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[International Space Station Illustration]
[International Space Station Illustration]

To Houston

and beyond




Drew Feustel, PhD’95, takes to the sky in pursuit of scientific discovery as commander of the International Space Station

Astronaut Drew Feustel (PhD’95, DSc’16) has a message for anyone who thinks they’d like to follow in his footsteps. Speaking via video link from outside Moscow, where he was finishing training for his flight aboard the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station on March 21, he says, “I think the key is to set a goal.”

Ask an Astronaut

On Friday, April 6, Queen's hosted a live video broadcast Q&A with NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel from the International Space Station.

“Set a goal that may seem unachievable. But just keep that in your mind, and I think that eventually your life will lead you down that path.”

[Drew Feustel in space suit]

That’s certainly what Dr. Feustel has done. The proud Queen’s graduate (at one point during the NASA press briefing on March 1, he pulled open his blue astronaut jumpsuit to reveal a Queen’s T-shirt underneath) had wanted to become an astronaut since childhood. Now a veteran of two flights into space, he will spend a total of 5 ½ months aboard the International Space Station in 2018, including three as the station’s commander.

Growing up in Lake Orion, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Feustel was fascinated with space exploration, inspired in part by television shows like The Jetsons and Lost in Space. “I thought by the time I grew up everybody would have regular access to space,” he says, adding ruefully that we are still closer to the world of Fred Flintstone than that of George Jetson.

He also, he says, felt a “need for speed,” racing motorcycles from the age of ten and tinkering with them in the family garage. (He later also raced go-karts and mountain bikes). While attending community college, he worked as a mechanic for a company that restored vintage Jaguar sports cars. Torn between studying something auto-industry related or geology, he opted for the latter, a move that led him to study geophysics at Purdue University, where he ultimately received a master’s degree. “I still had this idea that as a geophysicist I could eventually explore other planets, maybe doing mining out there and bringing minerals back to Earth.”

Space Specs

EVA: Extravehicular activity or spacewalk. Astronauts carry out EVAs on the ISS to make repairs or set up experiments outside the station. On an EVA, astronauts are positioned by the Canadarm2.

International Space Station: Launched into space in November 1998 and measuring more than 72 metres in length and about 108 meters across, the ISS is the largest object in low Earth orbit and is visible to the naked eye.

Johnson Space Center: Properly the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, this sprawling Houston-based complex (it covers more than 1600 acres) is the headquarters for NASA’s human spaceflight training and research. Mission control here directs the activities aboard the International Space Station.

Soyuz: First developed as part of the Soviet space program in the 1960s and improved upon continuously ever since, the Soyuz is a three-person spacecraft that, since the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, has provided the only means of reaching the ISS. The capsule is boosted into space aboard the Soyuz rocket, regarded as the world’s most reliable.

He arrived at Queen’s in 1991, drawn north in part because his wife, Indira, whom he had met at Purdue while she was doing a graduate degree in speech pathology, was from Eastern Ontario, and wanted to return to Canada. Queen’s also presented the chance to work with Professor Chris Young and be a part of his Engineering Seismology Laboratory.

“It was really something I was interested in,” says Dr. Feustel. “Installing seismic monitoring systems in mines, to understand the stresses and strains on them as the minerals were extracted.” The work allowed him to combine his theoretical interest in geophysics with his natural mechanic’s bent. “It took a lot of hands-on skills in the field,” he says. “We spent a lot of time down mines making sure that all the systems were working.” Only Queen’s, he says, could give him that unique blend of experience. He was awarded a PhD in geological sciences, with a specialization in seismology in 1995.

Dr. Feustel worked for a time with Kingston’s Engineering Seismology Group, a spinoff from his old lab, before ultimately heading south to take a job with ExxonMobil in Houston, Texas – home of the American space program. At a conference there in 1997, he met a Canadian geophysicist named Rob Stewart. Although he had never gone into space, Dr. Stewart had been part of the Canadian astronaut program in the early ’90s. Dr. Feustel remembered seeing the geophysicist on a Canadian TV show years earlier. Learning about Dr. Feustel’s desire to become an astronaut, Dr. Stewart suggested he try calling Chris Hadfield to learn more about the space program.

Dr. Feustel found the number for the Johnson Space Center in the phone book, cold-called and was ultimately put through to Hadfield. The two became friends, bonding, he says “over music and water-skiing.” He applied to the space program in 1999 and was accepted in 2000.

On his first mission, STS-125, in 2009, Dr. Feustel spent 11 days in space aboard the shuttle Atlantis, on the last-ever mission to service the Hubble telescope. In 2011, as part of the crew of the shuttle Endeavour (STS-134), he spent 16 days in space, carrying supplies to the International Space Station and performing repairs that required him to take four separate EVAs (or extravehicular activities as spacewalks are known). This was the penultimate flight of the Space Shuttle program.

[Drew at Fall 2016 Convocation ceremony]

During his time with NASA, Drew Feustel became a Canadian citizen – making him the next Canadian in space. He and his family return frequently to Canada and to Queen’s, where Dr. Feustel was awarded an honorary degree in 2016 as part the university’s 175th anniversary celebrations.

Drew Feustel’s latest mission, following 22 months of preparation, will see him serve as co-pilot on the Soyuz spacecraft, a role that has required him to learn to fly the ship – and speak Russian – so he can communicate with cosmonaut Oleg Artemtyev, its commander. “And the Russians learned to speak English, and we just find a happy medium somewhere in between.” The idea of blasting off into space doesn’t make him nervous. “It’s fun. If you’re not smiling, you’re doing something wrong. We try to have a good time with that and just enjoy it for what it is.” He will, he says, miss his wife and two sons, Ari and Aden, and “the smell of dirt, trees and the wind. I look forward to touch down.”

It is rocket science!

The International Space Station is a scientific laboratory. Thousands of research experiments have been conducted among the stars, with each new mission expanding our understanding of the world – and beyond.

During Mission 55 (the first half of Drew’s time on the ISS), researchers will study:

Earth atmospherics
The effects of microgravity on bone marrow
Materials’ responses to space environments
Biological samples’ responses to simulated gravity

Source: NASA. Learn more: International Space Station

During his months in space, Dr. Feustel will be part of two separate missions, Expeditions 55 and 56, carried out back-to-back. For the first, he will serve as a flight engineer; for the second half of his time aboard, after Artemtyev and NASA astronaut Richard R. Arnold have left the ISS and been replaced by American Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, German Alexander Gerst, and Russian Sergey Prokopyev, he’ll serve as the station’s commander.

“My job during the next five months is to really care for the space station and all the research projects,” says Dr. Feustel. As astronauts, “our job is to ensure that the space station continues to function and to support the science and research that’s being carried out.” That means looking after the systems that keep the lights and the heat on and the air flowing, and carrying out repairs, both inside and outside the station, as needed.

[illustration of galaxy]

Dr. Feustel and his fellow crew members oversee the scientific equipment onboard the space station and perform “literally hundreds of experiments over the course of time we are there”, generally focused on earth sciences, human and health sciences and innovative technology. “We are the hands, eyes, and ears of the people who designed those experiments,” he says.

The projects carried out on the ISS take advantage of the unique qualities offered by the station. “Let me give you a simple example,” says Dr. Feustel. “Osteoporosis. Astronauts get a similar condition while living on the station [due to the lack of gravity]. By studying that, we can relate that information to similar conditions that we see on Earth and try treatments in space to see if they work.”

Dr. Feustel won’t be carrying out any experiments of his own, but says his training from Queen’s comes in handy: “The skills that I learned there are critical to some of the work I do now. I’ve always believed that geophysicists make good astronauts because of the spatial skills they bring to the table,” he says. As well, “the work that I did at Queen’s was very technical in nature and there was a lot of hands-on work. And you can sort of correlate working in an underground mine, where you’re isolated, with limited resources, some element of risk, and a limited chance of rescue – well, a lot of that carries over to the work we do as astronauts in space.”

“In life, you don’t really understand the forward path until you look back and you see how all the pieces fit together.”

[astronaut illustration]

A key part of an astronaut’s role is to serve as the human face for the space program and the science carried out on the International Space Station. It’s a role Drew Feustel excels at, responding enthusiastically on this early March morning via video link to an endless succession of fairly similar questions from journalists. As part of this outreach, he is participating in a Year of Education on Station, a NASA program that engages astronauts as educators and takes advantage of the unique capability of the ISS to stimulate the interest of students from kindergarteners to post-graduates.

“I think it’s important,” he says. “Because I believe that our role now as explorers and seniors in our fields really should be to think about the chances we have to inspire the next generation of students and young people around the world. So, for me this is an opportunity to reach out, to talk about what I did with my career and my career path, and get folks to consider that no goal is too great for them to achieve.”

[illustration of Drew]

A few things about Drew

Phoning home: Drew stays in touch with his family through a voice-over IP phone, emails and weekly video chats.

Art and science: Playing guitar and fronting vocals, Drew is a member of the all-astronaut band Max Q. With a few Tragically Hip songs as part of its repertoire, the band takes its name from an engineering term for the maximum dynamic pressure from the atmosphere experienced by an ascending spacecraft … or Queen’s. You decide!

YGK: Drew’s favourite part of living in Kingston was the water and the limestone. “It’s just a beautiful city.”

Spot the station

[illustration of ISS]

Did you know: The ISS is the third brightest object in the sky? It’s so bright, it can be spotted with the naked eye as it travels around the Earth. Find out when Drew will be flying overhead on NASA’s ‘Spot the Station’ site.

Story by Ian Coutts

Illustrations by Christine Jamieson

Follow Drew on his journey

[illustration of Soyuz rocket blasting off]