Leroy Chiao was only 8 years old when he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. He dreamed of visiting space one day, but admitted in a recent lecture to incoming Rice students that the road to becoming a NASA astronaut was not always easy.
Success ultimately comes from perseverance, the retired NASA astronaut told Rice Emerging Scholars Program participants June 27. This six-week residential academic program is designed to help incoming first-year students prepare for the challenging pace, depth and rigor of the STEM curricula at Rice. The program is currently in its fifth year.
Chiao, the son of Chinese immigrants, was born in Milwaukee and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. From an early age he was interested in aviation and flying, and growing up during the “Space Race” only fueled this passion. By the time Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic lunar walk, Chiao was hooked.
“I remember seeing the scene of the Mission Control center as the [Lunar Module] Eagle approached the surface of the moon and landed,” he said. “And I remember Walter Cronkite being speechless.”
Even during his youth Chiao knew he needed to focus on making the right decisions – from eating well and staying in shape to getting enough sleep and making good grades.
“You have choices,” he told the students. “Think hard about the ones you make.”
When it comes to selecting a career, he said, “think about what turns you on, what it is that really excites you, lights your fire and makes you stay awake with excitement – because that’s what you should go for.”
And while Chiao followed his dream all the way to NASA, his journey wasn’t without obstacles. He overcame childhood bullying and those who questioned his ambition to become an astronaut.
“Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams and passions,” he said. “Find your inner lion, and use that courage to erase fear. Dare to go out and try to do the thing that you really love. Don’t let anyone humiliate you into not making those decisions.”
His audience knew quite a bit already about overcoming challenges and realizing dreams, said Matt Taylor, associate vice provost for academic affairs at Rice.
“Many in the Rice Emerging Scholars Program are the first in their families to attend college or rose to the top of their classes in schools without substantial resources,” Taylor said. “By participating in this program, they are giving up their summer between high school and college to spend six weeks studying hard to get an edge on their freshman year studies, and like Chiao, realize as much of their abundant potential as possible.”
Chiao attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied chemical engineering and eventually earned a B.S. He admitted that while he made good grades, he struggled at times. He said completing his undergraduate degree was the most difficult thing he had ever done.
“Nothing came easily to me,” he said. “There were plenty of times where I wanted to quit.”
But Chiao didn’t quit, and his persistence led him to graduate from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, he worked in the aerospace industry before joining NASA in 1990. He was part of the 13th astronaut group.
“Opportunities to be an astronaut were pretty small, and it took a lot of perseverance,” Chiao said. “That’s ultimately what led me to NASA.”
Ultimately, Chiao said, life really is a matter of determination.
“Nothing’s easy – anything worth doing is going to require a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance,” he said.
Chiao formally became an astronaut in 1991 and spent 229 days in space. He participated in four space missions: Space Transportation System-65 Columbia in 1994, STS-72 Endeavour in 1996, STS-92 Discovery and the International Space Station Expedition 10 from 2004 to 2005. On his final mission, Chiao served as commander of the ISS. He was also one of the first Americans to co-pilot a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which transported him to the space station. In 2004 he voted in the U.S. presidential election from aboard the ISS, making him the first American to vote in a presidential election while in space.
Chiao retired from NASA in 2005 and now works as a consultant, teacher and motivational speaker. His consulting company, One Orbit, works with businesses and educational institutions. He joined Rice in 2012 as an adjunct professor and teaches courses in mechanical engineering.
Alicia Cotto, an incoming freshman from Orlando, called Chiao’s lecture “one of the best presentations I have ever seen.”
“I thought it was going to be a grand story about this trip to space,” she said. “But really it was just the buildup and the development as a person and then how this helped him accomplish what he wanted to do, as well as the struggles along the way, which we’re all going to have to go through [as students].”
Justin Bishop, an incoming freshman from Rhome, Texas, called the talk “enlightening and inspirational.”
“While I may not want to be an astronaut, I want to be able to accomplish incredible things as he did,” he said.