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August 1, 2004
By Julie Summers Walker
Joe F. Edwards' former business card bore one word after his name, Astronaut. Impressive? Yes, and so is the man. At the age of 46, Edwards' list of accomplishments read like those of a character in a Tom Clancy novel: U.S. Naval Academy graduate, winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Top Gun graduate, space shuttle pilot, operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff...just a regular guy. But what makes Joe Edwards a real person and not a fictional character is that even with all of his accomplishments, he's down-to-earth, empathetic, and has never forgotten the hard work it takes to get somewhere in life.
Case in point: Edwards' new business card reads "Chairman and CEO" of the National Science Center (NSC), a nonprofit organization created by an act of Congress to improve the quality of math and science education in this country. As a pilot, Edwards immediately saw the connection between math and science education and aviation. Through his Blue Skies for Heroes program, which Edwards established as an educational legacy to the crew of the space shuttle Columbia lost in 2003, middle and high school students with an interest in math and science are taken beyond the classroom. In an aviation setting, students cover a variety of engineering disciplines. The five-day program uses available aircraft to introduce mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer design, thermodynamics, propulsion, and aerodynamics. Students begin flying with instructors on the third day of the program. Light twin and single-engine airplanes such as Beechcraft Barons and Mooneys are used as hands-on instructional tools.
Of the 200 programs at the NSC, this program is Edwards' passion. Retired from NASA in 2000, Edwards wouldn't leave his love of flying aboard the space shuttle. "You can retire and sit back and tell glory stories or you can take those skills you've learned and make a contribution," he says. Of course Edwards' glory stories are worth repeating. He was awarded the Navy's first peacetime Distinguished Flying Cross because of an incident in the Persian Gulf. There was a mechanical failure in the F-14B that he was flying. The nose cone of the jet separated from the airplane and smashed into the cockpit, hitting him. It temporarily blinded him in his right eye, broke his right arm and collarbone, and collapsed his right lung. He made an open-cockpit landing on the carrier, sticking his head out into the wind.
He refers to the incident as a test. "You don't want to be tested, yet it's in the test that you learn what you can truly do. You've worked so hard, you don't think you can be better. That's what we all want to find out." That test may have contributed to his selection by NASA to fly the space shuttle four years later in 1995. He was the lead pilot on the mission to fly the last American crewmember to Russia's Mir Space Station.
But you can't hear too many of Edwards' stories before the conversation gets back to the National Science Center programs, especially Blue Skies for Heroes. Edwards is justifiably proud of his designation of "astronaut," but it's more so because of the company he keeps than his own personal accomplishments. He knew all of the seven astronauts who perished on Columbia; in fact, he offers a sobering statistic — one out of every seven American astronauts who have flown in space has died on duty. "Even though most aviation accidents are because of pilot error in some form or fashion, we have never lost a life of an astronaut in a spacecraft because of a mistake made by the crew."
Edwards has recruited former astronauts to instruct in the Blue Skies for Heroes program and has enlisted the aid of educators from all over the country.
"There's a national need to save aviation," Edwards believes. "We can't let it go the way of the trolley tracks. Small jets are going to change the way we live and we need people in the industry who know aviation."
These are the young men and women in the educational system today — and America's high school seniors rank at the lowest levels in math and science achievement compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations. The Blue Skies for Heroes program will provide a springboard to college-based engineering studies. "Aviation is the perfect classroom; the airplane is the best laboratory," says Edwards.
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
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