Fourth Spaceflight Ops Workshop launches students on path to operational thinking

Retired astronaut Clayton Anderson works with a student during this year's Spaceflight Operations Workshop.

Retired astronaut Clayton Anderson, right, helps a student with a flight simulation exercise during this year's Spaceflight Operations Workshop. Larger photo. Photo by Clay Paciorek/Aerospace Engineering.

AMES, Iowa – The students enrolled in Iowa State University’s fourth Spaceflight Operations Workshop are facing a full week of physical and mental challenges.

The 12 workshop students – nine from Iowa State, two from the University of Iowa and one from Tuskegee University in Alabama – will be tested Aug. 7-13 through skydiving, scuba training, wilderness survival, leadership lessons, team building and talks about science in space, spacecraft design, human capabilities, operational procedures and more.

While that training mirrors a little of what astronaut candidates experience at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the workshop isn’t really about preparing students for a career in space. It’s more about teaching them a new way of thinking.

“I hope that when they leave here they’re excited about the idea of operational learning and operational methodologies,” said Clayton Anderson, an Iowa State distinguished faculty fellow in aerospace engineering and a retired astronaut who inspired and has helped organize the workshops.

To Anderson, who earned a 1983 master’s degree from Iowa State, operational thinking means taking a new perspective. He wants the workshop students to start thinking “… like an operator.”

Engineers working on spacesuit controls, for example, need to think about what’s easy to use in zero gravity, with big gloves and limited visibility. That thought process also applies to engineers designing race cars and spaceships, or teachers building lesson plans.

As in past years, most of the workshop students are engineering majors. But there’s also an education major in this year’s class. And this is the first time the workshop has included students from the University of Iowa.

Anderson is pleased with the workshop’s growing diversity in fields of study and home universities. He believes the workshop has the content and message that could benefit just about anybody. And so he thinks the workshop could one day grow into an academic minor or even a training session for corporate leaders.

“We want our students to be excited to go back into whatever environment they’re from,” he said. “And we want them able to immediately apply some of the things they’ve learned here to their work environment and their teammates.”