A brilliant rush of fire. A roaring crackle. An inverted mushroom cloud of vapor rushing out in every direction. Under 2.6 million pounds of thrust, Space Shuttle Discovery leapt from her pad beginning her 8.5 minute flight into orbit. Four hours earlier, Alan Poindexter, AE ’86, strode out of the Operations and Checkout building. It was Poindexter’s second shuttle mission and his first as shuttle commander.
Poindexter’s first time in space was as pilot of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-122 in 2008. In preparation for the single landing attempt, Poindexter trained in the aptly named “Shuttle Landing Trainer,” a variant of the Gulfstream II. The mission successfully delivered the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory. At the end of the mission, he guided Atlantis for landing at Kennedy Space Center.
“You shouldn’t be scared of [landing the shuttle]…know that your best is the best you can do,” Poindexter said.
However, Poindexter believes sharing the experience with other astronauts was most rewarding.
“The launch was certainly spectacular and very dynamic, very exhilarating…I think the best part about the whole mission was being with your crew mates in a vehicle working together as a team to get the mission done, and those are the moments that really stick out and shine,” Poindexter said in a pre-shuttle interview.
Poindexter’s journey to becoming an astronaut became serious after hearing Dick Truly, a fellow alum and astronaut, describe the experience of piloting the shuttle down for its first night landing.
“I was excited by [Truly’s account]. I talked to him a little about that career path…I never made it my sole goal in life, but it was something I always hoped to do,” Poindexter said.
Of course, Poindexter was well qualified to become an astronaut. He had logged thousands of hours in flight and over 450 carrier landings, was named “Test Pilot of the Year” in 1996 and had served in Operation Desert Storm.
“I made conscious decisions throughout my education and career at the Navy to keep as many doors open as possible,” Poindexter said.
Poindexter matriculated at Tech in 1983 after earning an associate’s degree at a junior college. Poindexter considered several other schools before choosing Tech.
“[I] applied for and received a NAVY ROTC scholarship [at Tech]. My girlfriend at the time was also living in Atlanta, and it worked out well,” Poindexter said.
In 1986, Poindexter earned a BS in AE with honors. Poindexter’s time at Tech still affects how he works today.
“Students at Tech, along with other great universities, learn about their ability to overcome and adapt. They also learn a lot about being a team player. We rely heavily on our teammates to do their jobs to the best of their abilities,” Poindexter said.
“The other thing we learned is how to be a good critical thinker and a good engineer. When you’re in a meeting, talking about shuttle and International Space Station topics, it’s good to be [technically literate] so that you have some background and credibility,” Poindexter said.
Poindexter has been immersed in a technical environment from a young age. One of five children, Poindexter was born while his father was pursuing a Ph.D in Nuclear Physics at Caltech.
“My dad was always very supportive in allowing us to experiment and determine our own paths. Obviously, his technical background influenced my own desire and [that of] my brothers, to become engineers,” Poindexter said.
Much of Poindexter’s inspiration derives from memories of previous launches, including both successes and failures.
“I can remember very clearly being in college when STS-1 launched…I was here in 2003 when we lost Columbia, and those memories are just terrible memories. But I think they make you think about the importance of what we do and how it’s important to pick up the pieces and learn from the mistakes that we’ve made and the engineering failures that we’ve had…. It makes us a better country and it makes us a better space-faring society,” Poindexter said.