Pete Freeland is a man of many gifts. As skilled in the cockpit of a B-52 as he is in front of a television camera, he is equal parts pilot, engineer, professional actor and commercial astronaut. Pete has parlayed his talents and accomplishments into his latest role – that of STEM speaker and advocate, working to inspire the next generation of space and science enthusiasts. TV fans may recognize Pete from his guest-starring roles on top-rated series such as Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Pete has his own small plane, a Beech Bonanza, and flies almost every day. He is also a certified scuba instructor with more than 20,000 dives, including cave, ice and shark diving.
Tell me about your background and these dual careers you’ve had in aerospace and acting.
I was one of those really weird kids. When I was about three or four years old, I remember seeing astronauts on TV and I said, “I want to do that,” and that was it. I oriented all of my education to that. When I was in grade school, I remember going to the library and reading all the books about astronauts – what they were like and what they did. When I got to junior high and was reading their biographies and they all said they were into science and math, they were in the military, they were all test pilots. So, I said, “Okay, that’s what I need to do.”
When I was in high school, shortly after I turned 16, I was able to fly an airplane by myself before I could drive a car by myself. I was very, very passionate about it. I did well in science and math and I was a Presidential Scholar and was fortunate enough to get a full scholarship for my bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California, where I studied Aerospace Engineering.
I continued that focus with getting into the Air Force, going through Flight School and flying a variety of airplanes, including the B-52 bomber, the B-1, flying the EA-6B Prowler in an inter-service exchange with the Marine Corps, and doing a couple of combat missions in Operation Desert Storm. During that time, I kept my full focus on wanting to be an astronaut and had started applying to the program. I finished my master’s as well and just continued building my experience and expertise.
What happened when you left the military?
When I got out of the Air Force after the end of Desert Storm, I took at job as a civilian flight test engineer and test pilot and was working here and in Europe. I continued applying to the shuttle program and made it into the last group of about 400 out of many thousands that applied, but they said, “You really need to get more hands-on experience with space stuff.”
Through a friend, I was able to get on the space shuttle program in Palmdale, California, where they assembled space shuttles and did all of their maintenance. I started as an engineer there and eventually became the Chief Test Conductor for all the shuttle orbiters, and then the Lead Integration Test Engineer on a bunch of the X vehicles there – the X-37, the X-38. The whole time, of course, I was applying to the space program.
When did you start working as an actor?
In a parallel path, I was always interested in acting and things like that. I was in a play in grade school. When I got to high school, I took some acting classes, but my focus had been on aerospace engineering and being an astronaut.
About 10 years ago, I was with a buddy of mine and we were having beer and pizza one night. I was in Mississippi on a business trip. He said, “I made 1,400 bucks the other night,” and I said, “Dang, what were you doing, gambling?” And he said, “No, I was on this show called Numbers.” He asked if I’d ever done any acting and I told him I had done some in high school and had won a couple of awards, but never really did anything with it.
My friend suggested that I meet with his acting coach, a gentleman named Richard Hatch, in L.A. Richard was the lead actor in an old series called Battlestar Gallactica. I went over to Richard’s place and did what I found out later was called a dry read. He just looked at me and said, “Dude, you’re not under representation? You’re not in the business now? You’re there. You have the talent.”
How did things proceed from that point?
Richard began coaching me privately for the next couple of years and, through that, I started literally from square one doing some background acting and things just to learn about it. Then, I started setting 30-, 60- and 90-day goals and working my way up through it.
When the economy tanked in the 2007-2008 timeframe, they were moving our business unit to Mississippi and to Texas, but I wanted to stay here in Southern California. So, basically, I became unemployed in the aerospace business and started working full-time as an actor. I was able to replace my aerospace income with acting. It worked out pretty well, but it was a lot of hard work. Richard became a great personal friend as well as a coach and mentor.
How has your training as an actor contributed to your role as a STEM teacher and advocate?
Your timing is actually perfect to ask about STEM. I’m leaving work here shortly and heading out to Riverside, California, where I am going to be the keynote speaker at the California “Project Lead the Way” Convention, with about 3,000-5,000 educators who get together specifically for STEM. I’ll be talking about some of the trends in STEM and why it’s important to get high-school and even middle-school students engaged in STEM – to generate that interest and passion and then facilitate it.
My STEM involvement began in 2007 when I was still working full-time in aerospace. A local school here, a technical vocational school, sent out a notice to all the aerospace companies looking for somebody that was an aerospace engineer who could also teach. As you can imagine, not a lot of engineers are very good at public speaking or presenting – it’s just not their forte. As my agent tells me, “You’re not like an engineer – you’re more like a game show host.”
I worked with the school to set up an Introduction to Aerospace Engineering course through Project Lead the Way. It just continued on and, after a couple of years, I was not only teaching the class, but teaching the teachers. During the summer, I would go down to San Diego State University as part of the adjunct faculty and train teachers from all around the country, as well as developing new course materials for them.
As you were speaking, I was reminded of a NASA competition that I had the opportunity to see in person called NASA FameLab, where students compete as science communicators. It seems the parallel career paths you’ve pursued – aerospace and acting – merge well in a field like science communicator or STEM advocate.
I think so. The only other person I know is a fellow engineer, a mechanical engineer, who was working at Boeing on the 777 program when he got tapped to do some communications. You probably know him as Bill Nye, The Science Guy. He’s a good friend of mine and we joke about it. He says, “Pete, if I could just teach you to tie a bowtie, you could double for me.”
It’s not a real common combination being able to communicate about STEM. I have been doing some outreach here in Los Angeles and try to educate, inspire and excite the public about science and technology and all the cool things coming up.
Following up on your pursuit of an astronaut career, you said you applied to the shuttle program and got down to a small group of finalists. I saw a reference to you being a commercial astronaut now. Can you tell me more about that?
Basically, with the retirement of the shuttle program and the transition the last few years, NASA has kind of turned over the reins, if you will, for low-Earth orbit, access to space stations and things like that, to the commercial industry. The government astronauts are now focused on other things like getting to the Moon and going to Mars. This paradigm shift in the industry opened up opportunities for individuals who weren’t necessarily government astronauts. It doesn’t mean that they are any less qualified – you’re still going into the space environment and you need to have the physical and physiological requirements, the academics – you’re still doing the tasks. The only difference is your employer. You’re working as a private contractor.
In late 2014, I saw several calls for the first class of commercial space astronauts. I had applied in the NASA program with a fair amount of success – they would have 10,000-12,000 applicants and I typically made it in the last 200-300. Really the only thing holding me back was that I didn’t have my PhD at the time; I’m about halfway through my PhD now. But, I applied for this commercial program and, lo and behold, I got selected. I started training in February 2015 and I continue to train to this day.
Are you training for a specific mission?
We’re actually training right now for a suborbital spaceflight that’s scheduled for July of next year. We’ll see if there are any changes or updates to that based on the spacecraft certification schedule. I’m training for this suborbital mission through a group called Project PoSSUM.
Essentially, it is a research program to look at the clouds in the upper atmosphere. These particular clouds, called noctilucent clouds, only show up during the summer hours. They are a result of greenhouse gas buildup and they first appeared after Krakatoa. Since that time, they’ve indicated a fair amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but they haven’t been able to study them. They think there are particles in them, so they would make sure the shuttle didn’t fly through them when they were reentering. They are too high for airplanes to get to and too low for orbital spacecraft to sample, so the new suborbital spacecraft are perfect. We can actually navigate and fly through the clouds, take samples of the particulates, take video and laser imaging, and a few other things. That’s the mission I’m training for right now.
Who would launch the spacecraft for a commercial project like that?
We don’t have a firm agreement yet, but we’re working very closely with Sir Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic. Our tentative plan is for spaceship number 3 – prior to it going down to New Mexico – we are going to deploy it up to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and we’ll spend about three or four weeks at Eielson, launching it out of Alaska to get up over the pole.
That sounds like another great adventure in what has already been a fascinating career. What would you like readers to take away from reading your story?
It’s one thing to tell my story, but I’d like to get others excited and inspired to do things. If somebody has been sitting on the sidelines not wanting to engage – whether it’s in STEM or the new commercial space entities and so on – we are at the best time in history for anybody to be able to get involved. Look at what’s happened in technology. Five years ago, there weren’t drones or self-driving cars; there certainly wasn’t commercial space. In just the past five years – 60 months – look at the changes that have happened.
People may feel constrained or hesitant to get involved – to pick up a new skill or get out and do something – but this is a great time to do it. The opportunities are evolving exponentially. That’s the one thing I would encourage your readers to do. If they have an interest, get into an organization and check this stuff out, whether it’s something like drones or STEM or Project Lead the Way, things like that. They’ve really worked to take away the excuses. It’s a great time to explore opportunities.
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To find out the latest news on Pete Freeland and get info on Pete's current projects, visit his website and Facebook page. For more info about Project Lead the Way, visit their website and Facebook page.