Education key to reaching for stars: Colonel Drew soared on final Discovery mission
Col. Alvin Drew moves stowage containers through a hatch on the International Space Station while space shuttle Discovery remains docked with the station in March. (Courtesy photo)
Education key to reaching for stars: Colonel Drew soared on final Discovery mission

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

6/10/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Sometimes education can get you a promotion. For others, it can take you further. Five years after Col. Benjamin Alvin Drew graduated from Air War College with a master of strategic studies in political science, he was aboard the final Space Shuttle Discovery mission.

"The educational and training opportunities (at Air University) are second to none," he said in a phone interview from his office at the Johnson Space Center. "Looking back, any colonel or general will tell you, the educational opportunities are there, and you don't want to pass up on them."

The course gave him the opportunity to learn and develop his own education while learning from instructors and his peers. He learned from other colonels with varied experiences and profound backgrounds, sharing stories and ideas.

"It was a good time to think big thoughts," the now-retired colonel said.

And his thoughts were big. From Feb. 24 to March 9, he was aboard the 39th and final Discovery mission as a mission specialist. "I sat on the flight deck, in the flight engineer's position," he said. He also monitored systems and worked nonflying elements during launch, reentry and landing.

The crew upgraded station systems and delivered the Pressurized Multipurpose Module and Robonaut 2 to the International Space Station.

On this mission Colonel Drew became the 200th person to walk in space.

"I think the exact words were 'Oh my god,'" he said of the experience. "That sensation of being in outer space was spectacular."

He saw a sunny afternoon over South America. "I remember seeing the green jungle, all these brown rivers flowing into the Amazon, all these puffy, white clouds floating by," he said.

"I can't believe I'm out in the middle of this whole thing," he remembered.

Colonel Drew's experience in the Air Force helped pave the way for his career at NASA. He knows first-hand that training and education are essential to career success.

"A lot of what is important here at NASA is people with an operational sense about them," he said. "We have lots of people here with scientific and technical backgrounds."

NASA values people who have served in combat zones and know how to operate aircraft, he said. The training Airmen receive, especially in combat situations, is useful in space exploration fields.

"You have to make a decision right now, and it has real life or death consequences," he said of his time in the Air Force. "At NASA, especially in the exploration part, we do that every day."

Colonel Drew served as a combat rescue helicopter pilot from 1985 - 1987. As a member of Air Force special operations, he flew 60 combat missions over Panama, the Persian Gulf and northern Iraq.

He also worked as a project test pilot, commanded two flight test organizations and served on the Air Combat Command staff.

According to NASA's website, he has more than 3,500 hours of flying experience and has piloted 30 different types of aircraft. He retired from the Air Force in September 2010.

In August 2007 he was part of Endeavour's 20th flight, the 119th space shuttle mission.

Four years later, he was on the final mission for Discovery, which launched its first flight in 1984, the same year Colonel Drew graduated from the Air Force Academy with Bachelor of Science degrees in astronautical engineering and physics.

His education helped him achieve his flight goals and will carry him through the next phase of his career.

"Right now, I'm hoping to get a position at NASA headquarters, working to help the design and direction of the rendezvous spacecraft," he said.

Colonel Drew said that NASA decided seven to eight years ago to change direction, focusing on exploration as it did back in the 1960s, going on interplanetary missions and studying the moon and asteroid belt.

Though NASA is at a crossroads, the agency still needs educated men and women to continue its missions.

"I'm really interested in making sure there's a viable and vibrant space program for future generations of explorers," he said. "I got to be here because a lot of people worked hard in the '60s to create a working space program."