by Barbara Malinsky/photos courtesy Rick Mastracchio/NASA

“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Aviator)

Rick Mastracchio, Connecticut’s own astronaut, has just returned from a six-month mission in the International Space Station.  Born and bred in the Nutmeg State, he is the product of the state’s excellent public education system.  A native of Waterbury, he attended Chase Elementary School, Crosby High School, and the University of Connecticut where he received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1982.  He continued his engineering studies earning a Master of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1987.  From 1982 until 1987, he worked for Connecticut-based Hamilton Standard as an engineer in the system design group.  He continued his engineering studies earning a Master of Science Degree in Physical Science from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 1991.

His voyage to outer space began at home.  He is quick to credit his many teachers who nurtured his love of math and science.  “Bill Giusto was one of the first teachers to notice my interest in math and science and encouraged me.  Mrs. Griffin was my first calculus teacher and my guidance counselor suggested that I might consider pursuing mathematics and engineering.”

His family influences were instrumental to his success as well.  “My father and grandfather were both carpenters, very hands on, and I learned quickly how to use tools.  My father was the Vice President of the Waterbury Construction Company.  He built churches, schools, hospitals, and other buildings.  I have a vivid memory of a photo of my father standing on a crane placing a steeple on a church.   I feel that I am carrying on that construction tradition.  I’m very good with tools, which is why I am assigned so many spacewalks outside the space station to repair things.  I’ve had nine space walks, which is the fifth of all time.  It’s not that common; it’s every astronaut’s dream to do a space walk.”   Apparently there is little fear outside the confines of the station.  There are two precautions; the first is the tether that attaches you to the spacecraft and the second is a jet pack that propels you back to the station in the event the tether fails.

In 1987, Mastracchio moved to Houston, Texas to work for the Rockwell Shuttle Operations Company at the Johnson Space Center.  In 1990, he joined NASA as an engineer in the Flight Crew Operations Directorate.  Here he developed space shuttle flight software and ascent and abort crew procedures of the Astronaut Office.  During that time, he supported seventeen missions as a Flight Controller.  In 1996, he was selected as an Astronaut Candidate and began training.  The term astronaut derives from the Greek words “space sailor”.  “One of the hardest things I had to do to qualify for the program was to learn Russian which took about five years.”  Since the United States no longer has rockets that ferry us to the space station we need access to Russian ones so every American astronaut must learn the language.

A veteran of four spaceflights, he flew as a Mission Specialist on Atlantis, Endeavor, Discovery, and Expedition 39.  As of 2014, he has logged 228 days in space spanning four missions, including nine spacewalks totaling 53 hours.  During the 12-day Atlantis mission, the crew successfully prepared the International Space Station for the arrival of the first permanent crew.  The five astronauts and two cosmonauts delivered more than 6,600 pounds of supplies and installed batteries, a power converter, a toilet and a treadmill on the space station.  Mastracchio was the ascent/entry flight engineer and the primary robotic arms operator.  He was also responsible for the transfer of items from the space shuttle to the space station.  That mission orbited the Earth 185 times and covered 4.9 million miles.

In Endeavour, the crew added another truss segment, a new gyroscope and an external spare parts platform to the International Space Station.  As the ascent/entry flight engineer and EVA lead, he participated in three of the four spacewalks.  Discovery was a resupply mission to the International Space Station and was launched at the Kennedy Space Center at night.  On arrival, the crew dropped off more than 27,000 pounds of supplies and equipment.  As the EVA lead, Mastracchio performed three spacewalks during this mission and logged over 20 hours of spacewalks.

In 2014, he was part of the international crew Expedition 39 that was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station along with Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and flight Engineer Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  During this time, he conducted three spacewalks, the first two to remove and replace a faulty cooling pump, and the third to remove and replace a failed backup computer relay box.  The crew returned to Earth after 188 days in space.

During Expedition 39, the crew participated in a variety of research projects, including a human immune system activation and suppression study and a protein crystal growth research project looking for proteins responsible for Huntington’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.  The crew also installed a new plant growth chamber designed to expand in-orbit food production capabilities.

Samples from the ongoing microbiomes – microbes living in and on the human body at any given time – were returned to Earth.  Samples from crewmembers’ bodies and the space station environment are taken periodically to monitor changes in the immune system and microbiomes.  The results of this study may add to research on health impacts to people who live and work in extreme environments on Earth and help with research on early disease detection, metabolic function and immune system efficiency.

The space station is more than a scientific research platform.  It also serves as a test bed to demonstrate new technology.  With the arrival of SpaceX-3, the Expedition 39 crew unloaded new climbing legs for NASA’s Robonaut 2 humanoid robot, designed to take over routine and potentially dangerous tasks from astronauts.  Ground controllers using the station’s robotic arm also installed a new high-definition Earth-viewing camera system, referred to as HDEV, on the outside of the Columbus lab.  HDEV is comprised of four commercially available HD cameras and streams online live video of Earth to online viewers around the world.

All of this is just a day’s work for Mastracchio.  Having experienced four missions he explained the feeling of being propelled into space.  “It’s just an incredible experience.  It’s very bumpy like riding a motorcycle on a train track for the first two minutes.  It’s a blast feeling the sounds and that power and acceleration!  If you understand what is happening we know what to do; we are well trained and can’t worry about it.  Then, it smoothes out.  After about eight and a half minutes the engines shut down and you begin to have the sensation that you are falling out of your seat but you’re buckled in.  You can fly up to the ceiling and turn upside down when unbuckled.  In only eight and a half minutes you are in orbit propelled at 17,500 miles an hour; a bullet is a lot slower than that!”

“The Earth is very beautiful from there.  You are only 250 miles high.  You can see the unique colors of the Caribbean waters, the shapes of land masses like Australia, the green of South America, the Golden Gate Bridge, the New York high rise buildings, wakes of ships, and contrails of planes.  At night, it’s even more incredible with the bright clusters of lights over major cities.”

Mastracchio’s first three space flights were on the space shuttle, which has since been retired.  Reentry is now done the old fashioned way by crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere in flames in a capsule and landing by parachute.   “Landing on Earth in the shuttle was luxurious.  Now we are screaming through the Earth’s atmosphere violently swinging around but we’re buckled in.  You are protected from the extreme heat by the vehicle and your suit.”  Crews are standing by to rescue the team, which they carry off. “You are required to exercise two hours a day while in space so that when we come home we are in good shape and can walk on our own.  It’s only a tradition to be carried off once you land on Earth.”

Mastracchio definitely plans to go back to space.  “There are about 45 active astronauts so someone else should have a turn but I do want to go back.  I’ll continue my own training, train new astronauts, and design new vehicles.  There are about 4 new vehicles in the works and there are the prospects of private space travel.”  His easygoing persona belies his expertise and enormous accomplishments.  He is the Waterbury neighbor next door.    One of the first things he did upon returning from space was speak at his former high school.

Mastracchio now joins the pantheon of great explorers.  Less than five hundred years ago Copernicus and Galileo asserted that the earth was not the center of the known skies.  They would be in awe of space travel and revel in Mastracchio’s accomplishments.

Ground control to Mastracchio, Connecticut is proud of you!

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