To Boldly Go …

Motion gif of astronaut images


What does it say about a relatively small liberal arts university that one sixth of NASA’s 2017 astronaut class — two out of just 12 candidates — are alumni? And, to put an even finer point on this astounding accomplishment, that those 12 were culled from a record number of more than 18,000 applicants?

“These two young men are the living embodiment of the value of a liberal arts education,” says USD President James Harris, adding that he was thrilled and humbled when he heard the news, but not surprised. “I think it shows the maturity of our graduates, our excellent programs, the quality of the instruction and the incredible faculty we have here.”

It’s also a testament to the wide range of students that USD attracts and the scholars it produces. At first glance, these two astronaut candidates —  Matthew Dominick ’05 (BS/BA) and Jonathan “Jonny” Kim ’12 (BA) — couldn’t seem more different.

Matthew Dominick

2017 NASA Astronaut Candidate Matthew Dominick. Photographer: Robert Markowitz.

A  Colorado native, Dominick graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and minors in physics and math. As a Naval aviator, he flew 61 combat missions during two deployments to the North Arabian Sea, then earned a master’s degree in systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School as part of a cooperative program.

A decorated test pilot with nearly 200 flight test carrier landings, Dominick was at sea, serving as a lieutenant commander aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, when he learned he’d been selected by NASA.

“It was rather surreal. I was running around the ship that night. NASA couldn’t really call me, I had to call them,” he recalls. “I tried to make the phone call right at 2 a.m. I was trying to be professional; I spent about 15 minutes trying to patch through, sending emails to them, but the phone system wasn’t working.”

When he finally did get through, Dominick’s good news was amplified by an unexpected bonus; a fellow University of San Diego alumnus would also be joining this rarefied astronaut class. “I was super shocked when I found out,” he says. Although he and Kim didn’t attend USD at the same time, they did discover some mutual friends and acquaintances.

“Jonny and I met via What’s App. It’s pretty awesome.”

While Dominick learned of his selection out at sea, Kim got the call as he shopped for groceries with his wife in Boston, where he was training as a first-year resident in emergency medicine.

“I was expecting a phone call that day, but I didn’t know what the result would be,” he says. “It was just one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. A lot of emotion that I had to control because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in the grocery store or on the phone.”

Jonny Kim

2017 NASA Astronaut Candidate Jonny Kim. Photographer: Robert Markowitz.

Kim’s route to NASA was as divergent from Dominick’s as their locations were when they each heard the news. After graduating high school in Santa Monica, he enlisted in the Navy. He trained as a Navy SEAL, serving as a combat medic, sniper, navigator and point man as a member of SEAL Team Three during two deployments and more than 100 combat operations in the Middle East, where his decorations included a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

Kim enrolled at USD through the Navy’s commissioning program, majored in math and graduated summa cum laude. His admission to Harvard Medical School made him a celebrity in the math department, well before he was chosen by NASA.

“We’ve been bragging about him ever since he went to Harvard,” says Diane Hoffoss, an associate professor of Kim’s who taught a Real Analysis I class during his senior year. “At first, I was surprised, then I thought, ‘Well, why not? He went from Navy SEAL to math student to med school. Why not astronaut?’”

Hoffoss remembers Kim as a “dream student,” hardworking and humble, willing to put in the time and effort to understand and excel, despite having a young family at home and a job outside of school. “He’s incredibly honorable and earnest,” she says. “I’m pretty sure that of all the students I’ve ever had, I got a sense of honor from him the most. He takes being a good person very seriously.”

If Kim had thoughts of eventually applying to NASA, he didn’t share them with his classmates or teachers. He says that although as a kid he had pictures on his bedroom wall of Neil Armstrong and his Apollo crew, he didn’t seriously consider becoming an astronaut until he got to medical school.

“For various reasons, I didn’t have the greatest confidence growing up,” he says. ”I didn’t have big dreams, like being an astronaut or a lot of dreams that I feel kids should have.”

Matthew Dominick was one of those kids who dared to dream.

“I remember my room in the basement of my parents’ house had the famous picture from the moon of the earth rising,” he said. “It was a wallpaper mural. I’d wake up in the morning and on one whole wall was that picture.”

As if personally absorbing the picture’s sense of boundless opportunity and limitless possibility, Dominick developed a blueprint for the life he hoped to live. “There were three big things I came up with,” he says. “I wanted to work with people who were passionate and love what they do. I wanted to do things I love. And I really wanted to contribute to the world. Every time, I would evaluate a new job against those three criteria.”

As an electrical engineering student, Dominick’s professors remember him as a natural leader who wasn’t afraid to think outside of the box. “He’s the sort of person that would have great ideas and go do them,” says Electrical Engineering Professor Kathleen Kramer. She recalls that as a student in her Senior Design class, he led a team that devised a method of mapping the strength of cell phone signals across campus. “I remember very clearly that it was his idea,” she said.

Dominick’s imagination was already venturing beyond campus and toward space. During his senior year, he and some fellow USD students formed a team selected by NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, which brought them to Houston for a week to meet astronauts and included a stint on the so-called “Vomit Comet,” a hollowed-out KC-135 aircraft that mimicked the conditions of space flight. The students designed experiments and conducted them aboard the aircraft while in zero gravity freefall.

Dominick was already hoping to become an astronaut then, according to Professor Daniel Sheehan, who taught him physics and was a faculty mentor for the NASA program. The two formed an enduring friendship.

Sheehan says that Dominick really does have the right stuff: The perfect blend of confidence and competence that evoke the characters played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, or Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy.

“If anything goes south on these flights, they want people who not only have the technical skills to get them out of a jam, they want somebody who has the temperament and integrity and the self-confidence,” he says. “He’s the guy that will get the job done, regardless what it takes. And he will not fold.”

In a small lounge used by faculty and students in the math department, pinned on a bulletin board, is a well-worn article about Jonny Kim from when he was admitted to Harvard medical school five years ago.

“He’s the example we bring up when we talk to students about med school,” said Hoffoss. “Also, when we talk about other things you can do with math. And when we talk about students we miss. His name comes up a lot.”

That draws a surprised chuckle from Kim, who obviously made a big impression in his own quiet way, whether he knew it or not.

“I didn’t realize they still had an article about me on the wall,” he says. “That’s embarrassing.” He’s not very eager to talk about himself or his own accomplishments, including his distinguished and decorated service as a SEAL. Two deployments “is really not that many,” Kim says. Yes, he won some awards, “but so did a lot of other people.”

earth from spaceBut clearly, Kim is not like other people. “He was super humble,” said Erin Williams ‘13 (BS) who was his classmate and study partner in Real Analysis I. “We knew he was in the military, but we didn’t know that he’d gotten honors or awards there. All the rest of us worked hard to keep our grades up. But he was one of the most hardworking people in our program.”

For most overachievers, serving as a Navy SEAL, earning a math degree from USD and an MD from Harvard would suffice. But Kim — most recently a resident physician in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital — was still searching.

“I would like my short time on this earth to leave something positive for the rest of humanity,” he said. “I got the idea planted during medical school that the NASA mission is one of the most high-yield ways to inspire our next generation to want to build a better world tomorrow. Although I didn’t dream about being an astronaut as a kid, when I thought about the possibility early in medical school, it just resonated with every part of my being.”

While Kim and Dominick may have taken very different paths to their common destination, what motivates them at heart is the same: A bold idealism, innate sense of duty and a deeply rooted determination to leave the world somehow better than they found it. And though they didn’t arrive at NASA directly from USD, both men agree that the years they spent at the university were instrumental in getting them there.

“I would go to engineering conferences at other universities and they’d look at us kind of funny,” Dominick remembers. “But we’d beat their pants because we had a liberal arts background. We could go up there, do the technical work, and communicate exactly what we were doing. That’s just as important as the technical side.”

In retrospect, that’s a big part of the reason that their former professors weren’t really surprised when they learned of the two men’s latest achievements. “To me, it makes even more sense,” says Kramer. “We are unique in a number of ways, and I see Matt as being just an example of that.”

As Dominick and Kim embark on their amazing adventure, neither would speculate on what role he might play as part of a future space mission. Both say they are just looking forward to working on collaborative teams and embracing any challenges that NASA presents. Both are married with young children, and know that they may spend months or years away from their families.

“I hope I can inspire young kids — especially kids who may not have the most confidence growing up — that they can do anything with a lot of hard work and commitment,” says Kim, adding that his son is ecstatic about dad becoming an astronaut. “And that the best trait they can have to attain their goals is to really embrace failures and learn from them.”

Dominick’s family is already accustomed to his prolonged absences, but life as an astronaut is very different from life as an aviator — and space travel can’t really compare to deployment on an aircraft carrier.

“My wife and I understand the sacrifice of being away. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult,” he says. “It’s trying to see your daughters growing up and maybe you’re not there. But we understand the importance of service, and one day hopefully my kids will understand that as well.”

Whatever the distant future holds, both men will spend the next two years training in Houston, where they’ll learn how to walk in space, operate instruments on the International Space Station and develop general survival skills. They’ll also study Russian. As newly minted astronauts, they’ll be eligible for selection to fly in active space missions or to support ongoing missions from the ground.

Back at USD, their loyal fan base will be watching every move. “I’m looking forward to when they go into space and they take a USD banner with them,” says President Harris. “I hope one of them is the first man on Mars.”


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