teachers who apply must provide a complete educational and employment background and submit letters of recommendation from a student, the parent of a student, a community member and the head of their school. In addition, applicants must provide NASA with a detailed medical history.

Mahoney also had to write three essays, the last of which asked the question: Why did he want to do this?

“I wanted to do it because the program was an opportunity to stress the importance of math and science to school children,” Mahoney said. “I would have a much wider audience to stress something I think is important.”

After sorting through 16,000 applications, NASA narrowed it down to 200 or 300 applicants. The field was then cut to 35 finalists, who were selected to spend a week interviewing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The Educator Astronaut Program was launched 20 years ago as a way for NASA to better acquaint the American public with its space program. They considered sending a number of professionals — a journalist, an explorer or an entertainer — but decided on a teacher.

More than 12,000 people applied for the job. McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H., was selected.

Her backup, Barbara Morgan, is still in the program today and Mahoney met her during his week in Houston.

“She was a very nice personable person, a really good choice,” he said.

While in Houston, Mahoney was subjected to a host of medical and psychological tests.

“They gave me every psychological test you could buy,” Mahoney said. “We had six or seven tests in a row and each had 500 or more questions.”

Next, he spent more than four hours with a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

“It actually wasn’t that bad,” Mahoney said. “They just wanted to know all about me and who I was.”

The physical tests, which made up more than 80 percent of the week, were even more grueling.

He was hooked up to numerous tubes and sensors while running on a treadmill. He blew into a special machine to check his lung capacity. He got his blood taken and had the quality of his bone density checked.

“You lose bone density in space,” Mahoney explained.

“I got a lot of X-rays taken,” Mahoney said. “They even did a full body X-ray. And they never tell you how you did on any of the tests. Every single test was a chance to be disqualified.”

Mahoney was a part of a group of 19 other applicants who were applying for various jobs with NASA. Some were interviewing for pilot and commander, some were there in hopes of becoming a mission specialist and the rest were all teachers vying for the title of educator astronaut.

“I was the old man in my group,” Mahoney said with a laugh. “Everyone in my group was very nice and all the candidates were outstanding in their fields.”

Near the end of the week, Mahoney had a one-hour interview with a 15-member selection board.

“I enjoyed the interview,” Mahoney said. “I thought I did well in the parts I had control over. The wild card is the physical tests.”

Although legally NASA does have to inform applicants if they have any life-threatening medical issues, smaller things, such as color blindness, can disqualify applicants.

“You have to be able to see the colors of the buttons on the shuttle,” Mahoney said.

Two aptitude tests were also part of his week but he could not elaborate on what they involved because of a confidentiality agreement he signed with NASA.

He was given tours of the shuttle and space station simulators, which are full-size mockups that are used for training astronauts.

“We were able to sit at the controls of the shuttle simulators, and walk through the different modules of the International Space Station,” Mahoney said.

Interviewees also were able to attend the five-year anniversary celebration of the International Space Station, where they had dinner with veterans of NASA’s space program.

“It was a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Mahoney said.

If Mahoney does receive the position, he will spend his days doing entirely new things.

“These people will really be changing career fields,” NASA’s Senior Public Affairs Officer Gretchen Cook-Anderson said. “They are going from teachers to astronauts.”

NASA will make its selection in the next couple of weeks, Cook-Anderson said.

“The hardest part is the waiting,” Mahoney said. “I’m very anxious to find out what’s going to happen.”

Even if Mahoney does not get a spot as an educator astronaut, NASA encourages everyone to apply again.

“I’d apply again in a second,” Mahoney said. “Just to get the chance to go down there again.”

For now, Mahoney will keep doing what he’s done for the past six years. He’ll sit in his biology classroom, teach his students, make jokes, work on his tractors and maybe even catch himself daydreaming about life as an astronaut.

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