Vande Hei '89 shares Space Station experience with CSB/SJU students

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February 20, 2018

By Dave DeLand; Photos by Tommy O'Laughlin '13

The student chatter inside Saint John’s University’s Pellegrene Auditorium came to an abrupt halt Tuesday when the projection screen suddenly showed Mark Vande Hei – at first just smiling and giving a floating thumbs-up, then doing backflips as the crowd broke into applause.

Mark Vande Hei skype callThose 200 students had been transported to the International Space Station for an inside glimpse at the trip of a lifetime.

“The thing I like the most is looking out the window and trying to share this experience,” said Vande Hei, a 1989 Saint John’s graduate and the university’s first astronaut.

Vande Hei and fellow NASA astronaut Scott Tingle shared their reflections and answered questions from CSB/SJU and area high school and middle school students in a 20-minute NASA Inflight Education Downlink session from inside the Space Station, where Vande Hei has been since Sept. 13.

“It’s just unbelievable, the inspiration to be able to show our students when we tell them ‘Work hard – you can do anything’ that it really happens,” CSB/SJU physics professor Jim Crumley said.

Students applaud Vande Hei“My goal – all of our goal, I think – is to be able to contribute something,” said the smiling Vande Hei, who wore a polo shirt, khakis and glasses while chatting next to Tingle inside the Space Station.

Vande Hei’s Space Station experience has included two space walks, literally hundreds of scientific experiments and countless situations where he called upon his 1985-89 Saint John’s roots.

“It’s the sense of teamwork and respect for other people,” he said. “Discipline as well, of course, but also being able to recognize there’s lots of ways to look at a situation. Getting other people’s ideas and respect for those ideas is a great part of being able to find the best idea.”

Students asked Vande Hei and Tingle a pre-sorted list of 20 questions, some about matters that were decidedly scientific and some decidedly not:

  • Weightlessness? “I’ll miss the floating,” Tingle said as Vande Hei did more backflips and climbed the wall next to them, to the delight of the Pellegrene crowd.
  • Showers? “The short answer to that question is we don’t,” said Vande Hei, showing off a no-rinse bath kit. “That’s as close as we can do, rinse off with a wet towel.”
  • Space food? Apparently, it’s better than you’d think. “Of course you have a tortilla with peanut butter and jelly,” Tingle said. “Otherwise you have not been on the International Space Station.”
  • Video games? No. But favored reading material? “You’re going to be convinced I’m a huge geek after I say this,” Vande Hei said, “but I really have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings.”

Vande Hei is scheduled to end his 5½-month Space Station mission Feb. 27 and return to Kazakhstan the following morning.

He’s also planning a Collegeville reunion, which he referenced while signing off from about 250 miles above Earth.

“I’ll try to get back behind the Pine Curtain sometime soon,” said Vande Hei, who is scheduled to speak at Saint John’s ROTC commencement ceremony May 12.

“It’s a wonderful place where you all are.”