Chris Williams '01: NASA Astronaut

by Christy Li '23 for Silver Chips

“I've been interested in being an astronaut for basically as far back as I can remember. I don't know where it started, but I have very distinct memories of being a tiny little kid, maybe a five-year-old, and drawing pictures of the Space Shuttle,” Chris Williams, Montgomery Blair High School class of 2001, reminisces.

Williams is one of ten astronaut candidates selected by NASA out of a pool of 12,000 applicants for the 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class to undergo the intensive astronaut training program. For Williams, this achievement represents not only the fulfillment of a childhood dream, but also the highlight of a research career which began at Blair.

“Blair was an incredibly important part of me getting to where I am in my career, not only as an astronaut, but also the things that I was doing before getting selected as an astronaut,” Williams explains. “Growing up, I had always been really interested in math and science, but it wasn't until I got to Blair that I'd really been able to fully explore the depths of what's possible.”

As a sophomore, after being encouraged to apply to the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program conducted by the Department of Navy by his Earth Science teacher at Blair, Williams secured an internship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory where he was tasked to study supernova SN1988Z. Williams credits this experience as his introduction to work inside a laboratory. “The biggest thing is that it made me realize that I could be a scientist, and science was a very viable career track for me,” he says. While enrolled at Stanford University studying physics, Williams returned to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory each year to work as a summer intern throughout college.

After pursuing radio astronomy in graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams decided it was time for a change of pace. Wanting to apply his physics knowledge to problems that were a bit more down-to-earth, Williams applied and was accepted to a Harvard Medical School postdoctoral medical physics program. At the time of his selection as an astronaut candidate, Williams was working with particle accelerators for cancer radiation therapy as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Through his work, Williams has come to appreciate aspects of both astronomy and medical physics. “Astronomy is incredibly impactful, but just in a very different way, and in a way that's a little bit more removed,” he explains. “I really enjoyed the fact that when I was working as a medical physicist, every single day you go to work, you're working as a physicist, but you're also making a very big and direct impact on somebody's life.”

Williams believes his varied background in astrophysics and medical research, two areas that NASA values highly, helped set him apart during the astronaut selection process. He also credits his experiences working on both research and clinical teams in preparing him for the collaborative nature of work as an astronaut.

The basic requirements to apply to be an astronaut include a master’s degree in STEM fields and at least two years of relevant professional experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. After submitting his application back in March of 2020, Williams did not hear back from NASA until April of 2021 due to COVID-19-related delays with selection. Out of thousands of applicants, Williams was one of 120 who were flown down to Houston, Texas for interviews.

“One of the things that was really awesome to see throughout the selection process is when you get to meet the other people that you're interviewing with, and realize just how incredible everybody around you is… It sets off a little bit of that imposter syndrome that I know I certainly have, and I think a lot of us have,” Williams recalls.

After multiple rounds of medical and psychological testing and more interviews with NASA’s astronaut selection board, Williams received the deciding call after dropping his daughter off at daycare one day. “I was just absolutely stunned. It was one of those moments where you're left entirely jaw dropping to the floor, speechless, not really sure how to react,” Williams recalls.

For the next few years, the astronaut candidates will train in five key areas: space station systems, robotic arm operations, Russian language, spacewalking, and flight training.

Williams is over-the-moon about each and every aspect of his future with NASA. “I'm really excited,” Williams says. “The chance to fly in space is really special, and the chance to do that while also doing research and furthering our scientific knowledge is really compelling to me.”

Williams is eager and honored to play an integral part in humanity’s continued exploration of the cosmos. “It speaks to that sort of exploration spirit that I think humanity has. I think it's something that's there in all of us, this sort of desire to explore,” Williams explains.

For any budding scientists and astronauts at Blair, Williams offers a few words of advice. “Keep going and don't sell yourself short… Don't let any feelings of imposter syndrome stop you from pursuing what you're passionate about. Keep going and keep being passionate about STEM,” he encourages. “I think Blair is a pretty special place in terms of the resources and the people around you, or at least I felt that way when I was there. Really enjoy that and take advantage of that as much as you can, because it's a really fantastic and special place to be.”

Read this story on page D6 of the February 2022 Silver Chips