On the eve of his first mission to space, alumnus and NASA astronaut Victor Glover reflects on the lessons he learned at Cal Poly and why it’s still important for humankind to reach for the stars.
Watching space shuttle launches as a child, Victor Glover decided he wanted to fly — to be in the driver’s seat of a massive ship breaking the bonds of gravity. But it wasn’t until years later, when he saw astronaut and former shuttle commander Pamela Melroy speak at an engineering conference, that he was inspired to take that dream to its ultimate conclusion and seriously consider a career in space.
This fall, Glover, a Cal Poly-trained engineer, active-duty Navy aviator and NASA astronaut, will begin six whole months outside of gravity’s grasp on his first trip to space and the International Space Station.
“People just have a fascination with aerospace, airplanes, jets, rockets and space flight — it’s something that is universally accepted as awesome,” says Glover. “That’s what it is to me as well. And now I get to be able to take the goals of humanity and to try and move the ball forward, and maybe one day help make humanity a multi-planetary species.”
Upon launch, Glover will become the fourth Cal Poly alumnus to leave Earth, following in the footsteps of fellow Mustang astronauts Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Rick Sturckow and Gregory Chamitoff.
The Mission Ahead
Glover will serve as the pilot on a mission whose primary objective is to test how a new type of spacecraft functions under new conditions.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon is the first privately-built craft designed to transport people to and from space. The ship has flown more than 20 trips between Earth and the International Space Station since 2012, but Glover’s mission will be the first to carry a full load of passengers rather than just a pilot, copilot and non-human cargo.
As the mission pilot, Glover’s primary duties will be focused on the Crew Dragon — getting to know the ship and its capabilities inside and out, ensuring a safe ride to and from the ISS, and monitoring and maintaining the ship during the crew’s six-month mission.
Since it’s a small crew, all hands must be on deck at all times. Glover will also perform spacewalks to help maintain the station itself, and operate the station’s robotic arm to interact with resupply missions. He will participate in new and ongoing research projects that use data from a floating lab and a team of trained scientists not bound by the constraints of Earth.
“We’re the eyes and ears in space for thousands of researchers on the ground,” Glover says. “One of the main research projects is us — how being in space for a long time affects our bodies. But there are hundreds of research projects going at any one time and we’ll be involved in all of them.”
Glover is the crew’s only first-time astronaut — a status that he finds incredibly comforting.
“I’m the rookie, so I’m flying with folks that can help me out much more than I can help them,” he says. “That motivates me to work hard so that I can be of some help to them. But I also know that if I have a question I can turn left or right or up and down and find someone who can help me out.”
But those are the objectives for Glover the astronaut. Inside, the boy who watched those space shuttle launches all those years ago has a much broader goal — to fully appreciate what may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Lessons in Learn by Doing
Glover’s path to becoming an astronaut was shaped, in part, by his education and experiences as a student at Cal Poly in the 1990s. For Glover, Cal Poly was an unexpected but serendipitous change of pace from Southern California.
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Though Glover had originally dreamed of attending the University of Southern California for its prestigious sports programs, a conversation with Cal Poly wrestling coach Lennis Cowell actually helped change his mind.
Cowell refocused their conversation on academics — and offered a more substantial scholarship than Glover would have received at USC.
“I showed up maybe a little kicking and screaming,” Glover laughs. “But by the time I finished and got to know the community and the town of San Luis Obispo, I also left kicking and screaming.”
Glover studied engineering at Cal Poly, and found community both within Mustang Athletics and the engineering program. His time as a student athlete in particular that gave him the work ethic that would be critical to his future as an astronaut.
“A lot of people came from high school as talented athletes. But if you didn’t work hard at the university level playing Division I sports … it was a very high level,” says Glover. “I didn’t come in with a great work ethic. I had to step up and learn to work hard, at both sports and academics. It was a challenge.”
His coaches on the wrestling and football teams helped him learn those lessons, which still guide him today.
“When you show up to talk to people as an astronaut, everyone always talks about how smart you are,” says Glover. “But I would say the one thing that all astronauts have in common is how hard they work. Some of them are very smart, but they all work hard.”
Glover credits his experience as an engineering student with the other crucial component of his astronaut qualifications.
“I wouldn’t have been eligible to go to test pilot school and I wouldn’t have been eligible to apply to the astronaut program. Not just by having a degree but having an education in engineering, which means being able to analyze and synthesize,” he says. “Being able to break things down into simple, understandable pieces and then come up with solutions and build them back up from those same simple pieces — my ability to do that was really reinforced as an engineering student at Cal Poly.”
Making an Impact
A good work ethic and analytical mind weren’t the only things Glover developed at Cal Poly. He also found an opportunity to work for the future he wanted to see.
The relative lack of diversity at the school was jarring to Glover, a Black teenager from the Los Angeles area. He decided early on that he wanted to try to do something about it.
During his freshman year, Glover joined a student group called Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA), an educational outreach program aimed at encouraging middle school students — and especially students from underrepresented backgrounds — to explore the STEM disciplines and aspire to higher education. For nearly four years at Cal Poly, Glover spent his weekends traveling up and down the coast to tutor young students.
While helping build a pipeline of underrepresented younger students eager to study STEM at a place like Cal Poly, Glover was also building skills within himself.
“We had lots of different approaches to studying and helping students achieve academic success — encouraging the students to study together; to use each other as a resource before asking the MESA instructors or the teachers; to take the time at the end of classes to review their notes,” Glover says. “My first quarter on campus was a little rough, and I realized that I was not doing all the things that we encouraged the students to do. It helped me really become a better student.
“I made the dean’s list for the first time after that, so it really helped me turn things around to know that I had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk for those middle school kids,” he says.
The program was Glover’s first taste of public science advocacy — an important part of his current role as a NASA astronaut. It also introduced Glover to Dionna Odom, his frequent tutoring partner whom he would eventually marry.
Glover also spearheaded a more direct effort to build a more inclusive campus.
When California’s Proposition 209 passed in 1998, banning race as an admissions factor in state institutions, Black enrollment at Cal Poly saw an almost immediate plunge and many campus programs dedicated to supporting Black students were forced to change or close.
Glover and a group of other students involved with what had previously been the Minority Engineering Program organized to form the Cultural Crisis Coalition, a student group dedicated to fighting the restrictions of Prop 209 and building a more diverse Cal Poly.
“The goal at first was to try to undo it at Cal Poly. But we quickly discovered we couldn’t reverse it,” he says. “Cal Poly had to operate within the bounds of public law.”
Working with faculty mentors, Glover and the Cultural Crisis Coalition found ways to achieve their goals working within the new law. They couldn’t actively recruit high school students based on race or ethnicity, but they could target recruiting efforts in ZIP codes where large communities of Black and Hispanic students happened to live.
They couldn’t use state funding to direct academic support to minority students anymore, but they could — and did — convince ASI to approve $300,000 to launch a student-driven center on campus aimed at outreach, retention and support for underrepresented students.
“We felt frustrated sometimes, we had to just accept it at times,” Glover says. “Sometimes it was just putting your head down and doing the work. It was also sometimes about figuring it out and learning how to use the system.”
Working with others against resistance toward a crucial goal was an important learning experience for Glover, and a direct line to one of the first things he tells students who ask him how they can become astronauts.
“You have to be gritty, even when it seems like all the forces are against you,” he says. “If you think you’re doing the right thing, keep doing it, even if you have to overcome the greatest challenge in the world that you can ever face — yourself.”
Into the Skies
In 1998, during his last year at Cal Poly, Glover enlisted in the Navy and joined their Baccalaureate Degree Completion Program, which helps students pay for college in exchange for service as Navy officers. After graduating from Cal Poly in 1999, he completed officer candidate school and began training as a pilot, first at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Pensacola, Florida and then at NAS Kingsville, Texas.
He was about halfway through his training at Kingsville and already had an offer to stay on and become a flight instructor, when an event in 2001 forced him to reconsider his future as a member of the Armed Services.
“The day after September 11, our commanding officer addressed all of us, and we talked about what was going on and what it meant for our futures, our country, going to war and preparing for what that all meant,” he says. “After that meeting, I went to his office and I said, ‘Sir, I want to reconsider staying here. I think I should get out into the fleet and go do what I’m trained to do.’”
Glover learned to fly the F18 fighter plane in San Diego and deployed to Iraq, where he served as a combat pilot based on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. After one tour, he returned to the U.S. to train for a second deployment when he was accepted to the Navy’s test pilot school, eventually spending two years putting the service’s cutting-edge equipment through its paces.
He attended the Naval War College in Rhode Island and the Air Force Air Command and Staff College in Alabama to study tactics and operations, then deployed again — this time to Japan, where he flew missions on the Super Hornet, stationed on the carrier George Washington.
Meanwhile, inspired by that presentation by Pam Melroy, he applied to NASA’s astronaut program.
The astronaut recruitment process is a long one. Once NASA puts out a call for applications, it can take as long as a year, with a thorough vetting of academic backgrounds, credentials, and eventually, interviews with current astronauts and other NASA personnel, according to Mike Hopkins, a veteran astronaut and Glover’s commander on the upcoming mission.
After several six-month deployments in Japan, Glover got a new assignment: a one-year fellowship to serve in Washington, D.C. on the staff of Senator John McCain. It was in the middle of that fellowship in 2013 that he finally learned that he had been accepted into the astronaut program.
Hopkins says that personality plays a surprisingly large role in who makes the cut as an astronaut.
“Obviously there are a lot of technical requirements for an astronaut — but probably the most important skills are, can you get along with them for a long, long period of time in a little can up in space?” says Hopkins.
For Hopkins, Glover checks all those boxes and more.
“Victor has got a dynamic, magnetic personality that just draws people — and he had all of those other things as well,” Hopkins says. “He had the technical background, he’s an experienced test pilot. He met all of the technical requirements. And then you add on just the person that he is, and I think he was pretty easy choice.”
“No Average Day”
It’s been seven years now since Glover joined the astronaut program and moved with his family to Houston to begin his training. He says that what might surprise people most about astronaut training is the sheer variety of skills an astronaut has to learn.
“We train on public speaking, and being in front of folks and being able to speak extemporaneously and having a point and being concise,” he says. “And robotics, how to fly a robotic arm, which is like flying an airplane and doing a little bit of computer operations at the same time. Flying high performance jets, doing space walking training, which is very, very physical, and how important it is that we go to the gym to build that aerobic and anaerobic fitness.”
Some of his recent trainings have included Russian language lessons, training on scientific equipment he’ll use to assist a European research team, virtual reality spacewalks, practicing how to escape from a spacecraft underwater, and practice docking the Crew Dragon on a simulated ISS at SpaceX headquarters in California.
“I mean, you’re doing something different every day. There are no average days,” Glover says. “You have to follow me around for like three months to see average.”
Some of the most critical aspects of training including getting and staying familiar with the various systems on the Crew Dragon and the ISS — power, data, communication, cooling, motion control. Also crucial, but harder to simulate: preparing for months without gravity.
“We get in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in full pressure suits and simulate doing space walks underwater,” he says. “It makes you float, and everything seems weightless, but if you flip upside down your blood still rushes to your head — we can’t actually turn off gravity.”
The scope of the mission keeps Glover and his colleagues head in the game, no matter how long and complex the training days get.
“We all work very hard because we want to be very good at what we do,” he says. “When it’s game time, you can’t stop in lower orbit and say, ‘Hold on, I’m going to descend 250 miles back to the Earth and start over.’”
“A Really Powerful, Unifying Thing”
As he approaches his first mission, Glover wants to make the most of his time in space.
“I want to just try to enjoy being there, to be in the moment,” he says. “I have some plans of some things that I want to do and what I want to feel. But at the same time, I also know that when I get there, I may realize what other things are really important. And I want to just give myself the leeway, the latitude to appreciate it in real time.”
Given the turbulence of everything going on here on Earth, one might wonder whether another trip to space is worth the effort.
Glover has an answer. He says that space travel has real, tangible benefits.
“For every dollar that we spend on NASA, we recoup about $3 in the real economy, between academic advancement and the economy of our country,” he says. “That alone is an investment that anybody would make.”
But for Glover, the real benefit is both less tangible and much more important.
“Space exploration unifies and inspires — it is about humanity and creating opportunities for all people everywhere,” he says. “NASA’s vision is ‘to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.’ In a time when there are so many things that we let divide us, it just seems to be this really powerful unifying thing. And that is my favorite aspect of this job.”
Read more about Victor Glover’s time at Cal Poly — and impressions from his wife, classmates and professors of Victor as a student and activist — in the upcoming issue of Engineering Advantage.