After Sept. 13, you’ll want to take a closer look at the International Space Station as it passes by in the night sky, because a Chanhassen NASA astronaut will be aboard.
Well, OK. Mark Vande Hei doesn’t live in Chanhassen. But his parents Tom and Mary Vande Hei do.
Last Saturday, they proudly hosted a bon voyage party. He heads to the space station on Sept. 13, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He’ll be in space for five and a half months.
Before guests arrived, Vande Hei, 50, sat down to talk about his upcoming mission.
He flies to Russia on Saturday, Aug. 12, to prepare. Then Sept. 13, he and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, will launch to the space station aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft.
Once there, they’ll participate in scientific projects and experiments, and help with the operation and maintenance of the space station. He’ll be living in zero gravity, bunking in a cubby about the size of a shower stall, and enjoying the greatest view of Earth from the cupola of the space station.
Vande Hei grew up in Plymouth, and is a Benilde-St. Margaret’s School graduate. As a kid, he thought that being an astronaut “was cool,” Vande Hei said. “You think of astronauts being super heroes, like Superman.”
He graduated from St. John’s University and was commissioned in the U.S. Army through ROTC. He was assigned to Italy, and later Iraq, as a combat engineer.
The Army sent him to Stanford University for a master’s of science degree. In 1999, he became an assistant professor of physics at the United States Military Academy in West Point. It was there that Vande Hei switched his focus to space operations.
After a tour of duty in Iraq, he became a space operations officer. In 2006, he reported to Johnson Space Center as a capsule communicator in the Mission Control Center Houston. In 2008, NASA started asking for astronaut applicants with military backgrounds. His boss passed him an application.
“I thought that would be amazing, but the competition is so tough.”
He credits his wife, Julie, for encouraging him.
“Mark, youve got to do it, otherwise youll never know,” he recalled. “Without Julie, I may never have ever gotten off couch.”
He passed NASA’s thorough physical and a series of interviews and psychological testing, a process that winnows applicants down to 40 or 50 individuals.
Applicants undergo a round of interviews with a panel of up to 12 or 15 engineers, astronauts, flight directors and high-level managers from both Johnson and Kennedy space centers; if you’re called back, the next round of interviews takes a week.
“The first interview ” Vande Hei shook his head at the memory. “They said, ‘Tell us about yourself.’ Fifty-nine minutes later, I realized I had talked the whole time.” But he made the cut, and paced himself. “I made the second interview more conversational.”
Like any competitive situation, he and the other applicants would gather during their free time, comparing notes. “What questions did they askyou? You hear all the horror stories,” Vande Hei said. “You don’t know what questions they’ll ask.”
“By convincing myself I wouldnt get the job,” Vande Hei said. “I looked at it as having a deluxe tourist pass into areas of NASA no other person would have an opportunity to see. I approached it with curiosity as opposed to ‘My whole life rests on this entire hour,’ especially if your dream was to become an astronaut.”
He sees himself as enormously fortunate. When speaking to school kids, he’s a little embarrassed admitting being an astronaut wasn’t his No. 1 career goal.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Vande Hei said. “But I kept saying yes to any opportunities that let me keep learning more.”
Vande Hei was assigned to a mission in 2015, and has been in training for it ever since. He spends half his time in Russia and half in the U.S.
Training for his first flight into space has less to do with the physical effects of flight, but learning the instrument panel and controls that get you to the space station. Astronauts train in a space craft mock-up with full-scale models of the interior. Space walks are practiced underwater.
Astronauts conduct all types of science experiments during their time aboard the space station, using themselves as subjects for blood draws, muscle and bone density tests, and other physiological studies.
And they are trained as medics, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and any other skill set necessary to ensure a well-run and maintained workshop and living quarters in the isolation of space. Vande Hei said they even learn dental procedures in the event an astronaut has a dental emergency.
It’s a multi-team effort as all the training drills include the ground control team. “The space station is really flown by the ground crew,” Vande Hei said, “and they become more and more important the farther we get from earth.” Drills test not only the astronauts but even more crucially, mission control.
Earlier this year, Vande Hei had a raffle at his alma mater Benilde-St. Margaret’s. He’ll take the two winners’ high school ID badges up to the space station with him, giving them bragging rights when he returns them in 2018. He plans on taking family photos with him that he’ll shoot selfies with. And, of course, he’ll have his wedding ring.
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