Students at St. Anthony’s Catholic High School, located in the Brookland section of the District of Columbia recently got a double treat. On Feb. 15, students had the chance to talk to an astronaut and that man, Alvin Drew, is a 1977 alumnus of their institution.

“I used to sit where you are now and through hard work and persistence, I achieved my dreams,” Drew told 70 students in the school’s cafeteria. “If you work hard, get good grades, stay out of trouble, and really get into science and math, you can be an astronaut too.”

Astronaut Alvin Drew spoke at St. Anthony’s Catholic High School about his career. (Photo Courtesy of Blair Matthews)

Drew is a District native who was inspired to become an astronaut when he watched the launch of the Apollo 7 on Oct. 11, 1968. After graduating from St. Anthony’s, he went to Gonzaga College High School where he focused on mathematics and science.

He graduated from Gonzaga in 1980 and attended the United States Air Force Academy where he got a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and astronautical engineering in 1984. Since that time, Drew has gotten a master’s degree in aerospace science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and another master’s degree in political science from the Air War College.

Drew was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 1984 and spent most of his active duty years as a pilot. When he retired from active military service in 2010, he was a colonel and had accumulated more than 3,500 hours of flying experience and piloted 30 different types of aircraft.

Drew joined NASA in July 2000 and after the two-year mandatory training he was assigned technical duties for the agency. From August 8-21, 2007, he participated in the 119th space shuttle flight to the International Space Station (ISS) which was the 20th flight for the Space Shuttle Endeavor.

His second and final space flight took place from Feb 24-March 9, 2010, the final mission for the Space Shuttle Discovery to the ISS. It was during this mission when Drew walked in space to outfit the ISS with updated equipment. It is an experience that lives with him to this day.

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” Drew told the AFRO. “You are out in all of this blackness on one side and if you look further you see the stars and the Milky Way and if you look on the other side, you see the huge planet Earth. The air is so thin in space that you can actually see it.

“The experience walking in space is surreal. It humbles you and you realize that you are a miniscule part of the universe.”

Drew told students that the ISS travels around the Earth at 18,000 miles an hour or five miles a second. He said there are six people from different nations such as Russia, Italy, and of course, the United States on the ISS at a time and that it is the size of a football field.

Drew said 19 countries participate in the ISS and despite its limited space due to the highly technical communications and piloting equipment on board, there are places to sleep, eat and relax. “I can watch television and talk on the telephone from space,” Drew said. “Being on the International Space Station is like being a part of a science fiction book.”

Drew said he could look out at the Earth through a window of the ISS and “see hurricanes and volcanoes” as well as the icy white Siberian landscape.

Drew said that floating around weightless “was a lot of fun” because there is little gravity in space. He showed a film about his 2010 trip with a clip of him rolling around in the air.

Drew said despite the perception that Blacks are new to the U.S. space program nothing could be further from the truth. “If you remember the movie last year, Hidden Figures, there were Black people involved in the U.S. space program from day one,” he said. Hidden Figures was a book and a movie that talked about three African-American women who played key roles in sending Americans, most noted was John Glenn, into space in the early 1960s.

“The space program got Blacks more involved as the civil rights movement progressed in the 60s.”

Drew said the future is bright for African Americans in the space program because of projects such as going back to the moon, traveling to Mars, the asteroid belt, and to the other planets in the solar system and beyond. He noted that these projects in the future will be funded not only by governments but the private sector also.