MISSION, RGV – Retired NASA astronaut Michael Fossum contrasted the career opportunities available in the Rio Grande Valley when he was growing up with what is available today. 

Speaking to hundreds of students participating in a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition at the Royal Technologies advanced manufacturing plant in Mission, Fossum said there were few engineering jobs and no programs similar to those hosted by FIRST RGV.

“I am so excited to be here. I have never seen anything like this. When I was growing up here a hundred years ago, we did not have anything like this,” Fossum said. “I was blessed to have teachers, especially my science teachers and my math teachers that encouraged me and helped me dream.”

Fossum pointed out that it was 50 years ago this year that America was preparing to put astronauts on the Moon for the very first time. 

“I remember as a child camping on a Boy Scout campout, looking up at the night sky, and as the campfire died down and there were a million stars overhead I said, wow, I want to do that too,” Fossum recalled.

“I thought that was a pretty crazy dream for a kid from the Valley. My Dad did not go to college. Valley kids don’t grow up to do those kinds of things, right?” Fossum said, noting that his first paying job was working in an orange picking shed and his second was repairing bicycles.

However, Fossum’s dream did come true. He encouraged students to work hard and get their hands dirty, like he did.

“I did not have this. This is so exciting because you get to do this as part of school, part of learning with real professionals teaching you how, not just you trying to get a lawnmower working so you can go make some money mowing lawns, which is what I did.”

Fossum said the experience students will gain participating in the FIRST robotics competitions will prove invaluable. “This will help you with whatever you do. Hard work, team work, creativity, innovation, it is amazing,” Fossum said.

Recaling his NASA career, Fossum said he was blessed to fly three Space missions and spend 194 days in Space. “Seven and a half years ago I was a commander of the International Space Station. I really thought I would stay at NASA forever. I loved it.”

However, after 36 years of service in the Air Force and at NASA, Fossum decided to leave the federal government to work at the state level. Today he runs Texas AA&M University’s Galveston campus.

“Almost all of our degrees are STEM degrees, all of our degrees are related to the ocean, ocean engineering, maritime business, marine biology, environmental science, maritime transportation. We train students to be engineers and pilots on ships.” 

Fossum said he was delighted to report that the number of Valley students at Texas A&M in Galveston has doubled over the last year. He said his campus needs even more Valley students.

“I am excited about being here. There were no jobs like this in the Rio Grande Valley 50 years ago. You had to leave to study engineering or to get an engineering type of job. You had to leave the Valley. Not anymore. The Valley is absolutely open for business. Good luck guys,” Fossum added.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in three-part series about FIRST RGV’s work in encouraging Rio Grande Valley students to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).