Drew Feustel spent nine years waiting for his first chance to go into space. And when he finally got there, the mission was a beauty.
The Purdue-educated astronaut was part of the May 2009 Space Shuttle Atlantis crew that flew to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Their extraordinary effort can be seen in this week's installment of Nova, an hour that brings home what astronauts do in a way that anyone can understand. You'll watch and think: I can't believe these guys could accomplish this. It looks impossible.
By the time they finished their 13-day voyage, the crew had installed a new camera and spectrograph and repaired the telescope's prime camera and its other spectrograph. Edward Weiler, the associate administrator for science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said recently that the telescope was now in the best shape in its 19-year history.
"Space exploration is about contributing to the human race," Feustel (pronounced FOY-stul) said in an interview. On Nova, "We really tried to show who we were — not only the technical side of things."
Here's more of the conversation.
Nuvo: You spent more than 2½ years getting ready for this mission. How impatient did you get?
Feustel: I became an astronaut in the year 2000, so I waited nine years for this flight and we specifically trained for about three. If anything, I think it makes you patient as opposed to impatient. You learn that what we do and how we do it has a lot to do with the right opportunity. At some point, you know they're going to push the button and you're going to be launched into space.
NUVO: Nova describes this as the most important mission of your life. Do you think that's an accurate description, and if so, how does it make you feel thinking that your most important mission is behind you?
Feustel: That was my first mission, and I will be flying in space again next year on STS-134. I hope that every mission is the most important mission because of the criticality of the work we do. There's no question that Hubble mission was very important for everybody — not only for scientists but school kids and people on our planet who want to see images of outer space. To work that mission was very special. I feel lucky for having had the opportunity. But for each and every one of us, every mission is important and has significance in our lives.
NUVO: Were you scared?
Feustel: No. I wasn't scared. I think we're all a little bit scared, but that's normal. We're sitting on 7.5 million pounds of thrust, a lot of rocket fuel, trying to get you to space. There is some hope that the rocket knows which way it's going and everything's going to continue to work properly. I don't think scared is really the right definition. We're all volunteers for this. We're lucky and have been given a fantastic opportunity. Because of that, you really have an obligation to carry out the missions. You become content with where you are.
NUVO: Do you think NASA gets the respect it deserves?
Feustel: I think NASA gets the respect it deserves; I don't think it gets the recognition it deserves for the programs it manages given the amount of money it uses each year from the federal budget. We operate on just over one-half of 1 percent of the annual federal budget. And with that, we operate not only human exploration but also robotic and satellite and remote sensing. I try to stress that to people to help them understand the scope of the things we do with the limited budget that we have.
If you talk to anybody on the street and ask them what they think about what NASA's doing, they all say it's great. But a lot of them will then say, "But we're spending way too much money on that stuff. We should be fixing our problems domestically." The answer to that is, we're really not spending a lot of money, and those other things we're worried about have been here through the history of humankind. They'll always be part of our lives, whereas space exploration really represents the future of the human race and our planet and technology — all those spinoffs we gain from those things.
NUVO: When you said that, my first thought was that I'm amazed people even know. It seems like the space program today operates in some amount of anonymity.
Feustel: I think we do, to some extent, for two reasons. One is, we've become very successful at what we do, but not without losses. And also, because we have been flying space shuttles in low-earth orbit for 30 years, it has become sort of common — like driving your car to work. I think some of the fascination is lost. Space exploration is really about serving the needs of mankind and being able to develop things that are important for us to make our lives better, more efficient, more practical, whatever. But you're right: A lot of people have no idea of what we're doing or how we're doing it. That we haven't been to the moon since 1972. That shuttles don't actually fly to the moon. But there are an equal number of people who do know and people who pay attention.
NUVO: At the end of the show, they say this is the last time humans will touch the Hubble. Why is that?
Feustel: Primarily because we're down to our last shuttle flights. With our current space architecture and our plans for future space architecture, there won't be a capability to dock with it and do spacewalks for repair on it without the support of the shuttle. President Bush, at the end of his term, decided that Americans would go back to the moon, and in order to support that program, we would stop flying space shuttles at the end of next year. So we are down to our last five shuttle flights now, with the final flight being STS-133, which will fly sometime late next year. That will be the last time shuttles leave the earth —unless President Obama and his administration reverse that decision.
NUVO: After you come back to earth, does your life seem routine?
Feustel: It seems a lot like it was before you went. The difference is, you had a neat opportunity to share something with six other crew members and get something special done in space. I don't feel any different. I've considered myself an astronaut for the last nine years. The difference is, now I can actually say I went into space as an astronaut. In some sense, you almost feel like you haven't done enough. You came here to fly in space like George Jetson, but you went in space once like Fred Flintstone. So you kind of feel like you're in the dark ages, trying to get up to speed. And it becomes a memory just like any other memory of an experience.
NUVO: Tell me about your Purdue years. And what does Purdue do to prepare so many astronauts?
Feustel: First off, Purdue is a fantastic engineering school. It's a fantastic school in general, but certainly they've graduated some pretty special engineers in all different disciplines. I was not an engineer out of Purdue, but I knew what the heritage was of the university. I think it's just the quality of education that Purdue offers and the recognition that you receive from having your name attached to that university, especially in the aerospace industry.
NUVO: Did you go there thinking you'd be an astronaut?
Feustel: It was my plan to study geosciences and learn how to study other planets and look for resources on other planets, to play that role in the exploration of our solar system.
NUVO: When you'd tell people that, would they say, "Oh, sure you will"?
Feustel: Uh, yeah. Some people say they heard those stories and that's what I said. That's what I told them.
NUVO: Your first degree was an associate's. Did you go to a two-year school for a particular reason?
Feustel: I went to a community college in Michigan, and while I was there, I worked as an auto mechanic. Actually went to a community college for three years and lived at home with my dad. I didn't feel like I did well enough out of high school to get into any universities. It was a great opportunity for me to get some work experience near home at relatively low cost.
NUVO: I imagine when people find out what you do, there are some common questions. Besides the "where do you go to the bathroom?" question, what else do people want to know?
Feustel: A lot of the questions are "What was it like?" and "What does it feel like?" I always say, it felt like what your dreams might show you that it would be like. If you can dream what you'd think it would be like floating in space, that's kind of what it was like. It was very magical. It was very impressionable that the views from space of Earth are majestic and impressive and overwhelming to some degree. It's kind of a cliché, but it gives you a sense of how small we are in the big picture of our planet and the solar system we live in.