10/11/19 Astronaut reunion

Andrew Feustel, Loral O'Hara and Gary Horlacher are on campus for an astronaut reunion as part of the 150th-anniversary Homecoming celebration.

Few people will be able to experience what it’s like to walk in space in their lifetimes, but several Purdue alumni returning for Homecoming weekend have done so.

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel has conducted nine spacewalks, which add up to 61 hours and 48 minutes. He is the third all-time astronaut for time spent on spacewalks, according to a press release.

“It's always been amazing to me how spectacular the view of Earth is and how different it is, and the experience of the view is from a spacesuit,” Feustel said Friday.

He said that surprises are rare and often caused by missteps or errors in judgement.

Even so, he said he “didn't realize you could fall asleep during a spacewalk in a spacesuit, so that's happened a few times. I didn't realize that you could go blind during a spacewalk by getting sweat or soap in your eyes. That's happened to me on every single spacewalk.”

Loral O’Hara, another Purdue alumnus who is currently a NASA astronaut candidate, said the process to become an astronaut is long. Feustel said a lot of the selection process has to do with luck.

“For me,” Feustel said, “becoming an astronaut was always a dream, and I always, maybe, didn't so much do things to become an astronaut, but just followed the things that I liked and enjoyed and was able to excel at them.”

Training to become an astronaut involves five core areas, O’Hara said, which includes not just flight readiness and robotics training, but also studying the Russian language.

O’Hara said the training also involves survival training and the study of geology.

“We actually just got back from a trip to northern New Mexico where we were studying geology, specifically the types of features that we might see on the moon someday," O'Hara said. 

O’Hara said that it’s an amazing opportunity to see the enthusiasm people have toward her job.

“From kids up to adults, people are really excited about things that NASA does,” she said, “and so it's neat to see that enthusiasm and get to share it.”

Gary Horlacher, a NASA flight director and mission operations directorate, said he never thought he’d leave Purdue to work at NASA or become a flight director. He said it was an amazing opportunity.

“I can't imagine what it would be like to work, you know 30 years at like a factory instead of doing what I did," Horlacher said. 

Horlacher said one of his favorite memories when he was at Purdue was the first time fans stormed the field during a football game.

He also said the University has changed significantly over the years.

"There's like three buildings I still recognize," he said, "but it has been impressive to see how the University has grown over the last really 20 years."

As a flight director, Horlacher said he knows the astronauts well and spends time with their families before they are sent up to space.

“It's pretty impressive to watch the risks that they're willing to take, and I'm safe, sitting in my chair in mission control,” Horlacher said, “but there's also a huge responsibility knowing that their lives are within the team that I'm responsible for.”

Horlacher is on the team aiming to return to the moon in 2024. The schedule is aggressive, he said, but it’s impressive to see the energy in the agency.

“It’s probably likely we'll need a little bit more time, but we're marching really hard,” he said.

Horlacher said that they’re also looking at having modules on the moon surface in order to have a more continuous presence on the moon as opposed to the Apollo trips.

Commercial space flight is very close, Horlacher said. He also said that either NASA or the commercial space industry will lead to further advancements in space exploration.

“We're going to be (on) the moon before I retire and then on to Mars while I'm still around,” he said, “so it's going to happen.”

While Feustel isn’t scheduled to go up in space any time soon, he said he’s been fortunate to see the Hubble Space Telescope in the International Space Station.

“There's really not a day that's not incredible or interesting,” he said. “That's the beauty of what we do, is that every day we can enjoy something different and learn about what it's like to live in space.”

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