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A child's dream to 'drive' a space shuttle propels him toward a historic NASA mission

NASA

When a 10-year-old Victor Glover first saw the launch of a space shuttle on television, he was "totally captivated by the machine," he says. "I thought, 'Wow, I would love to drive that.'"

Fast forward 27 years to 2013. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover, a test pilot with combat experience over Iraq, is far removed from aircraft carriers, fighter jets and boyhood dreams of traveling into space. He's on Capitol Hill on a temporary assignment as a legislative fellow for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

That's when he got the call.

Actually, he missed that first call. But after frantically dialing back, he eventually reached Janet Kavandi, then NASA's director for flight crew operations.

"She answers the phone and asks me, 'How would you feel about coming to Houston to start astronaut candidate training?'"

Glover had been passed over once before, in 2009. That time, despite his experience as a test pilot, engineer and flying the Navy's F/A-18 fighter jet, he "didn't make it very far," he says.

To say that NASA's selection process is brutal would be a gross understatement. In Astronaut Group 21, Glover was among just eight chosen from a pool of 6,300 applicants.

He says he doesn't remember much about the conversation with Kavandi. But when he hung up the phone, he took a deep breath and pinched himself. "I'm in a suit and tie and I'm standing in the Russell Senate Office Building with these marble floors and these beautiful statues and brass work," he says. "And ... I look down at myself and I'm thinking, I am dreaming."

Artemis II will be the first crewed moon mission since Apollo

Today, at 47, Glover is a Navy captain and the first African American to have spent extended time on the International Space Station. He is slated for another historic undertaking next year — piloting the Orion space capsule as part of NASA's Artemis II mission. He and three crewmates will be the first humans to visit the moon in more than 50 years.

Despite a childhood fascination with space travel, Glover, who grew up in Pomona, Calif., didn't always aspire to be an astronaut. He describes a kid who was "an adrenaline junkie," the son of parents who encouraged his curiosity and interests. "I wanted to be a stuntman, a police officer like my father, a fireman, or a race car driver."

By high school, Glover had become a star athlete — football and wrestling. He was also showing aptitude in math and science. But Robin Ikeda, who taught him advanced placement biology at Ontario High School, says he sometimes seemed to prioritize athletics over academics.

"I remember his math teacher just tearing his hair out," she recalls. "He would come to my classroom and say, 'I know that Victor really respects you. You've got to talk to him. He's got to buckle down in math. He's not reaching his potential.'"

Even so, there was no doubt that he had a personal drive that she didn't see in a lot of other students. "He could have done really well in biology," Ikeda, now a retired college professor, says. "But he was totally into the physical sciences and math. I couldn't talk him out of it."

Ikeda, who remains in close contact with Glover, says he was special. Over the years, lots of her students showed promise, but "with Victor, it was this inner compass and self-awareness. I have never seen that level of self-awareness and confidence in a youngster," she says. "He was very respectful, very serious, very funny, but not frivolous."

When it came time to choose a college, the Navy wasn't on Glover's radar, and he had no interest in the military academies. "I was recruited for multiple sports and turned it down," he says. Instead, he landed at California Polytechnic State University — San Luis Obispo, ranked among the top engineering schools in the country.

After graduating from Cal Poly, Glover joined the Navy and briefly considered signing on with the elite SEALs, but his father suggested something else. "My dad says, 'You know, with an engineering degree from Cal Poly and Navy pilot wings, you might mess around and become an astronaut.'"

First, however, there was a lot of flying to be done. As he progressed to fighter jets, he earned the callsign "Ike" (I Know Everything) from his commanding officer. Over the years, he's gotten stick time on dozens of aircraft, from the iconic Korean War-era Soviet MiG-15 to the Goodyear blimp. But his favorite is the one he flew into combat over Iraq: the F/A-18.

"That thing kept me alive in some pretty challenging times," he says.

Glover earned a master's degree in systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in 2009. He graduated with honors and "a near-perfect GPA," according to Mark Rhoades, a senior lecturer at the school who was Glover's thesis adviser. That thesis, co-authored with another student, is for restricted distribution, so "I can't go into the details other than to say it was very innovative," Rhoades says.

The view from space looked like "the country was boiling over"

Glover and his wife, Dionna, were on a Mediterranean cruise in 2018 when he learned he'd been selected to be on the first operational flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft — a mission that would involve a long-duration stay on the International Space Station.

He says they were fortunate to have time to talk about the implications of the upcoming mission for the family, including their four daughters. "We agreed that NASA's going to get me ready to fly and live in space," Glover says, "but my wife and I would be responsible for getting my family ready for me to work and live in space for six months."

Liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., came barely two weeks after the contentious 2020 presidential election. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and anger over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd was still fresh.

As he said a socially distanced farewell to his family on his way to the launch pad, Glover wrestled with the contrast of what was happening to the country and to him personally. He was "excited and ... proud to represent America and humanity," he says, but also disappointed at "how it treats some people who look like me just because they look like me."

NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Victor Glover is pictured inside Japan's Kibo laboratory module installing research gear to develop a biological model to study the effects of spaceflight on musculoskeletal disease.
/ NASA
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NASA
NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Victor Glover is pictured inside Japan's Kibo laboratory module installing research gear to develop a biological model to study the effects of spaceflight on musculoskeletal disease.

Over the next several months, Glover vividly recalls, came the feeling of circling a planet that seemed to be falling apart below him.

"The country was boiling over with ... discontent and dissatisfaction," he says.

He was in space when an insurrectionist mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. From his time working on the Hill, he had gotten to know some of the Capitol Police officers. "My heart and thoughts were with my friends in D.C.," he says.

One day aboard the space station, Glover "took a bunch of pictures right as the sun was rising because I wanted to capture that moment right when the sun rays went through the atmosphere," he says. "I got a picture and I sent that to all of my friends to just let them know I was thinking about them." He added a quote from Psalms: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

As a verdict neared in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of murdering Floyd, several Black astronauts called from Earth to lend their own moral support. "We had a video call ... and it was great to show them around" the space station and "just to be able to talk through that time," he says. It was "so supportive and powerful for me. And I needed that. I needed an outlet. And they were that for me."

The astronaut, the human, the mentor

Artemis II won't involve a lunar landing, but it is a critical milestone for NASA. Not only will it be the first time in decades that humans have been sent to the moon, but it will be the first time anyone will travel into space aboard the Orion spacecraft. The mission invites comparisons to Apollo 8, the first flyaround of the moon in 1968 that took place after just one Earth-orbit test of the program's command module.

Artemis II commander Reid Wiseman (right) makes a point during a visit to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in November. Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is seated at left, next to Christina Koch and Glover.
Charles Beason / NASA
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NASA
Artemis II commander Reid Wiseman (right) makes a point during a visit to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in November. Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is seated at left, next to Christina Koch and Glover.

Right now, Glover and his crewmates — fellow Americans Reid Wiseman and Christina Koch and Canadian Jeremy Hansen — are in training mode. They are scheduled to fly in 2025, after delays pushed back this year's original launch date.

All but Hansen have previously been in space on long-duration flights. Like Glover, mission commander Wiseman spent months aboard the International Space Station, while Koch holds a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman — 328 days.

By comparison, the Artemis II mission will last just 10 days. Nonetheless, crew compatibility is essential, Wiseman says. "We are not yet that well-oiled crew," he says. "You find that the human dynamic and the team skills ... take time to develop."

Even so, Wiseman clearly believes his team has what it takes. As for Glover, "the thing that strikes me every day is just how methodical and thoughtful he is as he goes through his workday," Wiseman says. "He does not let a detail slip through the cracks."

There are the less quantifiable character traits, too, Wiseman says: "The thing that is lost when you just look at Victor as the astronaut is you don't get to see him as a human, as a mentor."

Crewmate Hansen agrees. "What I really love about Victor is his heart and how much he stops to care for other people," Hansen says. "When we're traveling and we're meeting people around the country, he just goes out of his way ... to make these authentic connections."

Astronauts Victor Glover (right) and Jeremy Hansen react at a news conference in Houston, Texas, on April 3, 2023, after the announcement that they have been selected for the Artemis II mission to venture around the moon.
Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Astronauts Victor Glover (right) and Jeremy Hansen react at a news conference in Houston, Texas, on April 3, 2023, after the announcement that they have been selected for the Artemis II mission to venture around the moon.

After Artemis II, NASA plans to start landing astronauts on the moon's surface again — for the first time since 1972. But only a handful of missions seem solidly in place, and Glover says it probably doesn't make sense for him to stick around at the space agency in hopes of walking on the moon himself.

"I personally don't see how one person could fly multiple Artemis missions with the few missions that we're going to get in the next several years," he says. "So, I don't see it as a possibility for me. I am not expecting it. I'm not holding out for it. And I won't stay with NASA for that."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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