Training Astronauts To Think Like Geologists

By Maureen A. Nolan

Professor of Geosciences Barbara Tewksbury thinks like an astronaut. To her mind, blasting off in a rocket-powered spacecraft is the coolest thing an earthling could experience. Following the twin stars of science and exploration, Tewksbury applied to be a NASA astronaut in the late 1980s, nearly 10 years in as a professor at Hamilton. Her eyesight wasn’t good enough to get past the medical screening, and her career as a teacher and scientist continued its ascent. But in 2008, she was invited to help support the kind of missions she would have loved to be on — she became part of a NASA program to teach astronauts to observe geology from the International Space Station, one of the best vantages points of Earth that a geologist could have.

“These are people who will live in the International Space Station for three to six months at a time, and to look down on a planet when you don’t understand what you are seeing is a real shame, you know? And that’s one of the reasons we’ve been pushing the geology training,” Tewksbury says.

It’s possible to track the space station’s whereabouts on NASA’s website, and one night late this summer, she and her husband, Dave Tewksbury, a geosciences technician, stepped outside and caught a spectacularly bright pass. With its huge solar panels throwing off sunlight, the station glittered high across the sky and winked out of view. Tewksbury waved as it passed. Aboard Expedition 41 was Reid Wiseman, one of her NASA students. She usually refrains from contacting the astronauts, who are among the busiest people on or above the planet, but after that sighting she couldn’t resist. “The next day I emailed Reid and I said, ‘You know, it was one of the greatest moments of my life to stand out on my deck and watch that go by and know that you’re up there, and I waved and felt silly,’” Tewksbury says. Wiseman promptly replied to say they’d seen some fabulous geology from orbit, which is the objective of the NASA training program Tewksbury helped develop.

Tewksbury is a structural geologist who has held three endowed chairs at Hamilton, where she is a geosciences professor and the Upson Chair of Public Discourse. She conducts ongoing research in Iceland and Egypt. As a professor who loves teaching as much as she does science, she’s acquired a national reputation for her expertise in geoscience education. That’s one reason she was invited to work with NASA.

Dean Eppler, a volcanologist who oversees NASA’s astronaut geology training program, turned to Tewksbury in 2008 as he assembled a group to rethink the curriculum. They’d met as undergraduates at St. Lawrence University, and Eppler knew the NASA project could benefit from Tewksbury’s expertise in teaching and in structural geology. The group’s task was to design a curriculum that would make the most of the opportunity presented by the space station. There are only a few geologists among the astronaut corps. Providing astronauts who lack that background with a more targeted, hands-on course in geology would better equip them to be the eyes in the sky for geologists back home. (NASA Expedition 41, which launched in May and returned home in November, included a geologist, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst.)

Eppler and Tewksbury, among others, developed the curriculum that was used with the 22 members of the two most recent classes of NASA astronauts. Tewksbury was among 13 geologists who taught them during a three-week intensive summer program that included two weeks of classes at NASA in Houston and one week of fieldwork in New Mexico. She volunteers her time, and NASA pays her travel expenses. “Next to working with the astronauts, the most fun is working with this team because they’re really good, and they are really interested in tackling this problem, which isn’t easy,” Eppler says. “Because it’s like — how do you take four years of undergraduate training and maybe a little bit of graduate work and stuff it into two weeks in the classroom?” 

Astronaut students are quick studies and an elite group. For the 2013 class, which Tewksbury worked with this summer, about 6,000 people applied for eight astronaut slots. “They ask the most unbelievable questions, and they are very, very smart. They haven’t had any geology to speak of, but they see what the critical questions are,” she says. In the classroom, the astronauts do preliminary analysis and mapping based on satellite images, the kind of images they could see from the space station, and then venture into the field to check their work. The work on the ground gives them a better idea of what they will observe from the space station and the tools to work more effectively with Earth-bound geologists.

Tewksbury and Astronaut Anne McClain
Barb Tewksbury explains a concept to Astronaut Anne McClain, Army major and OH58 attack helicopter pilot.

NASA uses a mentorship model for teaching in the field and assigns two astronauts per geologist. Even so, fieldwork is a challenge. Geologists map using a limited data set because rock exposures are discontinuous, and three-dimensional exposures are rarely extensive. People who are good at field mapping make critical observations at each outcrop, factor them into their evolving hypotheses and decide based on limited information where to go next in the field to test their ideas about what is there, how it evolved and when. Wiseman turned out to have the right stuff for mapping. He’d study an outcrop, take notes and talk things over with his field partner. “Then, his head would go up, and he’d say, ‘OK, I need to go over there next,’” Tewksbury recalls. “As I thought about it, I realized that this is exactly what fighter pilots do, which is what Reid was in the Navy. They take limited but complicated information, evaluate it in the light of a number of options and make a decision quickly about what to do next to best solve the problem.”

Duane Ross, NASA’s manager of astronaut candidate selection and training, likes to tag along on Tewksbury’s field training because he always learns something. “She’s awesome. I think her forte is that she understands how to tell people what’s going on in terms they understand,” he says. Hamilton alumni could testify to that. Geology major Will Hoffman ’07 says Tewksbury’s love of science was contagious, and she would go the extra mile for her students. She supported his effort to create an independent study in advanced structural geology. She hung in there for his fieldwork in Iceland even after she fractured her wrist. And Tewksbury helped him find a good graduate school and steered him toward Penn State, where he earned a master’s degree in geosciences. “She has a special gift for teaching as well as a passion for creating innovative and exciting curricula for students,” says Hoffman, who works as a geoscientist for ExxonMobil.

Barbara Tewksbury and Astronauts
Astronauts Victor Glover, Anne McClain, Nicole Mann and Tyler “Nick” Hague work with Mark Helper (UT Austin) and Barb Tewksbury (standing).

Tewksbury fell for geology early on. She grew up backpacking in the Adirondacks, and the summer before ninth grade, her physicist father and chemist mother took her to climbing school in the Canadian Rockies. Back at school, she took her first earth science course with a knowledgeable teacher who took his students out in the field. She was learning about things she’d seen during her trips to the mountains. “And I suddenly realized at 14 that I could do science and be outdoors. I just couldn’t even imagine anything more fantastic than that,” she says. She learned to love space exploration even earlier.

Tewksbury was 10 in 1962 when astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and she followed all the Apollo moon landings. When the first space shuttle went up in 1981, Tewksbury was at a professional conference and holed up in her hotel to watch the launch. “And it still gives me tingles on the back of my neck, because ‘hero’ has a very restricted meaning to me — I don’t have very many heroes. But I’ll tell you, John Young is one of my great heroes. He and Bob Crippen sat in that vehicle that had never ever been launched as a test vehicle, never flown in space, never landed from space. And they sat there and rode this thing into space,” she says.

Barbara Tewksbury and Astronauts
From left, Cynthia Evans (NASA); Chris Condit (UMass); Astronauts Nick Hague, Nicole Mann and Anne McClain; Mark Helper; Astronaut Victor Glover; Barb Tewksbury; Ren Thompson (USGS); and Duane Ross (NASA, head of astronaut selection).

Veteran astronaut Mike Fossum, whose most recent mission was to the International Space Station in 2011, tosses a bit of that respect back at Tewksbury. Fossum has seen her transmit her passion for geology to the astronauts-in-training. “She is just one of my favorite people on the planet because she’s so passionate about what she does. And she infuses that passion — she passes it along to a group of people who are high-speed professionals,” he said during a telephone interview from Kazakhstan, where he was helping manage an Expedition 41 launch.

From the space station, astronauts can see active processes such as river systems, ocean currents and short-term catastrophic processes like volcanoes and the aftermath of large earthquakes and storms. “And they can also see the results of both past and ongoing geologic processes, so one of the things that you can see like gangbusters from space are faults and fault systems because they look like giant scars across the land,” Tewksbury says.

Eppler’s favorite example of astronaut geology-in-action came in 2009 as the space station was flying over the Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata noticed a brown cloud that looked like dirt in the upper atmosphere and concluded that a volcano was going off or about to. He had about 90 minutes to get the cameras in the right place, and with a bit of serendipity, the station was over the top of the volcano as it blew. “They got the most phenomenal sequence of photographs of this eruption cloud developing that anybody has ever seen,” Eppler says. “And it’s in textbooks now and studied in great detail by people. They are just simply the best pictures of these things that have ever happened.”

Only one geologist has ever walked on the surface of the moon, says Tewksbury, and she’s worked with him. He’s Jack Schmitt, who was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, the last mission that carried humans to the moon. Tewksbury’s daughter Carolyn introduced her to Schmitt years ago when she was a high school student competing in planetary geology at the International Science and Engineering Fair. Schmitt was a judge. Now Carolyn Tewksbury-Christle is geophysicist and a captain in the U.S. Air Force where she teaches physics at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She would love to be an astronaut some day, too.

She and her mother both have worked as part of NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies project, which tests vehicles and equipment that astronauts would use on missions to other planets. Tewksbury was part of the “back room” of geologists and scientists who tested data collection and communications while astronauts operated NASA’s new generation of rovers in the field. On a mission that simulated the use of the rovers on a near-Earth asteroid, Tewksbury was in the back room at Mission Control in Houston, hallowed ground for sure. Still, she felt a twinge of jealousy. “I was the lead for imagery for one of the rovers, but Carolyn,” Tewksbury says with pride, “got to be one of the rover drivers.”

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