It’s a surreal world where a journey from the International Space Station to Earth is quicker than driving from Chicago to St. Louis, but that’s how long it took to bring the three-man crew of the ISS 56 mission back to Earth last week.
Parachuting into the plains of Kazakhstan, the Soyuz capsule safely delivered one Russian cosmonaut and two NASA astronauts from a 197-day mission in space and back to more terrestrial pursuits.
For astronaut Drew Feustel, that means he’ll start visiting some of the many Formula One, Moto GP and IndyCar racecourses he’d photographed and posted to social media from his unique vantage point in space.
The commander of ISS 56 is a car guy of the highest order. Feustel’s NASA biography proudly lists his time as an automotive mechanic working on 1950s Jaguars, his three years as the Purdue University Carting Grand Prix chairman, his membership in the BMW Club of America and his enthusiasm for automotive restoration and racing — both cars and motorcycles.
It’s those skills learned in automotive restoration that translated directly into his success in space. On an earlier mission, Feustel tackled a stripped bolt on a refit of the Hubble Telescope which could have affected the use of one of mankind’s most powerful scientific instruments. With a little elbow grease and mechanical savvy, the bolt came loose.
Since then, he’s been NASA go-to fix-it guy. Feustel’s career in space has taken him on nine spacewalks, putting him in third place for total time spent on extravehicular activities.
“My interest in cars, and more specifically mechanical systems, has been instrumental to my success as an astronaut,” he said. “As an astronaut, much of what we do relies on our ability to understand mechanical systems, and to use our curiosity, knowledge and intuition to solve complex and critical problems.”
Feustel’s path took him from automotive mechanic to a STEM degree program, so it’s natural that he now acts as an ambassador for the RPM Foundation, the nonprofit which advocates for and funds vocational education in the marine, automotive and motorcycle restoration trades.
It’s through an RPM Foundation live chat from space this past May that he met former IndyCar racer and fellow RPM ambassador Lyn St. James. Through an uplink from Mission Control in Houston, St. James promised that she would help facilitate a bucket-list experience for the veteran astronaut: an on-track drive in an open-wheel race car.
Feustel will have barely regained his legs from his marathon space mission before collecting on that promise November 3 at the SVRA Vintage Racing National Championship at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
The astronaut will take to the track during Rookie Day and serve as grand marshal of the overall event. Throughout the day, he will be meeting and mentoring with RPM Foundation students, inspiring them to use their mechanical skills for higher careers in science and technology.
“I’ve pursued an association with RPM, the educational arm of America’s Automotive Trust, because I believe it is important to ensure that students today find a way to learn technical and apprentice skills that are ultimately important in all walks of life,” Feustel said. “My hope is that if RPM continues to reach out to young students and plant an idea seed early in their lives, that these skills can be helpful no matter what field of study they pursue.”