Exploring Space with NASA's Dr. Yvonne Cagle
Exploring Space with NASA's Dr. Yvonne Cagle

"I finally know what I want to do when I come back from space and that is to be a student right here at EA," said NASA Astronaut, Dr. Yvonne Cagle, as she greeted Middle and Upper School students during her presentation on Thursday, March 7. "Your STEM programs, your humanities, your athletics program, your family, your outreach, your awareness, everything to me, that's what makes up a space crew."

"I want to be the welcome wagon lady, the first person to greet you when you arrive on Mars," declared Dr. Cagle. Her fascination with space began in the top of an old oak tree on July 20, 1969. As a 10-year-old, she was playing hide and seek with her siblings, hiding at the top of the tree for several hours.

"Nobody was looking up, north," explained Dr. Cagle. Then she recalled hearing her father calling for her to come inside. "My dad was silently pointing to the old rabbit ear TV. Guess what I saw? Even now it still almost makes me tear up. A human walking on the moon for the very first time." She ran outside to see if she could see the man on the moon. "And guess what I saw? Nothing."

That experience launched Dr. Cagle's dream to become an astronaut. "You know what I saw that was even more amazing was what I saw in my mind's eye. Suddenly I no longer wanted to see the man on the moon; what I wanted to see was the view the man on the moon had looking back on earth. At that moment, my dreams took wings, and I never looked back since."

After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry and earning a medical degree, on an Air Force Scholarship, Dr. Cagle was commissioned as an Air Force officer. She flew in F-111's, F-16's, helicopters and air-to-air re-fuelers. "Yet, after a while it seemed like those jets didn't go quite fast enough, nor quite high enough. I knew then the only way to go was up." At the time, the only way to get there was onboard a space shuttle.

In 1996, Dr. Cagle was chosen for NASA's highly-competitive astronaut training program. She has been to space three times and spent 42 days on the International Space Station. "There is really, literally, noting like space on earth. 25,000 mph, that's your orbital speed. 17-5 is just your escape velocity. That's ten miles every time you blink."

She explained to students, "17,500 miles per hour coming off of 7.5 million pounds of thrust where the energy under your seat is so intense. And the shear force of the vibration is so vast that it makes you close your eyes so tight you never even actually see your first launch, you feel it."

After liftoff, astronauts are 250 miles above the earth within ten minutes. "As you unbuckle those seat belts, you are floating. The first word out of your mouth is whoa. Guess what the second word out of your mouth is? Whoa!"

Testing the effects of space and decoding how the body works away from earth is Dr. Cagle's job as a space surgeon. She is currently focusing on deep space behavioral research for the upcoming Mars mission.

"Folks, we are going to Mars, mark your calendar 2035." The plan is for astronauts to go Mars by way of the moon in 2024. There is a plan for two 30-day missions. "Not only boldly go, we will boldly stay. We will have habitats set up there so that we can test a vehicle and propulsion that we can test most importantly our surface operations, robotics and the humans who will be working in collaboration."

Dr. Cagle encouraged students to stay curious. "It all starts with curiosity, and it's important to start early," said Dr. Cagle. "That is what distinguishes us from robots. Robots don't wonder, humans wonder."

"The only way to know is to go," said Dr. Cagle, as she spoke with students after her presentation. She also spent time with the Middle and Upper School Robotics Teams and students taking AP Computer Science and AP Anatomy and Physiology.

Dr. Cagle's credentials are impressive and lengthy. They include: consulting professor at Stanford University Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and Department of Electrical Engineering, family physician at the Volunteer Family Practice, clinical faculty at the University of California at Davis, chief scientist for level 2 program office of NASA's commercial reusable suborbital research program.

Dr. Cagle's presentation was a part of EA's annual STEM Speakers Series. Established through the generosity of the Clare Foundation, the goal of the series is to expose students and faculty to dynamic, innovative, and creative thought leaders across a range of STEM areas and sectors. The series also offers faculty the opportunity to learn from both content area experts and STEM education leaders in an effort to improve pedagogy and practice. Discussions and ideas that are created from the speaker series will further expand curricular opportunities for students and may spark the development of new programs.