Terry Wilcutt: Greatest Failure is to Never Try

Terry Wilcutt: Greatest Failure is to Never Try

Q) Thanks so much for being part of our Over the Hurdle blog, Terry. To get started, can you please tell our readers a little bit about yourself?


I’m a math major from Western Kentucky University.  I taught high school math for two years.  I served in the Marine Corps for 28 1/2 years as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, a Top Gun graduate, a Marine Corps Test Pilot, and finally, a NASA astronaut.  I’ve also been an active runner for over 50 years.  


Q) How did you discover your desire to be an astronaut? Was this always a dream of yours?      


I always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Fortunately, the Marine Corps offered a path to becoming a pilot with their Guaranteed Aviation program. My desire to be an astronaut came as my Marine test pilot tour was ending. One of the most enjoyable parts of being a test pilot is working with brilliant engineers while flight testing airplanes. Becoming an astronaut offered an opportunity to continue working with incredible engineers and also scientists in exploration and research. Of course, being an astronaut also allowed me to fly the Space Shuttle, which flew higher and faster than any airplane. 


Q) How did your passion for STEM education begin and why is it so important for the next generation of innovators to have a well-rounded STEM education?  


My 2nd year of teaching high school was in an inner-city school.  You’ve probably heard of food deserts in inner cities. There are also job and opportunity deserts in inner cities. STEM courses offer a way out of those deserts by increasing the job opportunities those students are qualified to fill. STEM jobs aren’t just jobs. They are exciting, meaningful jobs that usually offer higher salaries than non-STEM jobs.  Additionally, STEM courses stimulate curiosity, they develop creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. Developing solutions to the types of large problems the world is faced with now and in the future will require all of those. Two current examples of large problems are climate change and what limitations should be placed on artificial intelligence, AI. There are many others. Having as many people as possible developing the skills I mentioned above increases the likelihood that we can find the best workable solutions.  


Q) The National Wildlife Federation is promoting something called Green STEM, which they describe as an environment based education that helps boost student engagement in STEM subjects. In their Green STEM guidebook, they point to research that has shown students becoming more motivated and engaged in school when their learning is connected to a larger Does your experience as a former STEM educator and astronaut, having physically seen our planet from such a different perspective, provide you any insight or opinion on this approach to STEM education?  


Green STEM sounds like a great program.  Educators have been using NASA’s programs to motivate students for years. Anyone can go online to search for NASA STEM Program to get information on resources available for the classroom. These programs and others like them, such as the Challenger Learning Centers and Space Camps, have proven to be very successful in motivating students to pursue STEM careers. The astronauts routinely make appearances in schools, at every level, across the country to help with this very thing, connecting the what and why with STEM subjects in schools at every level. You can start that process of bringing as astronaut to your school by searching for “Astronaut Appearance Guidelines” online. 


Q)  As a former astronaut, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome during your time at NASA, and how did you overcome it? Was there ever a time you felt discouraged? If so, what helped you move past it?  


The biggest hurdle I faced during my time in the astronaut office wasn’t just my hurdle, it was the largest hurdle possible for the entire astronaut office, the Space Shuttle Program, and NASA  It was the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew. The subsequent mishap investigation revealed not just hardware problems with all the shuttles, but also problems with complacency, normalization of deviance, and leadership at all levels of the Space Shuttle Program. The work to fix both the hardware and the program was lengthy and difficult. We got through it by believing in our mission and long, hard work. The Space Shuttles were grounded for over 2 years while we worked through the plan, we developed to fix the problems that were identified. Some technical issues could not fixed and operational changes were made in order to save the crew if problems reoccurred. When the space shuttle did return to flight, there were collective sighs and tears of joy on tens of thousands of spaceflight employees and fans.


Q) Becoming an astronaut is no small feat. It’s said that NASA may select less than 1% of all qualified applicants. What advice would you have for people who are currently trying to achieve a feat that has seemingly insurmountable odds – such as becoming an Ironman or achieving distinction in their field of work?  


It’s a great question.  I’ve met a lot of people that told me they always wanted to be an astronaut but… or their lifelong dream was to be an astronaut but… or their life’s goal was to be an astronaut but…Those “buts” were always followed with “I never had the nerve to apply.”  What a sad story.   I would much rather tell my grandkids that "I applied to be an astronaut but wasn’t accepted" rather than “...I never had the nerve to apply.”  You can substitute “run a 5K” or “finish an Ironman” or "run an ultramarathon” for “be an astronaut” above.  Both would be sad stories.


You can search online for the requirements to be an astronaut. They are basically a Masters degree in a STEM field along with a couple of years working in your field.  For pilots, you need 1,000 hours of high performance jet time and be a graduate of a Test Pilot School. You should make a plan to meet those requirements. Work the plan to meet those qualifications. Then, actually apply! Your chances of becoming an astronaut are zero if you don’t turn in an application. Triathlons and ultra races aren’t any different. The first thing is to decide you are going to do it. Make a realistic training plan with some margin. Do your research on things like what equipment you’ll need, nutrition needs, and support team plan. Do the actual work. Actually show up on race day ready to make a lifelong memory and a great story.  

Getting prepared for a Space Shuttle mission is no different.  There is a set of skills we need to perform the mission. We develop a training plan to master those skills by launch day.  We work that plan. Then, we show up on launch day ready to go accomplish the mission.  


Q)  I understand that you’re an active runner. What do you typically look for in your athletic socks and how have Hurdles socks helped you with your training? What style do you typically wear during your runs – no show, ankle, quarter crew, or crew?  


I am an active runner.  I typically run 4 days a week.  My everyday run distances vary from 3 - 10 miles depending on the weather or if I’m training for a longer race.  My longest race to date is a 50K. I plan on doing that again in April of next year along with a couple of marathons between now and then. I wear no show socks during the warmer months and crew socks in the winter. The things that are important to me in running socks are fit, cushion, arch support, moisture wicking, and blister protection. I think most runners would give you the same list. It is very rare to find all of that in a single sock. Thankfully, Hurdle socks were designed with each of those in mind and I think they nailed it. I’ve been running for over 50 years and I literally don’t even think about my socks or my feet anymore while running because I have zero problems with my feet. Hurdle really is a high-performance sock, perhaps THE high-performance sock. Thank you Hurdle! 

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