Reaching for the Stars from Below the Waves
One officer's dream to fly into space
Cmdr. Scott McGinnis, commanding officer of USS Houston (SSN 713), is not your average submariner.
Long before McGinnis earned his dolphins he knew that the path he wanted to take was not beneath the waves, but above the clouds.
"I knew sometime in high school, that I wanted to be an astronaut," said McGinnis. "I wrote in a paper during my junior year that I wanted to attend the Naval Academy, become a Marine F/A-18 pilot, go to test pilot school and then join NASA to explore Mars."
McGinnis' motivation to become an astronaut received a boost during his time as a midshipman when fellow Naval Academy graduate, Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell came to Annapolis to host a screening of the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13.
"His storytelling alone was enough to inspire 4,000 midshipmen to push their limits and achieve more than what they might have previously thought was possible," McGinnis recalled. "It is really something powerful when someone says 'I was once in your shoes and then I was in space and overcame these incredible odds.' It makes you want to push the limits of your endurance and see what you can do."
Despite the motivation to go to space McGinnis encountered an all-too-familiar obstacle that has grounded many aspiring flyers. He was told by medical staff at the academy that because of his eyesight he would never fly. "I took that as a dream killer," McGinnis said. "That doctor really put a damper on my excitement about space, and I limited myself, thinking that I couldn't do what I dreamed of doing."
Unable to become an aviator, McGinnis turned his attention to submarines. In 1995, Midshipman McGinnis was aboard USS Augusta whose engineer, coincidentally at the time, was Steve Bowen, the first submarine warfare qualified officer to be selected by NASA to join the astronaut corps. The experience McGinnis enjoyed aboard Augusta inspired him and he says it was a large part of his decision to volunteer for the submarine service.
Following his graduation from the academy in 1997, McGinnis spent the next three years involved with nuclear training and becoming submarine warfare qualified. During this training he discovered both the vibrancy of the submarine community and some parallels to space exploration.
"The submarine community has some really great teams and people," McGinnis said. "Learning from these people and living with them in a small, closed environment while achieving the mission - this sounds to me what I believe space operations to be like."
After earning his dolphins early in the year 2000, unexpected circumstances led McGinnis to start thinking about that dream of becoming an astronaut once again.
"I was standing duty officer onboard Seawolf, moored in Port Canaveral when early in the morning we had a loss of shore power. When I went topside for the casualty, coincidentally at the same time, a space shuttle was launching, and I immediately remembered why I had joined the Navy."
Having turned his attention to life as a submariner and considering that he had two years left on his contract with the Navy, McGinnis began studying the requirements for becoming an astronaut and examining the possibilities for the dream he had not thought of for quite some time.
Keeping in mind his goal of flying into space, McGinnis received a master's degree in astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. That educational experience turned out to be useful in his career as a submariner.