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 firstname.lastname@example.org