The Sky's No Limit
BY DAVE REID
“I’ll wave to you on my way to the
—Tracy Caldwell, in a 1989 Beaumont High School friend’s
Way back in high school, she knew her destiny was
in the stars. Actually, it was even before then. Light years before
she wrote those words to a classmate, Tracy Caldwell rode motorcycles
as a kid in the Mojave Desert on family vacations. “At night,
I’d lay on the motorcycle trailer and see millions and millions
of stars and wonder what it would be like to be up there.
“You’re lying in total darkness. You can’t
hear anything except for coyotes and lizards rustling in the tumbleweeds.
When you look up, you see this immense light from stars everywhere.
I thought to myself, if I can see this much from earth, imagine
what it would be like to look around from up there.”
Yet before the stars called her name, she was exploring
the scientific worlds of electricity and construction, thanks to
her father, Jim Caldwell, an electrician who began taking her to
job sites when she was just 7. He said, “If you have enough
energy to run around, you have enough energy to put a tool in your
hand and do something with it.” As a result, Tracy learned
to use lots of tools, eventually working part time in high school
performing maintenance on trucks and getting so good working with
her dad that she nearly became a journeyman electrician.
“My dad never set boundaries for me or my sister
because we were girls,” Caldwell now tells student groups.
“We learned how to use tools, fix cars, do electrical work
– we’re girls without limitations. You don’t know
how much that attitude helped me. It never occurred to me that I
couldn’t do something because I’m a girl.”
Perhaps because of her scientific, logical mind, combined
with an upbringing close by the brilliant desert skies, her sights
remained fixated on the stars. She remembers first being excited
about the space program with the launch of the Challenger Shuttle
as a junior in high school. It was the realization that not all
astronauts had to be pilots – since one of the astronauts
was Christa McAuliffe, a teacher – that prompted her to first
think about being an astronaut herself.
McAuliffe died with the six other Challenger astronauts
when the shuttle exploded during launch in 1986. Somehow, the tragedy
did nothing to dissuade Caldwell. Instead, it inspired her new dream
to reach the stars as a full-fledged astronaut.
Tracy Caldwell wasn’t excited when her dad accompanied
her on a visit to Cal State Fullerton. It was down to two choices
– UC San Diego or Fullerton.
At Fullerton, they met with John Olmsted, professor
of chemistry and biochemistry, who was named the year’s Outstanding
Professor in 1998 and turned out to be one of her “most treasured
mentors.” It wasn’t until much later that she realized
how lucky she had been to choose Fullerton.
“I stumbled into it, really, because my dad
wanted to keep me close by, but it was a great choice because I
got to work so closely with the faculty,” Caldwell says now.
Shortly after meeting Olmsted, she told him she wanted to shoot
for the stars: “I want to be an astronaut,” she blurted
out. Over the years, Olmsted and some of her other professors embraced
her dream and encouraged her.
“When asked if he thought I had the ’right
stuff,’ it was Dr. Olmsted who said to me that if determination
was all it took, I could be whatever I wanted to be,” Caldwell
recalls. “I took that message to heart and feel it enriched
When she graduated from Fullerton in 1993, she presented
Olmstead with a small color photograph of the two of them together.
It was in a clear plastic holder affixed with a small model of a
plastic space shuttle and an American flag. On the flag, she wrote,
“This will be worth money some day.”
Olmstead had the photo sitting on his desk six years
later, when Caldwell returned to campus as an astronaut and distinguished
alumni speaker for the university’s 40th anniversary convocation.
While she was at Fullerton, another chemistry professor,
Scott Hewitt, became Caldwell’s research mentor. “Because
of Tracy’s mechanical, electrical and intellectual skills,
I asked her to join my research group and encouraged her to apply
for our Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program, funded
by the National Science Foundation,” Hewitt recalls. Caldwell
began research in the program that Hewitt established in 1992, helping
design and build a laser ionization/mass spectrometer.
“When Tracy began here,” Hewitt recalls,
“she was not sure whether she had the ability to do undergraduate
research. When she gave her first presentation to my research group,
she was very nervous and was visibly shaking. By the time she left
CSUF, she was poised and confident, and had enhanced her research
and communications skills.”
The last day Caldwell spent in Hewitt’s lab,
she stayed late and the sky darkened. Hewitt directed her to a particular
spot in the room, an area she had seen many times before, furnished
with tall, slender equipment racks and set with blinking lights
and gauges. Then Hewitt turned out the overhead lights.
“What do you think?” he asked. Nothing
registered with Caldwell, who had never seen the room in darkness
before. As the colored lights blinked on and off, he prompted gently,
“Doesn’t it look like the cockpit of the space shuttle?”
It did, and years later, that memory still triggers
her emotions. “That was just like him, always rooting for
me,” noticing something that other professors would not think
twice about. “He was just as excited about my future as I
During her college career, Caldwell was a member of
the Titan women’s track team, where she ran sprints and competed
in the long jump. She was named a Big West Scholar Athlete in 1989-91.
It was then she met the late Benny Brown, a coach who inspired her
to run a second or two faster, or stretch her jumps by another inch
or two. Caldwell says she often remembers Brown’s words of
encouragement during rigorous survival treks and the demanding physical
training that astronauts must endure. Inspired by the optimism of
her professors, Caldwell pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry at UC Davis,
where she completed the doctoral program in three years and earned
the Outstanding Doctoral Student Award. Her dissertation, dedicated
to Coach Brown, focused on investigating molecular-level surface
reactivity and kinetics of metal surfaces using electron spectroscopy,
laser desorption and Fourier transform mass spectrometry techniques.
Caldwell also taught general chemistry laboratory
sessions to undergraduate students while pursuing her graduate degree.
It was that experience that crystallized her appreciation for her
own undergraduate studies. “I blasted through my doctoral
program at UC Davis because of the training I received at Cal State
Fullerton.” She went on to receive a number of important awards,
including the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Postdoctoral Fellowship
in Environmental Science. But the biggest prize was yet to come.
Tracy Caldwell investigated the astronaut program
the way a scientist would scrutinize a chemical substance. She visited
the Space Center in Houston. She conducted research. She weighed
the pros and cons.
Among the pros: A sense of camaraderie “that
makes you want to stay there.”
And chief among the cons: Long stays away from her
While others might put “danger” at the
top of their “con” lists, Caldwell figured she already
had spent a lot of time working with high-voltage equipment and
dangerous, explosive materials and considered those bigger risks
than space travel.
She applied, along with 2,500 other candidates, for
an astronaut position. She made the first cut and became one of
122 people selected to spend a week in Houston undergoing exhaustive
screening tests, including psychological testing, physical examinations
When it was all over, Caldwell became the youngest
member of the 1998 astronaut class and – for a time –
America’s youngest astronaut. She was in the top 1 percent
of the initial pool and one of 17 mission specialists to be selected.
There were also eight pilots. Seven international members later
joined the class, including two from Italy, two from Canada and
one each from France, Germany and Brazil. The Brazilian is that
country’s first astronaut.
Though technically no longer America’s youngest
astronaut – a younger woman is in the current training class
– Caldwell says she will always retain one other historic
distinction: She was the first astronaut selected who was born after
the first moon landing.
Training is grueling both physically and emotionally,
with all kinds of races, challenges and projects demanded of the
fledgling astronauts. There are underwater endurance tests, long-distance
races, wilderness hiking — experiences designed to build independence,
teamwork, physical strength, ingenuity and intellect.
Caldwell continued to learn and grow following her
astronaut training, earning a pilot’s license and learning
conversational Russian and Spanish. She has become the only astronaut
proficient in American Sign Language, a language she first began
studying in high school, where two of her closest friends had hearing
As an astronaut, Caldwell has several major responsibilities.
She has spent much of the past two years in Russia, where she has
worked closely with the cosmonauts and studied Russian culture.
One-third to one-half her time has been spent in that country, where
she stays for at least one month at a time. She first lived in a
mid-city hotel but now stays in a cottage at the Gagarin Cosmonaut
Training Center in Star City, the military base about 25 miles northeast
of Moscow where cosmonauts are trained.
Her work is with the Russian space agency and a space
contractor that produces equipment used by both the astronauts and
cosmonauts, such as com-puter interfaces, procedure manuals and
schematics. All the materials are produced in Russian and after
they are translated into English, Caldwell scrutinizes everything
to maintain quality control.
A big part of working in Russia is developing personal
relationships, Caldwell says. "Much of my time is spent getting
to know these folks as well as learning their culture and trying
to integrate myself without becoming too un-American." In working
with them, she has learned that the Russians take a much broader
view of the world than do her countrymen.
"They have their way of doing things. They've
been in this endurance race longer than we have," she observes.
"We're good at short missions. We're good at getting a lot
of stuff done in a short timeline and getting things accomplished.
The Russians are better with the long-term stuff. We're learning
from them in this cooperative effort.
"They want a more simplistic approach. We try
to complicate everything. Their concept of time is much different
than ours. They have a history that's much longer than ours."
She uses an example based on her own experiences of
developing friendships with Russians, which takes more effort than
it does with Americans. "It I was meeting with a friend and
a friend was 15 minutes late, I would think I was stood up. To a
Russian, if you were 45 minutes late, they would think, 'what has
happened to my friend?" I hope my friend is OK. I think I'll
sit here another 15 minutes to see if my friend shows ups.'"
You go through a lot to earn a friendship with a Russian,
Caldwell says, but when you do, "it's the sweetest thng. It's
something you are locked on forever. you can count on them, as long
as you don't do them wrong."
Another important part of being an astronaut is the
public relations function—being an ambassador of science and
speaking with people of all ages about scientific careers and the
Last year, she spoke to a group of middle school students
in connection with her appearance as grand marshall in the Cherry
Valley Festival parade in her hometown, Beaumont. Her visit proved
that even astronauts are plagued with lost luggage. Her bags ended
up on another flight, and she had to borrow her mom's clothes to
make the parade appearance. But even without her NASA flight suit,
the hometown girl who became an astronaut was a big hit with the
When it comes to young people, Caldwell prefers talking
with fifth-and sixth-graders to older students. "In high school,
student are much more susceptible to listening to their peers as
opposed to listening to their parents and themselves," she
notes. "From what I've seen...fifth-and sixth-graders don't
know yet what kind of pressure is out there.
"I always tell kids three things: Dream big,
study hard and always follow your heart. And I go through and explain
these things. When I say follow your heart, I mean follow your very
own heart, your own instincts.
"My parents always gave me choices, and it was
up to me to decide where to go. And unless parents foster that in
kids, they're always going to be looking to other people to make
decisions for them. It's hard in a 30-minute talk to get kids to
understand that. If they've never been given that kind of freedom,
that kind of guidance, a lot of them get lost. They don't even know
they have those options."
For this star-gazer, dreaming big, studying hard and
following her heart are the fuel that will carry her to the stars.
It may be one year or several years before Caldwell makes it into
space aboard the shuttle, but her horizons seem to remain as unlimited
as the starry skies she gazed into as a young girl in the desert.
Her options open, her training ongoing, her determination steely,
Tracy Caldwell looks to the sky, knowing that someday she will wave
to use on her way to the moon.