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Astronaut from Camas shares insights with high-schoolers

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: November 18, 2017, 6:06am
4 Photos
NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, a graduate of Camas High School, takes questions while speaking to an audience of about 200 high school students Thursday morning at Washington State University Vancouver.
NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, a graduate of Camas High School, takes questions while speaking to an audience of about 200 high school students Thursday morning at Washington State University Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Revolutions are going on in space.

They’re not as epic as those cinematic portrayals of plucky rebel alliances overthrowing galactic overlords. But they are much more relevant to the future of today’s students.

One of the participants is Camas astronaut Mike Barratt, who has made two flights to the International Space Station. In a couple of home-turf appearances, Barratt described the two space revolutions he’s seen since growing up.

But first, forget that many people think that space travel itself is pretty revolutionary. That isn’t true for the high school students Barratt addressed Thursday morning.

Since 2000, there have always been crews aboard the International Space Station, Barratt told about 200 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. Almost all of those teens from the Camas, Vancouver and Evergreen school districts “have grown up with a continuing human presence in space.”

In that appearance at Washington State University Vancouver and again in an evening talk to the Columbia River Economic Development Council, he described the two space revolutions he’s witnessed.

They are internationalization and commercialization.

Barratt was a Cold War kid, in an era when the Soviet Union was a very real nuclear threat.

“We grew up with the concept that this was our big enemy. When I was a kid, I had a yellow Geiger counter” to detect radiation, the self-described science nerd recalled. In the event of a nuclear attack, school children were told to take cover under their desks.

Now Barratt speaks Russian, has ridden Russian aerospace technology into space and back, and counts astronauts from all over the world as his friends.

“That started in 1992,” he told the students in the auditorium at WSU Vancouver. “You guys don’t know a time when we haven’t worked together in space.”

That international aspect of the International Space Station is underlined during meal times, “when we all come together several times a day,” Barratt said.

“It’s not just the crew on board,” he said. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the globe supporting the mission, which has led to much more personal connections.

“There have been marriages,” said Barratt, who is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “A lot of Russian is spoken in Houston, and you hear lots of Texas accents in Moscow.”

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As far as the commercialization of space goes, Barratt is part of that, too. While he’s still on the roster of active astronauts, Barratt now works with people in private industry who are getting into commercial space-flight. The players include some of the biggest names in the business world, such as Tesla’s Elon Musk (SpaceX), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Boeing.

As a physician and flight surgeon, Barratt works on medical issues with the companies that are building crew carriers to replace NASA’s old fleet of space shuttles.

“There has never been a time when so many new space ships are being built,” he said. “We are really busy and short of engineers and talent.”

That’s good news for some of the STEM-oriented teens who heard Barratt’s morning presentation.

Alexis Howard is interested in aerospace engineering. A possibility would be working on next-generation modules — the structures that were assembled in orbit to create the current space station, the Camas sophomore said.

Camas senior Sarah Wells-Moran said her interest in aerospace engineering is focused on the spacecraft: “All the designs used for launches and landings.”

The Columbia River Economic Development Council’s evening session was part of a global celebration of entrepreneurship.

In the session at Pearson Air Museum, Barratt discussed another aspect of that commercialization: space tourism.

When Barratt went to space in March 2009, a crewmate in the three-person Soyuz capsule was Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi. And when Barratt returned to Earth in October 2009, a capsule companion was Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil. Both men paid $35 million for their tickets.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter