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Space ace

NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams lands in NTU to regale students with stories about life among the stars

Like most American boys around his age, 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams was starstruck as he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon in 1969. “I remember the moon race and the landing. I was a kid then,” recalls the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) commander, who’s now 59.

Growing up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin, he soon developed a fascination with the worlds of science, aviation, technology and engineering – passions that followed him into adulthood.

NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams posing with a space shuttle at the North Spine Plaza at NTUPHOTOS: KWOK PEI FANG

Rocket man

The spacefarer visited NTU in August and regaled students with tales of his space odysseys. He made his maiden flight in 2000, working to get the International Space Station (ISS) ready for its first long-staying space crew. Throughout the NASA astronaut’s 21-year career, he would visit the space station four times – his last mission was in 2016. Few can say they’ve photographed the planet from the world’s only orbiting laboratory on the ISS, where hundreds of experiments are conducted every year across the spectrum of science disciplines.

Why build a lab in space? “Without gravity, space creates a unique environment that isolates other aspects of phenomena you’re studying,” he explains. But space research does carry a unique set of risks. One side effect of weightlessness is muscle atrophy, since the absence of gravity puts few physical demands on the body.

“To counter that, we would either run on a treadmill or cycle on a stationary bike every day,” he says.

“We also do weight training with resistance provided from vacuum cylinders. Otherwise, we’d be a vegetable or a wet noodle by the time we returned to Earth!”

In all, Williams has spent a total of 534 days in space. He held the record for the longest cumulative time an American astronaut has spent in space, until this April, when it was surpassed by a colleague, Peggy Whitson.

Fly me to the moon

How does one reach for the stars in this space age?

Obviously, besides an interest in the fields of aviation and space exploration, “you have to get the necessary education, be it engineering or science, to be an astronaut,” advises Williams. “Work hard and apply yourself well at institutions such as NTU. Get an advanced degree. Most non-military astronauts have PhDs in science or engineering.” A degree in applied science and engineering, and postgraduate qualifications in aeronautical engineering might stand you in good stead, as in his case.

His career was launched when he joined West Point, the American military academy. It was a key to getting a foot in the cockpit door, since training in the Army Aviation unit led to him becoming a test pilot.

But the commander cautions that chance of becoming an astronaut is only “slightly better than winning the lottery” – he got into the astronaut programme on his sixth try.

In NASA’s last astronaut selection, only 12 out of 18,000 applicants made the cut. “None of us know why we were selected, and many talented people have applied. I don’t take the opportunity I’ve been given for granted,” he says.

NASA Commander Jeffrey Williams on a space walk

Unravelling the cosmos

There are other ways to be involved in space programmes, even if you can’t be an astronaut, says Williams.

“Universities provide the resources and education to develop technologies, and find applications for them, such as deploying satellites to perform different functions,” he adds.

A stellar example of a university with stratospheric ambitions is NTU, which has put seven satellites in space – via Indian and Russian rockets – and is the first university in Singapore to develop a satellite programme for undergraduates. NTU also has one of the most advanced satellite research facilities in Asia.

More innovation is required to conquer the next frontier – other planets in the galaxy. The astronaut elaborates: “Technology, such as propulsion, needs to mature to take us to Mars. It’s one thing to take a rocket to Earth’s orbit and another to have a propulsion system that is efficient enough, weight-wise, to get to Mars and back. Another space for innovation is in life-support systems. There is still a lot of work to do, to improve reliability and performance.”

Ride of a lifetime

For all his space travels, he has not set foot on the moon. The grandfather of three seems resigned to the fact that he will not be able to realise his dream of a lunar jaunt. Nonetheless, he is thankful for what has been an astronomical ride. “I’ve had so many chances to do so many great things, and to live in space four times. I have no right to regret anything.”

So what we want to know is: Do aliens exist? The space veteran declares: “Those are fairy tales. As far as I know, we’re alone out there.”

  • NASA Commander Jeffrey Williams at the International Space Station
  • NASA astronauts Kate Rubin and Jeffrey Williams inspecting spacesuits on board the International Space Station
  • NASA’s Jeffrey Williams demonstrating how a space shuttle re-enters earth’s atmosphere with a Lego replica
  • NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams regaling NTU students about life among the stars
  • NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams with NTU students and staff in a lecture theatre