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Alumnus returns to space with a scientific mission

Andrew Feustel (PhD’95, DSc'16) is returning to space in March, where he will stay aboard the International Space Station and support important research.

Going to space never gets old for Andrew Feustel (PhD’95, DSc'16).

Astronaut Andrew Feustel (PhD’95, DSc'16), will be returning to space as flight engineer for Expedition 55 and commander for Expedition 56. (Supplied Photo)

The astronaut and Queen’s grad is set to make his third trip into orbit this spring. Dr. Feustel will be making the trip with a fellow National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut in a rocket that will launch from Kazakhstan in March.

“This trip will be quite a treat because it will allow me, for the first time, to live in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS),” says Dr. Feustel.

Dr. Feustel will be the flight engineer for Expedition 55 and commander for Expedition 56. As flight engineer, he will serve as co-pilot to Oleg Artemtyev on the Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft.

“I have been working a lot with Oleg, as space flight is complex and requires a lot of coordination,” he says. “There is a language barrier, but we have reached a balance where we understand enough of what is desired and required to keep the spacecraft moving in simulations.”

During his time aboard the ISS, Dr. Feustel will be the ‘hands, eyes, and ears’ of Earth-based scientists, collecting data on various experiments being completed on the station. One project will look at osteoporosis and muscle wasting in space – a pertinent topic for astronauts and those who hope to live in space someday. He says he will learn more about the research to be conducted during his trip once he reaches the station.

Dr. Feustel had considered a career in space for many years, but it was while he was in Kingston that the interest started to turn into action. While watching television during his doctoral studies, Dr. Feustel caught a compelling interview with the latest batch of Canadian astronauts including Julie Payette (DSc’99) and Chris Hadfield.

Though Dr. Feustel’s next job didn’t take him to infinity and beyond, it did bring him closer to NASA headquarters. He and his family relocated to Houston, Texas in 1997 and he worked for Exxon Mobil, putting his seismology experience to work in the company’s drilling operations.

“Queen’s capped off my education and work experiences in a way that was unique to Queen’s,” he says. “When I was at Queen’s, I worked as a geophysicist in the engineering seismology lab which was responsible for installing seismic monitoring systems in Canada. It was a unique lab in Canada, almost in the world…and that lab spun off into a company still in Kingston today. It afforded me a great education and what I did there prepared me for my eventual work with Exxon.”

In 1999, Dr. Feustel applied to become an astronaut and, in 2000, he got word from NASA that he had been accepted. While it may not seem like a traditional career path, Dr. Feustel and fellow Expedition 55/56 astronaut Richard Arnold noted that the space agency looks for individuals who are creative, well-rounded, scientifically-minded, and good at problem-solving.

“I didn't specifically plan my early work and learning experiences in order to become an astronaut...I found the things I liked and was good at, and those are the things I pursued,” Dr. Feustel says.

In the 17 years since joining NASA, Dr. Feustel has gained his Canadian citizenship – making him the next Canadian headed to space. While he won’t reveal if his guitar-playing skills will make an appearance on the ISS, like his astronaut colleague Chris Hadfield, Dr. Feustel says he has a few secrets he plans to unveil during his time on the station.

Dr. Feustel has returned to Queen’s campus as a NASA astronaut several times – in 2015, he returned to receive the Queen’s University Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award and last spring to receive an honorary doctorate.

To follow Dr. Feustel's journey, find him on Twitter at @Astro_Feustel, or on Instagram at astro_feustel.

For updates on Expedition 55-56, or other ongoing expeditions, visit NASA’s website.