Alumnus Ricky Arnold ’85 Returns to Teaching Background on International Space Station

Mar 23, 2018 12:00 PM

By Charles Schelle

As educators can attest, the teaching experience can be out of this world.

That will literally come true for Frostburg State University alumnus Ricky Arnold ‘85, who will rely on his teaching days and help complete Christa McAuliffe’s legacy on the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Year of Education on Station.

Arnold, who earned his accounting degree and teaching certificate at FSU, is one of two astronauts with teaching backgrounds in orbit this year. He and the crew will conduct these lessons through the assistance of NASA and the Challenger Center, a nonprofit dedicated to the spirit of the Challenger crew’s educational mission. Arnold is joined in orbit by Drew Feustel to complete more than 200 experiments in space, repairing the ISS as needed and highlighting education.

“We want to shine a light on the amazing people in our nation’s and world’s classrooms who spend time with our kids every day and really committed their lives to providing for our kids,” Arnold said during WJZ’s “Coffee With” segment before his mission’s launch.

Arnold is scheduled to speak live from the ISS with FSU pre-service teachers and students from local schools on Monday, April 9. The broadcast is available to watch live on NASA TV and NASA’s YouTube channel. Video of the broadcast will also be shared on and on FSU’s social media at, @FrostburgState on Twitter and on YouTube at Related events will occur at Bowie State University, where Arnold’s wife, Eloise, and McAuliffe earned degrees, and the University of Maryland, College Park, where Ricky and Eloise earned master’s degrees.

“I’m incredibly thankful for the education I received there, and it’s always good to reconnect with old friends and the next generation of teachers,” Arnold told Allegany Radio’s Amanda Mangan.

Teaching is a huge part of who Arnold is. After he earned his master’s degree in marine, estuarine and environmental science from the University of Maryland in 1992, the Bowie resident worked as a science teacher at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf, taught college preparatory biology and marine environmental science in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1993; taught science as a middle and high school teacher in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1996; moved to Indonesia to teach middle school mathematics and science, and in 2003 taught in Bucharest, Romania.

His 12-day mission to the ISS in March 2009 featured spacewalks and the delivery of power-generating solar array wings for the space station.

Now in orbit through Aug. 29, he is devoting a large portion of his time to “STEMonstrations” that include effervescence, chromatography, liquids in zero-g and Newton’s First Law to name a few. These were all lessons planned by McAuliffe before disaster struck on Jan. 28, 1986, but her mission was certainly never forgotten.

Part of the Year of Education on Station’s mission is not only meant to inspire students, but also teachers and pre-service teachers. Related to that component, Arnold and Feustel will connect with dozens of schools and universities across the country doing live satellite interviews from the space station, fielding questions from curious minds.

FSU Professor Dr. Sally Stephenson ‘09, is happy to see McAuliffe’s educational lessons live on. The early childhood education faculty member applied to be part of the Teachers In Space program in 1985 while a head start teacher in Braxton County, W.Va. More than 10,000 teachers applied to be part of the program nationwide. Stephenson was named as one of six finalists among West Virginia teachers and has kept her interest in the space program since.

“It will be the fulfillment of my dream to see him up there completing Christa’s lessons,” Stephenson said.

Frostburg State had the opportunity to talk with Arnold before launch by telephone from Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, about the return of a Bobcat in space. This interview has been edited for clarity.

FSU:  What does it mean to you to go back to your teaching roots in space with A Year of Education on Station mission?

Ricky: It’s incredibly exciting. Just through a coincidence of the flight plan, we actually had a year where Joe Acaba just landed and he’s been in space for six months, and I’m going to replace him. Just to have the opportunity to shine a light on the teachers in our nation’s classrooms and highlight the kind of stuff we can do on the ISS for education, it’s really, very exciting.

 FSU: What does it mean to you to complete Christa McAuliffe’s experiments and lessons? What role did you play in deciding to use these lessons?

Ricky: It’s very humbling to be a part of that because she meant so many things to so many people. To me, it’s about carrying the torch and handing it off to the next generations.

I think this is something that has been in the back of folks’ minds for a long time. I’m just kind of lucky to be there and be able to play a small part in it.

FSU: What updates did you have to make to Christa’s lessons because of the advancement in science since the 1980s?

Ricky:  That’s a good question. I think the demonstrations are pretty simple, scientific principles so they’ll be accessible for just about anyone. The lesson plans have been coming from the Challenger Center, so I know that they have made some modifications based on what ISS has to offer.

By and large, I think they’re trying to honor the spirit and intent of what Christa hoped to do back in 1986.

FSU: Are there any experiments or lessons that involve your marine science background?

Ricky: Not that I’m currently aware of.

It was funny, I was just talking to my graduate advisor, who called from the University of Maryland. I spent a lot of time in graduate school scuba diving. When we do a spacewalk, a lot of the same principles apply getting ready to do a spacewalk and then also coming back from a spacewalk because of the pressure differences. It’s very similar to what you do when you dive.

However, I think the underlying principles that you learn in any scientific endeavor are going to suit all of us well. I’m flying with a couple of geoscientists, and I hope to take some pictures of specific geologic features. The day-to-day science, they just need someone who understands, who speaks the language of the science.

FSU: You’re anticipated to be in space for about 171 days. What kind of impact on your body do you anticipate the effects of being in space will have for that length of time?

Ricky: That’s one of the experiments we’re doing. We go up there, and we’re pretty heavily monitored for the physiological changes that will occur. We come back and try to figure out ways to mitigate those.

I feel that’s one of the real contributions. We’re going to have a huge data set of people who have spent a long time in space. How do we prepare folks for when we become an interplanetary species, which I think we are; we’re going to need to protect people from those changes and help them recover from them for when they get to their destination and get back.

That’s one of the things we’re really learning.

FSU: Do you have a good mixtape for the galaxy to listen to during that journey, for that length of time?

Ricky: I sent up a pretty good-size file of music of all different kinds. I’ll have plenty of music to get me through the 170-some days, whatever it turns out to be.

FSU: How did Frostburg State prepare you in your journey to teach in space?

Ricky: I was really lucky at that university because you had a very great relationship with your professors in a small environment like that – Frostburg being a smaller university when I was there, and I know it has grown some since then.

We’re going to be in a very small, confined space for a long time. I think some of the interpersonal skills I learned while at theuniversity are going to suit me well. Certainly, the background, critical thinking and all the things I learned while at Frostburg are certainly going to help, too.

FSU: You are still a certified Maryland teacher. How do you maintain that? Do you still go into classrooms or surprise a science class as a substitute?

Ricky: (Laughs.) I wish I had time to do that with my current job, but unfortunately, I don’t.

The Maryland State Department of Education, one of their requirements to keep your certification is professional development. They have been kind enough to count all of the training and things I’ve done here at NASA as continuing education, which it really has been.

It’s enabled me to keep my certification in my home state, which I’m really proud to have.

Follow Ricky Arnold on Twitter and Instagram @astro_ricky and join the conversation as the astronauts share their passion for teaching in space with hashtag #TeacherOnBoard.