Q&A: NASA Astronaut, UTD Alum

Jim Reilly (left) earned his Ph.D. in geoscience from UTD in 1995. He became interested in NASA’s astronaut program in 1984 and submitted applications every year until 1994, when he was called to join. (Jim Reilly | Courtesy)

UTD graduate Jim Reilly completed his doctorate in geoscience in 1995. He then went on to join NASA. During his 13 years at the organization and three space missions, Reilly traveled over 14 million miles in space and completed 31 hours of spacewalk time. He is now an instructor for the U.S. Air Force in Colorado and is the only astronaut who is also an honorary U.S. Marshal.

How did you become interested in becoming a NASA astronaut? How did the opportunity open up?

When I went back to school I was looking at getting my degree and becoming an airline pilot. Working in the geosciences department, a research assistant asked if I wanted to get my masters and go to the Antarctic. In the middle of that a friend of mine called and said they were looking for a job at an oil company called Santa Fe Minerals, I then worked for them for 17 years running all over the world. It was some really neat work which led to my dissertation. I then got my Ph.D. at UTD in 1995. (In 1985) I had decided I was going to try and apply for the astronaut program. I put in my first application and continued to do that until 1994 when they called me in for an interview and then I was called December 7, 1994 to join in March of 1995.

So you did over 31 hours of spacewalks during your time at NASA, what was that like?

For the space flights that we were doing, we were assembling the International Space Station and we were essentially high altitude construction workers. We trained a lot to get ready for a single mission. It takes between seven to nine months of intensive training, in terms of actually going outside (the space station), the only thing I can truly remember being apprehensive about is not wanting to screw it up. The only thing going through my head was what I needed to do to keep in sync with my spacewalk partner. I really didn’t have time to get nervous about any of that and even if I did I probably wouldn’t because I was surprised on my first launch I thought I’d be kind of nervous, because when strapping yourself to three and a half million pounds worth of explosives you’d think to be smart enough to be a little nervous, but the reason I think is that by the time you get there you’re trained so well that you can do anything (because) you’re trained to do it. The only time I was ever really apprehensive was on my performance, I was more worried about if I could keep up or if I did something wrong or a mistake somewhere that would cost money, time or worse, hopefully never the case, someone’s life.

Do you miss being an astronaut and going on space missions? Would you do it again?

I would do it again, possibly, but one of the things about spaceflight is that once you advance to the next tier in performance and you get to the max, you’re just doing things over again. I was at that point in my third mission. The requirements both mentally and physically to get ready for the flight after you’re losing some of that challenge is a bit more difficult to accept and at that point you have to make a decision if you want to stay or if you want to leave. But people say, ‘Do you miss NASA?’ and I look back and say I don’t miss the experience of being there in terms of meeting and such because it is a lot of work, and at times it’s like any other job. But what I really miss though are the people. We were part of one huge self-motivated and high performing team, I do miss that. In fact there was a transition coming back out of that into the real world and having to experience a much broader perspective of human performance. I remember being flabbergasted when someone said, ‘I’ll take care of this part’ and then they didn’t do it. To me I miss the people a lot, it’s good to see them and it’s like being at home with people when you get a chance to meet up with them.

In addition to being an astronaut, you are also an honorary U.S. Marshal. How did that happen?

A big part of what we do as astronauts, as you might imagine, is a lot of public speaking. And I have the fear of getting up and speaking in public. So I was battling that when I first got into the program. A friend of mine who taught how to speak in public said, ‘If you have a problem let me know and I can set you up with something.’ I went out and did a couple of presentations for the geological society, which is actually the most challenging audience I could ever put myself in front of. But it wasn’t as good as I would like it to be so I called him and said, “Hey, I really need to find a venue where I can do something a little bit different and get some practice.” So I got into contact with the head of the U.S. Marshal’s training for all 94 districts and he said I have three presentations for you to make, so I did that, and it turns out all of the chief deputies, these are all of the deputies that run the offices in all 94 districts, so these are very senior people and I’m standing in front of them and it resonated. In the course of all of this I tell my friend … that I had a great, great grandfather who was a deputy in the western district of Arkansas. They then asked if they could send America’s Star, as they call it, to space with me and I said, ‘Sure I’d love to do that.’ The director of the marshal service, Louie McKinney, came down to Houston and swore me in as an honorary U.S. Marshal and that was a lot more than what I expected. So on my second and third flight I flew America’s Star in space with both my credentials as a U.S. Marshal and a badge that has about 10 and a half million miles on it.

Do you have anything else you want to add?

One of the things that would not have allowed me to become an astronaut if I hadn’t experienced would be all of the people there at UTD particularly all of the professors that I had that challenged me to work harder than what I would have normally done. They were instrumental in my success, because they actually believed in me. They know you can do well so they give you the projects that allow you to excel and have fun. I was lucky enough to have some really inspirational professors there and instructors. They made it possible for me.

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