An out of this world experience

NASA as­tro­naut Chris Fer­guson vis­ited his alma ma­ter, Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School, last week to dis­cuss space travel with stu­dents.

NASA as­tro­naut Chris Fer­guson has a tra­di­tion.

Each time the Far North­east nat­ive has been part of a space shuttle mis­sion, he has re­turned to Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School to talk about the ex­per­i­ence with stu­dents at his alma ma­ter.

Fer­guson was in town after pi­lot­ing At­lantis in 2006 and com­mand­ing En­deav­our in 2008.

Last week, he was back at Ry­an to share stor­ies of his com­mand of an At­lantis mis­sion that las­ted from Ju­ly 8-21.

The as­tro­naut rel­ishes the op­por­tun­ity to speak about space travel with the young people at Ry­an.

“This is like host­ing Sat­urday Night Live for the third time,” he joked.

Fer­guson, 50, grew up on Amity Road. He at­ten­ded St. Martha Gram­mar School and is a 1979 Ry­an gradu­ate. His jobs as a youth in­cluded work­ing at a Mo­bil gas sta­tion and de­liv­er­ing The Phil­adelphia In­quirer.

After an early-morn­ing Oct. 26 ad­dress to the al­most 1,700 Ry­an stu­dents in the aud­it­or­i­um, he moved on to a pan­el dis­cus­sion with fel­low as­tro­naut Paul Richards at Drexel Uni­versity. Sev­en­teen Ry­an stu­dents also at­ten­ded the Drexel vis­it.

Fer­guson gradu­ated from Drexel in 1984 with a de­gree in mech­an­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing. Today, his daugh­ter at­tends the uni­versity. He and his wife, Sandra, also have two sons in high school.

In 1991, he earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in aero­naut­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing from the Navy Post­gradu­ate School. A cap­tain in the U.S. Navy, he’s been as­signed to the John­son Space Cen­ter in Hou­s­ton since 1998.

Last sum­mer, Fer­guson led a four-per­son mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. He was joined by pi­lot Doug Hur­ley and mis­sion spe­cial­ists Sandy Mag­nus and Rex Wal­heim.

Fer­guson and Mag­nus worked to­geth­er three years ago on En­deav­our. “She was ab­so­lutely won­der­ful. She’s a fant­ast­ic role mod­el for wo­men,” he said.

Fer­guson will not be back to Ry­an to talk about a fourth shuttle mis­sion.

NASA has ended the shuttle pro­gram. The pro­gram star­ted in 1981, and there were 135 mis­sions.

“The space shuttle was a fant­ast­ic vehicle,” said Fer­guson, cit­ing its size and speed. “As sad as it was to fi­nally put the space shuttle away, I’m in­cred­ibly proud to be a small part of the end of this Amer­ic­an icon.”

The agency will fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing new space­ships and rock­ets for ex­plor­a­tion of as­ter­oids, the moon and Mars.

Fer­guson wants the United States to re­turn to the moon. “I think that should be the num­ber-one goal,” he said.

On the fi­nal mis­sion, the shuttle or­bited Earth 200 times and traveled al­most 5.3 mil­lion miles, reach­ing a top speed of 17,500 miles per hour.

The crew de­livered about 10,000 pounds of sup­plies and spare parts to the space sta­tion, along with a ro­bot­ic re­fuel­ing mod­ule.

Along for the ride were 24 mice that were used for study­ing an os­teo­poros­is drug.

Crew mem­bers also re­cycled everything they used on the space sta­tion, which Fer­guson likened to the size of a sub­mar­ine.

Typ­ic­ally, a shuttle crew num­bers six or sev­en.

“We were ex­tremely busy,” Fer­guson said, de­scrib­ing the work on the space sta­tion as “or­gan­ized pan­de­moni­um.”

The crew also brought an Amer­ic­an flag that was part of the first mis­sion in 1981.

“It was an hon­or be­stowed on us to take it to the space sta­tion and leave it there,” Fer­guson said.

In the next few years, Fer­guson sees NASA over­see­ing com­mer­cial ven­tures to space, with the pub­lic hav­ing the op­por­tun­ity to travel to space on a reg­u­lar basis in 20 years or so. It’ll be costly.

“You’re go­ing to have to have a few bucks,” he said.

At Ry­an, state Rep. Den­nis O’Bri­en and an aide to Rep. Brendan Boyle presen­ted a House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives res­ol­u­tion to the as­tro­naut. Also in at­tend­ance was Al Tauben­ber­ger, pres­id­ent of the Great­er North­east Phil­adelphia Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Kev­in Love, pres­id­ent of the stu­dent body, and Sarah Ham­mer, pres­id­ent of the seni­or class, presen­ted Fer­guson with a large poster book signed by stu­dents, a cafet­er­ia pass, soft pret­zel and a fa­vor­ite on the menu — a hot cheese sand­wich.

Fer­guson donated an en­gine tur­bine blade to the school, along with a Ry­an hat and shirt he wore in space. The gifts also in­cluded a pic­ture of him wear­ing the items in space and a cer­ti­fic­ate of au­then­ti­city signed by all four crew mem­bers.

The as­tro­naut showed a couple of videos, ac­com­pan­ied by the 1982 Rush song Count­down. He showed still shots, in­clud­ing the best over­head pic­ture he could take of Ry­an while trav­el­ing 5 miles per second.

As he did in his two pre­vi­ous trips, Fer­guson de­livered a mes­sage of faith, hard work and per­sever­ance.

“There are no get-rich-quick schemes,” he told the teen­agers. “There is no sub­sti­tute for hard work. There are no short cuts.”

The as­tro­naut also gave the stu­dents some home­work. He told them that Phil­adelphia-area res­id­ents will get a nice view of the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion in the sky some­time between 6:55 and 6:58 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3.

Fer­guson will be back in Phil­adelphia on Nov. 7, flip­ping the coin at the start of the Eagles’ Monday Night Foot­ball game against the Chica­go Bears.

His days at NASA might be com­ing to a close, but Fer­guson has memor­ies of a life­time.

“It’s been quite a ride for me,” he said. ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­

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