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Academics Alum Features

Veteran astronaut returns to CSB and SJU as inspiration to those following in his footsteps

The record holder for longest continuous space flight in American history touched down at Saint John’s University on Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 29-30) in his first visit to his alma mater since he spent 355 days on the International Space Station.

So, maybe you want to be an astronaut, like Mark Vande Hei ’89.

It helps to get good grades, and it might be wise to study one of the sciences – like physics, in which he majored and later got a master’s degree and taught as an assistant professor for several years.

It can’t hurt to have military training, like Vande Hei did on campus with the ROTC Fighting Saints Battalion and after he left, rising to become a colonel in the U.S. Army.

You need good health and vision, an eagerness for challenge, much patience and dogged determination. And it also helps to have a little luck. He was among nine people chosen for NASA’s 2009 astronaut class from an applicant pool of more than 3,500 – beating odds of less than three-thousandths of a percent.

“There are thousands of people who could do my job that did not get the opportunity,” Vande Hei told an audience of more than 75 visitors on Tuesday at Pellegrene Auditorium in SJU’s Peter Engel Science Center. “I think anyone who was involved in the hiring process would be quite uncomfortable trying to pinpoint what it was that made that final selection between the people who got hired and the ones who got final interviews. There are a lot of amazing people, and I still don’t know why I got hired, honestly.”

It probably had something to do with his experience serving multiple times in Iraq, that he was part of the Army’s 1st Space Battalion, and it likely helped that he’d been a capsule communicator at the Johnson Space Center for three years when he applied. Since then, interest has become so intense, Vande Hei said, that the most recent class of astronauts had more than 18,000 applicants.

Before you get discouraged, however, Vande Hei has a few suggestions to offer encouragement – especially for those who follow in his footsteps around the campuses at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s. He said he was certain he would not get the chance to go to space, and that was another reason he succeeded.

“Astronauts that I’ve encountered are typically already happy with the job they’re doing, because they found something they love and that’s a big part of why they’re successful at it,” said Vande Hei, who on Tuesday flew from Houston to Minnesota, traveled through a snowstorm for an appearance before a large crowd at a meeting of the St. Cloud Rotary Club, and then adjourned to SJU to meet informally with physics, biology and exercise science students. “The chances of getting in are really slim. If your success or failure in life is based on whether you become an astronaut, you’re in a really fragile position. It’s much better to find something you love to do and are passionate about so that if you get to be an astronaut that’s just a bonus.”

Life and work in space

Vande Hei completed astronaut training in 2011 and didn’t get his first chance to go to the ISS until six years later. That tour lasted 168 days at an altitude 250 miles above earth, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour in a vessel about the size of a six-bedroom home.

“I grew up thinking astronauts were superheroes, and I know myself well enough to not perceive myself as a superhero,” said Vande Hei, who spoke at SJU commencement in 2019 and has a Doctor of Science, Honoris causa, from Saint John’s. “I was really fortunate to get this tourist pass.”

Oh, he had to work, that’s for sure. Most waking moments were choreographed to include biological and technological experiments, research into the effects of long space stays on humans and preparing to receive and jettison capsules from the ISS. He and the others also had to work out 2½ hours every day to ensure their bodies wouldn’t atrophy to the point where a return to earth was dangerous. But for every minute he got to walk in space or support those who did, there were many hours of routine maintenance.

Of course, the views from the ISS cupola were worth it – not to mention the heady experience of working with an international crew of 10 (including a couple Russian cosmonauts) and thousands of support staff on the ground.

Prerequisites for astronauts

So, if you think you’ve got what it takes, Vande Hei has two recommendations in addition to finding a career about which you are passionate.

“You’ve got to do things that put you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “If part of you is adventurous, go pursue those adventures. Do things that make you an interesting person. Push the limits that are exciting to you, that you’re not sure about – that you might not succeed at. I think we’re at risk of being a society where people don’t want to do things because they might fail. It’s really important that we risk that failure and, if we fail, figure out what to change and try again. There are a lot of astronauts who apply five or six times before they get hired. You have to show that perseverance.

“The third thing I would say that is really important, when we’re isolating you from the rest of humanity with a very small group of people, you need to be able to get along well with others,” Vande Hei added. “You have to be more invested in the success of the whole team than the success of the individuals. If you’re always invested in you being better than everybody else, that’s a tough person to live with. If you want to make the team successful by making your best as good as it can be, that’s different. But you need emphasis on making everybody around you successful.”

Students eager to participate

In addition to prompting dozens of questions, Vande Hei seemed to inspire interest from students. Quinn Miley and Taylor Kroll, two seniors from St. Cloud Cathedral High School, attended Vande Hei’s appearance and promptly raised their hands when he asked for volunteers to help with a demonstration on stage. Miley was given a basketball to represent the earth and Kroll a tennis ball emblematic of the moon. Vande Hei explained the position of the ISS was equivalent to lifting a fingertip off the basketball. He asked Kroll to guess the proportionate position of the moon, and he walked almost the perfect distance away. Vande Hei talked about NASA’s intention to go back to the moon and to send humans to Mars someday. He held a handball to represent that planet and said it would have to be 300 meters away to be at scale.

“This is a big deal,” Miley said of getting the chance to meet Vande Hei. “I wanted to come here because it was a chance to experience some of what we see about astronauts in space from the words of someone who has been there.”

“It’s not something you get a chance to go to every day,” Kroll added. “Our physics teacher told us about this opportunity, and it was a blast. We’re glad we came.”

Encourages scientific approach

Vande Hei addressed the perceived tensions he experienced returning to Kazakhstan aboard a Russian capsule in late March and how it can be challenging to uncover the truth, whether about conflict in Ukraine from the vantage point of space, or anything else. He said he knows enough Russian to tell that reports the cosmonauts and their countrymen heard were just as convincing as what is reported on U.S. network television.

“You can tell the truth and also tell very different stories depending on which facts you share,” he said. “Fortunately, in this country, we’ve got a media system that can be critical of our government, and I think we should be very thankful for that. There’s obviously a big difference in political viewpoints in the U.S. and, if you seek sources that will only confirm your viewpoint, you’ll find that. But a good scientist is actively seeking to disprove their theories. If you find evidence that suggests otherwise, you can test that and see if you’re close to the truth. If you’ve searched in many ways and you haven’t found something that changes your way of thinking, then you can feel more secure in your beliefs.”

Dozens of people waited to meet Vande Hei after his presentation. One of the first in line was Elaina Jones, a first-year student from Minneapolis. She first heard about Vande Hei on Instagram and couldn’t pass up attending.

“It was inspiring to listen to him,” Jones said. “He has such a clear knowledge of what he’s talking about, and I can tell he speaks with integrity, too. I wanted to talk to him because a friend of mine is interested in what he’s done, and we talked about aerospace engineering and the chance to work with private contractors. It’s rigorous, but hearing someone like this is a great example of the interdisciplinary opportunities you find at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.”

After dinner with CSB and SJU president Brian Bruess and a night at the Abbey Guesthouse, Vande Hei rose early for 6 a.m. training with ROTC cadets and visited with an upper-level military science class before jetting off to resume his NASA duties with a trip to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Before he left, he told students he hopes he doesn’t hold his space flight record for long.

“That will mean somebody broke it,” he said.

Mark Vande Hei in an airlock on the ISS.Mark Vande Hei ’89 tests his spacesuit in an airlock during a 2017 mission on the International Space Station.

Mark Vande Hei walks in spaceMark Vande Hei ’89 walks in space on Oct. 10, 2017. He holds the American record for longest continuous space flight at 355 days on a mission bridging 2021 and 2022. He returned to earth on March 30 and came back to Saint John’s University, his alma mater, on Nov. 29-30.

Mark Vande Hei does a demonstration at SJU with a couple of students.

Mark Vande Hei ’89 (right) conducts a demonstration on Tuesday (Nov. 29) at Pellegrene Auditorium on the Saint John’s University campus. Taylor Kroll (left) and Quinn Miley (center), two students from St. Cloud Cathedral High School, held a tennis ball and a basketball, emblematic of the moon and the earth, and Vande Hei told them proportionately how far apart they needed to be to reflect true scale.