When Greg Chamitoff was a kid growing up in Montreal, Canada, in the late 1960s, he loved to watch the original Star Trek television series and he dreamed that one day he would become an astronaut. Chamitoff’s wish came true. He blasted into outer space in 2008 as a member of the Shuttle Discovery crew and spent six months on the International Space Station. Earlier this year, he flew on the final Shuttle Endeavor mission and took the last space walk in the shuttle program.
Chamitoff’s list of accomplishments is long, indeed. He has four engineering and science degrees, including a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. He worked as a college professor and, at NASA, wrote software programs for control monitoring, analysis and maneuver optimization for the space station. He has conducted cutting edge experiments in space, including, on the flight this year, a particle physics experiment aimed at unwrapping the mysteries of anti matter, dark matter and dark energy.
Yet when Chamitoff spoke to a group of IBMers earlier this week, he stressed the importance of differentiating between accomplishments and finding meaning in life. “What’s the purpose of my life? It can’t be just the sequence of milestones,” he said. One of his purposes is to inspire the next generation of young people to study science and engineering. “It’s tremendously important for the future of our country,” he says.
After he returned from his first stint in space, Chamitoff helped organize Zero Robotics, a software programming competition for high school and university students that’s sponsored by MIT. Students write programs for SPHERES satellites, soccer-ball-sized robots that fly around in the space station. An astronaut conducts the championship competition in a live broadcast from the ISS. Chamitoff also participated in chess games in space where astronauts competed with students from around the world. (Without gravity to contend with, the chess board and pieces float in the air.)
Chamitoff treasures his experiences in space. He was thrilled when he was on the space station the first time to place a call to actor William Shatner, the star of Star Trek. During his presentation, he showed a striking photograph of the view out of his portal on the ISS–with the earth spreading out beneath the insect-like structure of the space station and the sky full of stars. The view was so stunning that it was difficult to fall asleep at night. “You feel like you can reach out and touch the future,” he said.