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Rocket Man

Unfortunately, Mike Fincke ‘89 can’t attend his 15th MIT reunion this June. He’s even missing the birth of his second child. He’s got a good excuse, though: he’s traveling around the world-at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour, in fact. Fincke is currently in orbit as flight engineer and NASA science officer on Expedition 9, a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

For Fincke, the mission represents the realization of a lifelong dream. He’s known he wanted to be an astronaut since he was three years old and watched the first Apollo moonwalks on television. “It’s all very exciting, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “It’s my calling for my life and a dream come true, for certain.”

Although he considers himself “very lucky,” Fincke’s career path seems tailor-made for the ISS, a global partnership representing 16 nations. As an air force ROTC student at MIT, he double-majored in aeronautics and astronautics and earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. He also went through the Russian program and spent a summer at the Moscow Aviation Institute.

Fincke completed a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University in 1990 and entered the air force. He served in a variety of flight-test positions in Los Angeles, Florida, and Japan, nurturing his love of languages along the way by learning Japanese. In 1996 he was one of 35 astronaut candidates selected by NASA from 2,400 applicants.

Fincke has spent four of the past eight years at NASA training with his Expedition 9 commander and crewmate, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. They’ve developed a close relationship during that time, drawing on the same skills that make a marriage successful, Fincke says. For example, you learn what each other’s buttons are, how to compensate for each other, or when to tell a good joke if your partner is having a tough day. “The skills I’ve learned being married to my beautiful and wonderful wife over the past couple of years have matured me so that I have some of those tools in my emotional toolbox,” he says.

Those skills have been put to the test on this mission, as the two astronauts live and work together around the clock. One of the biggest challenges, Fincke says, is that he and Padalka have the workload of about three people. Their biggest task will be completing two space walks this summer to reconfigure the ISS to receive a cargo ship built by the European Space Agency. The ship is bigger and requires different docking equipment than the current Russian cargo ship, Progress.

Fincke and Padalka are conducting several science experiments during their space odyssey as well. Before the April 18 launch in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket, they spent several weeks in Russia completing their training and collecting baseline physiological data. Although studying the impact of long-term space flight on the human body is not new, the Expedition 9 crew will be the first to use an ultrasound onboard the ISS to map changes in their soft-tissue organs during the mission.

The crew will also participate in the Spheres (for “synchronized position hold engage and reorient experimental satellites”) project, developed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory. Fincke is putting together soccer-ball-sized satellites designed through the project and experimenting with them to determine the basic guidance laws governing them in microgravity conditions. Ultimately, they may be used as robotic assistants to aid astronauts inside and outside the ISS. “One of the things that we’re struggling with right now is that we haven’t really taken a good look at the outside of our space station for about a year and a half now,” explains Fincke. Space shuttles can do a thorough photo survey, but since the Columbia disaster, a survey hasn’t been completed to check for micrometeor impacts or other wear and tear. “Having an autonomous robotic vehicle with camera video capability would really help us out. So this is a really neat experiment.”

Although he misses his wife, Renita, and his two-year-old son, Fincke is able to stay in touch almost daily by phone or videoconference. He is philosophical about being away during the birth of his second child, a girl. “This kind of thing happens to a lot of people who are serving our country right now-soldiers and airmen and folks in the navy. Their folks are having babies back home too. This isn’t much different, except if something goes wrong, I can’t get the next flight back home.”

That kind of humility is Fincke’s stock in trade. “I’ve been very blessed to live in the United States and have the opportunities to-pardon me stealing from the army-be all that I can be,’” he says earnestly. Still, he’s making the most of the experience. “I just hope I don’t enjoy it so much that I don’t want to come back. I say that tongue in cheek, of course.” Elizabeth Durant


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