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Cadet aspires to fulfill childhood astronaut dreams

Cadet Valenti with Col ChariCadet 2nd Class Luca Valenti escorted Col. Raja Chari for three days during the Artemis Program astronaut’s visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy for the 30th National Character and Leadership Symposium in February 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cadet 2nd Class Luca Valenti) 

By Randy Roughton
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.- Several seemingly insurmountable obstacles stood in the way of Cadet 2nd Class Luca Valenti’s path to the U.S. Air Force Academy. But a childhood dream of an astronaut career kept him working to overcome each challenge until he became a cadet at 22.

The biggest obstacles were Valenti’s age and gaps in his education. Growing up in Italy, Valenti became interested in becoming an astronaut after reading about NASA. He considered the Academy his best opportunity to fulfill those dreams.

Unfortunately, he did not meet the educational requirements for admission, so he decided to go back to school online and redo his primary education. He then moved to Front Royal, Virginia to attend the Falcon Foundation-sponsored Randolph Macon Academy.

A group of retired Air Force officers and Academy graduates created the Falcon Foundation to grant scholarships for motivated hopeful cadets who need academic preparation to meet admission standards. Valenti’s work paid off when he gained an appointment in the fall of 2021.

Reaching for the moon

In February 2023, Valenti was the escort for NASA astronaut and 1999 Academy graduate Col. Raja Chari at the 30th National Character & Leadership Symposium. Valenti talked to Chari about the astronaut’s career and the cadet’s goal for three days. Before Chari left the Academy, he gave Valenti a signed photo that the cadet uses for daily inspiration.

“I keep it on my desk,” Valenti said. “When I have to get up at 4:40, and I haven’t slept enough, I look at the signed picture and think, ‘I can do this.’ And when it’s 5 a.m., and I’m biking to the airfield and the moon is still in the sky, I look up there and think ‘I’m coming to get you one day.’”

Valenti was excited when he learned Chari was part of the 2023 National Character and Leadership Symposium speaker lineup because of his role in NASA’s Artemis Program. Chari was the commander of the NASA Space X Crew 3 mission to the International Space Station in 2021. He now leads astronaut development and testing for the lunar lander under the Artemis Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Valenti wasn’t the only cadet excited to meet Chari during the symposium.

“[Valenti] made sure to program cadet interactions into his schedule so he could experience firsthand what cadet life is like today,” said Melissa Parent, Center for Character & Leadership Development event specialist and symposium speaker team lead. “These interactions directly impacted hundreds of cadets who will forever remember getting to spend time with an active astronaut who inspired them to be a part of the future of space exploration.”

Not a stranger to the spotlight

The aeronautical engineering major takes every opportunity to be involved with space operations and served as an emcee during the Air and Space Force Association’s 75th Anniversary Legends tour. For this event, Valenti helped orchestrate an entertaining gameshow for cadets with four-star generals and chief master sergeants as the contestants.

Cadet 2nd Class Luca Valenti
Cadet 2nd Class Luca Valenti speaks at the Air Force Association’s 75th Anniversary Legends Tour and National Character & Leadership Symposium Kickoff Event Aug. 30, 2022. Several retired U.S. Air Force senior officials visited the U.S. Air Force Academy to highlight the service’s 75th anniversary and discuss character and leadership with cadets. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Justin Pacheco)

Valenti is no stranger to the spotlight, having appeared on “X Factor Italia” and two seasons of the Disney Channel Italy TV series “Alex & Co.” He has continued to share his love of music and performing while at the Academy, singing with the all-male a cappella group “In the Stairwell.”

“Given his background, we knew he’d be comfortable on stage, and we threw last-minute scripts and changes to him that he handled like a professional,” Parent said. “I love to see cadets giving of their time and talents to make the [Academy] experience memorable for everyone.”

Mercury Seven connection

Valenti is researching the flight dynamics of birds in hopes it could aid in long-range unmanned aerial vehicle flight. Scholars receive annual awards for enrichment activities such as study abroad, academic conferences, and leadership training.

So far, Valenti has received two scholarships to help fund his research, including the Stamps Scholars Program Scholarship and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Scholarship. He found special meaning in the scholarship because of its connection with the Mercury Seven. The Mercury Seven were NASA’s seven original astronauts selected to fly for Project Mercury in 1959. All eventually flew into space.

“This was just an idea in my head three years ago and now to think I’m actually sponsored by someone who opened up the avenue to space is something I would have thought could have never happened,” Valenti said.

Even though getting to the Academy was not easy, his instructors and mentors said Valenti’s character revealed itself in his perseverance and hard work. He said he doesn’t know if it will pay off with a career as a NASA astronaut or an Air Force fighter pilot, but he’s grateful for the opportunity.

“I take the Air Force Academy as my second chance at education,” Valenti said. “I always try to wake up with a positive attitude because, at the end of the day, I get to learn and deliberately reshape who I am.”

‘Embrace Culture. Empower People.’

The 2024 National Character & Leadership Symposium, scheduled for Feb. 22-23, 2024, will examine the common experiences, emotions and challenges all humans share. This year’s tagline, “Embrace Culture. Empower People.” is rooted in the institutional outcome of “Valuing Human Conditions, Cultures, and Societies.” Registration opens in January.