Astronaut Alvin Drew’s dream takes him from the halls of St. Anthony to outer space, and back again
Feb 24, 2018
When Colonel Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. was just 6 years old, he already knew he wanted to be an astronaut.
He was sitting in his classroom at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, when his principal came in with a television set, telling the students, “You need to remember where you were today. History is about to be made.”
The students watched the launch of the Apollo 7 mission, and about a year later, a man walked on the moon for the first time.
“I was hooked on that,” said Drew.
Nearly 40 years later, Drew went to space for the first time. Then, in 2011, he became the 200th person to walk in space as a part of NASA’s final shuttle flight, Discovery. During that mission, Drew also began a reading program for children, titled, “Story Time in Space,” where he read books to kids via satellite, including “Max Goes to the Moon,” written by Jeffrey Bennett.
He invited several of his teachers from St. Anthony to attend the launch of the Discovery flight, and most of them did travel to Florida to attend. One of these people was Benedictine Sister Ursula Butler, his first grade teacher who had witnessed the beginning of Drew’s dream to become an astronaut.
Today, Drew still works at NASA as the liaison to the Department of Defense, and on Feb. 15, he returned to the place where it all began to speak to current students at St. Anthony, who he said are the future of the space program.
While people at NASA talk about going to Mars, “We are not going to be those people [to do it],” he said. “…The people who are going to walk on Mars are in the halls of places like St. Anthony’s right now, going to school.”
“NASA and other places are not going to get there without them, so these people literally are the future,” he continued, estimating that people will be going to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
In addition to giving him the opportunity to watch the launch of Apollo 7, Drew said St. Anthony School fostered his interest in science and space by encouraging him to “learn anything you can learn” because “it is one thing that you can take with you anywhere you go.”
He recalled how in seventh grade, he and other kids were required to describe where they wanted to be working when they got out of college. Drew responded, “Any place where I can look up from my workplace and see the curvature of the Earth from space.”
“No one looked at me and said, ‘You can’t go do that,’” said Drew. “It was ‘Okay, let’s talk about how you are going to get there.’”
During his presentation, Drew gave the current students some tips on how to do just that.
One student asked him if he had to have good grades to become an astronaut, and Drew told him that his grades were one of the first things they checked. Another student asked him how long it took him to achieve his goal of becoming an astronaut, which Drew said was a difficult question to answer, because, “It is not the destination of space, it is the journey itself.”
“I started achieving that dream when I was back in first grade at St. Anthony,” he said, explaining how leading up to becoming an astronaut at age 37, he was living his dream by studying science and math, attending high school and college, and taking steps toward his goal.
One of the students asked whether the training was difficult, but Drew said he was so interested in what he was doing, “when I was training, it didn’t feel like training…it felt like I was playing and they were paying me to do it.”
Drew told the students all about the Discovery mission, where he and his other crew members were working on attaching a storage unit to the International Space Station, which is 240 miles above Earth.
He described the launch in detail, showing a picture of his crew saying a group prayer beforehand. As they launched into space, Drew said he could see the sky turn from light blue, to dark cobalt blue, to midnight black within a matter of seconds.
His mission lasted a total of 12 days, during which time they completed the work on the International Space Station. Drew said his favorite part of being in space was the time he had just before going to sleep, where he could sit cross-legged on a glass portion of the floor and look through it to see Earth.
“Going into space gives you a profound change of perspective on things. [When] you do the space walk, literally the entire Earth is on one side of you, and the entire universe is on the other side of you – 13.5 billion light-years out into its distant reaches. And it makes you feel very insignificant,” he told the Catholic Standard. “…You realize that everything you’ve experienced, everything you care about, everyone who is important to you is in that little sheath of air that is on this little dot on this big, vast universe, and it is very humbling to think about that.”
Drew also noted how unlike looking at a map, when he looks at Earth from space, there are no lines to indicate boundaries between countries that would explain why people speak a certain language or use a certain currency in one place, and 10 minutes away do something completely differently.
“The line that separates us from Canada or Mexico is literally on a map, it is nowhere on this Earth,” he said.
At the end of the presentation, St. Anthony’s principal Michael Thomasian told the students, “Colonel Drew is not a blood relative of yours, but he is a St. Anthony relative of yours.” He encouraged students to discern their own vocation, and ask questions such as “What does God want me to do? What gifts do I have?”
To thank him for his visit, Thomasian presented Drew with a St. Anthony mug and T-shirt, telling him that if he ever flies on another mission, the school would love for him to wear it in space.
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