AE Senior Ready to be an Astronaut


When the supervisor of the full-motion space shuttle simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston hears Samantha McCue has her pilot’s license, he ups the ante.

Wind and fog begin to roll in without warning as the University of Illinois senior makes her final descent toward the computerized airstrip, forcing her to switch from visual to instrument flight rules.

Maintaining a steady hand and even breaths, the 21-year-old Bartlett native manages to keep the display’s diamond in the little square to continue on the desired heading, successfully landing the shuttle without incident and earning kudos from longtime NASA employees.

If Samantha has her way, one day she’ll again return from a mission — not as an intern practicing on a simulator — as a real astronaut manning a billion-dollar spacecraft.

“There’s so much out there we don’t know about, I feel we’re like pioneers,” Samantha said. “We’ve explored here, but people seem content not knowing what’s out there. I want to see a lot more, and I’m very motivated to be a part of it.”

It’s been her dream ever since sixth grade at Sycamore Trails Elementary School in Bartlett, when, on her grandma’s suggestion, she completed an 80-page research project on NASA inventions that have benefited mankind.

Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., soon followed, as did trips to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“She was totally hooked after that,” Jill McCue said of her daughter. “She’s wanted to be an astronaut ever since.”

After graduating from Bartlett High School in 2008, Samantha enrolled at U of I, one of just a handful of universities to offer both an aerospace engineering major and a flight school so she could minor in aviation.

She spent her first two years in Champaign flying a few times a week in a four-seat Piper Archer at 5,000 feet and up to 130 mph, eventually earning her professional pilot certificate and instrument rating.

Samantha, who also holds a third-degree black belt in karate, already has solo flights to most Midwestern states under her belt.

Bill Jones, an assistant aviation education specialist at U of I, said Samantha is not only an incredibly intelligent person with more motivation and drive than most her age, but also the ability to grow from adversity.

“She had some difficulties in the flying portion of our instrument course, but she took full responsibility for her failures and promised to correct her issues,” Jones said. “Sure enough, she passed the next attempt with flying colors.

Samantha McCue
Samantha McCue

“Whatever she wants to do in life, I know she’ll do it.”

Samantha’s grades, flight experience, attitude and passion for NASA helped land her a coveted internship at the agency’s Johnson Space Center during the spring semester. She worked at the Extravehicular Activity Office, which is responsible for spacewalks and the development of spacesuit systems and support equipment.

“I was impressed by her diligence, her discipline,” said NASA staff engineer Scott Cupples, who served as Samantha’s mentor. “She was a self-starter who’d ask questions but didn’t need a lot of input.”

At NASA, she expanded a database of all the failures the spacesuit ever had — from leaks in the water system to tears in a glove — to assist in designing the next generation suit.

She also had opportunities most of the other interns didn’t.

As everyone else scattered across the space center campus to their assignments, Samantha headed to Building 1, which houses the agency’s director and most administrators. She hung out in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA trains astronauts such as Rex Walheim, who in July flew on Atlantis in what was the space shuttle program’s final mission.

She also had close encounters with moon rocks in the Lunar Lab, flew in a full-motion simulator and sat in Mission Control for one U.S. and two Russian EVAs (Extravehicular Activities).

But perhaps the biggest highlight of Samantha’s spring internship was getting to try on the equipment she got to know so intimately: the spacesuit.

The 100-plus-pound suit was customized to Samantha, who had to undergo a physical due to the liability. She wore an undergarment filled with a football field’s worth of tubing for cooling and ventilation. NASA even pressurized the suit as if she were in space doing an EVA.

“It gives you such an appreciation for all the work everyone does,” she said.

Now more than ever, Samantha is dead set on becoming an astronaut, especially after spending the summer interning for Rolls-Royce’s jet engine division in Virginia. She got to see the business side of commercial flight, and now knows it isn’t for her.

“It was a great experience, but it definitely reinforced that the whole reason I got into aerospace was because I’m interested in space and spacecraft,” Samantha said.

In the past, budding astronauts knew the path they’d need to take: graduate, get a Ph.D., work for NASA, apply to the astronaut program. But with the 30-year Space Shuttle program’s conclusion this summer, Samantha’s next steps are far less defined.

While multiple countries continue to bring cargo to the International Space Station, only the Russians are carrying people to support it. Samantha’s mentor, Scott Cupples, said NASA is figuring out its next move, whether it’s going back to the moon or to Mars or an asteroid.

And commercial companies such as SpaceX are getting into the game, which has Samantha thinking about interning for the private sector next summer.

She plans to get a master’s degree in humans in aerospace or bioastronautics, and then go to work for one of those newcomers as a contractor to NASA.

“The shuttle was expensive and basically an antiquated semi-truck that we don’t really need anymore,” Samantha said. “It’s sad that the program has ended, but it’s for the better. And the experience of being in a young company and doing something revolutionary is priceless.”

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