Drexel Interviews 2009 Engineer of the Year Christopher Ferguson
January 29, 2009
Chris Ferguson Interview - Drexel Engineers Week
Mr. Christopher Ferguson, Commander of NASA’s STS-126 Endeavour, STS-115 Atlantis and adistinguished Drexel alumnus of mechanical engineering (’84) took sometime to sit down with us to discuss his latest space mission, hisexperience at Drexel and his passion for engineering. As 2009 Engineerof the Year, Chris is being honored by Drexel Engineering for his outstanding contributions to engineering and space exploration.
How (why) did you choose Drexel for your undergraduate engineering studies?
Like most high school seniors, I had more questions than answers. At least I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. I was accepted to a few colleges but decided on Drexel due to its reputation as an engineering university, the fact that my father went to the former Drexel Institute of Technology, and the proximity to my home.
When you were at Drexel were you already thinking about becoming an astronaut?
Yes, but it was something that seemed so far from reality that I didn’t seriously think it was possible. While I was a student, I watched STS-1 launch from the lobby of what was then the Creese Student Center. It was an engineer’s dream…everyone who thought seriously about engineering was enthralled by the possibility of working on such a project.
How was your life and career influenced by your time here as an engineering student?
The coop program enabled me (and every other student) to seriously consider where they wanted to work and what they wanted to accomplish in life. We had a “head start.” I knew that aerospace was somehow in my future.
Were there any “defining moments” for you at Drexel?
The second trimester of my freshman year was particularly trying. Unlike many of my peers to whom college and the process of ‘learning’ seemed to come naturally, I struggled at first. I watched a few friends flounder in the engineering curriculum and decide to switch majors. After a few dismal exams (I think it was engineering statics) I was in a do-or-die situation. Perseverance paid off, though, and I eventually got it. My success though, didn’t come without a few trials and some soul searching. Eventually I realized that success is much sweeter when you work hard to achieve it.
What was it like the first time you looked out the window and saw the Earth below?
Talk about “defining moments.” Casting your eyes upon the earth from space for the first time ranks pretty high. Of course neither words nor pictures can describe the beauty.
What’s it like to walk in space?
“Spacewalker” is a term used to describe someone who performs what NASA calls an “EVA” or Extravehicular Activity (NASA has its own language). EVA’s are typically done by the Mission Specialists (MS’s); a general term used to describe anyone but the mission Pilot or Commander. I’ve been both a Pilot and Commander which has relegated me to life inside the shuttle and Space Station. That said, floating in the internal expanse of the International Space Station is both a joy and a frustration. Once beyond the thrill, commuting from one place to another requires a conscience effort to stay in control, always looking for the next opportunity to anchor oneself to a surface. It’s entirely possible to get “stuck” in the middle of nowhere and embarrassing to ask a passing crewmember for a push to the nearest wall.
This wasn't your first time traveling into space. How did this trip differ for you personally from the others?
On my last mission, I was designated as the commander (or the CDR in NASAese). The overall responsibility for the execution of the mission rested squarely on my shoulders. Mission success would be shared by all, but mission failure would be the property of me. Preflight, I worked harder to understand as many facets of the mission as possible and during the mission, spent less time looking out the window, and more time making sure that we were progressing as planned. That said, I can not overemphasize how much help the crew has from the ground control teams. They plan the mission and execute many of the procedures for us. When we get in a bind, they throw the collective engineering expertise NASA at the problem and solve it for us.
Can you briefly explain the work that you did on the recent mission to develop the capacity to turn urine into water. Why was it so important and so urgent?
I can’t take credit for a single engineering decision. To do that would take it from the outstanding folks at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, AL who have been working on this for six years. We followed their detailed instructions to install the plumbing and provided suggestions when it was not working correctly. To their credit, I have recently learned that the water samples which we returned on Endeavour for analysis have come up nothing less than outstanding. The water is at least as pure as bottled water we drink here. We’ll never leave the confines of low Earth orbit to build an outpost on the Moon or go on to Mars if we have to drag our water with us…it’s simply too heavy. This system is a prerequisite for the next steps.
How much time have you logged in space now?
I think I have something like 27 days in space.
You have said that the space program as we know it will be shutting down in 2010. What does that mean?
Just to be more specific, the Space Shuttle Program will be shutting down in 2010. The International Space Station will still be occupied 24/7 and serviced by a combination of Russian, European and Japanese supply ships. The US human access to low Earth orbit will be via contract with the Russian Space Agency and their Soyuz spacecraft. On paper this is fine. In practice, this puts the United States in a precarious position until Orion, the next US developed program comes on line sometime around 2015.
What’s in the future for you professionally?
That’s a great question. I have not completely ruled out another spaceflight (given the opportunity of course). But I will continue to serve NASA and the US Navy (I am an active duty Captain in the USN) until my retirement from the Navy in the next few years. When the time comes, I have a lot to offer the “space business” and would like to maintain the association in some fashion. Teaching also seems like a great way to pass along my experiences and contribute to the education of the future space workforce.
How often do you get back to Philly and do you still consider it your hometown?
I get back at least once a year and yes, still consider it my hometown. My wife, Sandy and I both have a lot of family attachment to the area.Try as I may, I simply can’t split my allegiance to the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, Sixers….and cheese steaks.
Did you think that the Phillies would ever win the World Series?
Chase Utley’s jersey was safely stowed aboard Endeavour during the recent mission. I made that arrangement with the Phillies organization long before anyone knew they would become World Series champs. (I would have been just as happy to have it aboard if they came in last).