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Your Career

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.

An accomplished skipper, Naval Academy graduate, licensed civilian pilot and civilian divemaster, McGinnis has a dream and hopes to follow in the footsteps of some of the most famous Sailors to take to the sky and become only the second submarine warfare qualified officer to be selected by NASA as an astronaut.

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.
Photo collage for Sub to Space.

"Right after I got my degree I was put in charge of 24 three-stage solid rockets on an SSBN," he said. "While inspecting the payload side of those missiles, my astronautical engineering degree gave me a lot of perspective of how the propulsion and navigation systems worked."

In July 2014, McGinnis headed to Houston - USS Houston that is - where he took command of the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine. For two years he skippered the warship that appeared in The Hunt for Red October and carried the proud legacy of a World War II cruiser that was lost heroically fighting the Japanese in the Sunda Strait.

His time as commanding officer of Houston provided McGinnis with his most rewarding moment as a naval officer to date, as he brought the submarine home to Pearl Harbor in October 2015 after successfully completing its final deployment.

"Houston is the submarine I have had the privilege of leading. We practiced our mission skills for eight months prior to deployment and I could not be prouder of how the entire team grew during that period of time and of the work they accomplished while deployed. We took one of the Navy's oldest submarines 35,000 miles and didn't miss a single hour of operational time due to being broken or any other issues."

Prior to Houston's final cruise, NASA put out a call for those interested to apply to become an astronaut. McGinnis took the initiative and applied. This was not his first attempt at a formal application.

"I did apply the last two times (that NASA called for applicants to the astronaut corps) but the Navy had selected me for command of a submarine," McGinnis said.

The selection process is tough he acknowledges. "Over 18,000 people applied for about 14 slots," McGinnis explained. No matter what the end results may be, he remains grateful for the goal of becoming an astronaut.

"Without the challenge of becoming an astronaut I probably wouldn't have gone to graduate school, stayed in the Navy or become a pilot," said McGinnis. "I cannot imagine my life without those accomplishments."

The Richmond, Virginia, native said that his dream of becoming an astronaut has had a positive impact on his marriage as well. "My wife decided to learn to fly with me and then continued on to become an airline pilot. She had previously been a kindergarten teacher.

"Just the small challenge to explore space has led us to so much of a richer life, so if we don't end up going to Houston, we will both be thankful that the opportunity existed," McGinnis said.

No matter how the selection process with NASA advances, the would-be submariner-turned-astronaut, remains appreciative of his experiences and hopeful for the future. "It is a real privilege to be a part of the submarine force and lead the finest Sailors in any fleet. To have the opportunity to join another high caliber, high performing team would be an absolute dream."