Astronaut Greg Chamitoff is in a class of his own. A Cal Poly alumnus, he has spent the last two months as the American representative aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Before conducting a live telephone interview with Scott Rourke of Cal Poly’s alumni magazine, Chamitoff took a moment to don a Cal Poly T-shirt which he brought aboard in his limited allowance of personal articles.
Speaking from the U.S laboratory aboard the station he said, “My time spent at Cal Poly was really invaluable to me. I still have great memories of my time there and the motto at Cal Poly, ‘learn by doing’ is really applicable to everything we’re doing up here.”
The 1984 Cal Poly graduate is serving a six month tour on the station with two Russian cosmonauts, conducting experiments to study the effects of long term space travel on the human body.
“All the theories you could possibly learn at Cal Poly are really applicable to all the systems on board. That whole approach of theory and application sticks with me 20-plus years later,” he said.
While Chamitoff now lives in Houston with his wife and two children and has earned an M.S. degree in Aeronautical Engineering, a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT and another M.S. in Space Science since leaving Cal Poly, his ties to the Central Coast remain strong.
Cal Poly math professor James Muller was one of the family and friends invited to watch Chamitoff’s departure aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on May 31.
Chamitoff was a top student in three of Muller’s courses at Cal Poly and Muller gave the astronaut-to-be advice on graduate school and wrote letters of recommendation for him in the ’80s. The two have remained friends over the years.
During his time on the station, Chamitoff has continued the astronaut tradition of speaking to young minds from orbit, most recently or by communicating via radio with a Goleta Boy Scout Troop on Aug. 19.
While Chamitoff has been communicating with the ground on a daily basis, e-mail and satellite telephone calls are no substitute for having family close at hand.
“The most challenging part I think is just being away from family, missing our kids, our wives.” Chamitoff said.
“The rest of it is a lot of fun, the work
is great, interacting with the control crews all around the world is really enjoyable, and it feels very productive.”
The crew of the space station is given little time for homesickness as they are kept busy throughout the day.
“Generally speaking you wake up in the morning and ground control gives you a schedule for the day,” said Garrett Riesman, Chamitoff’s predecessor aboard the station. “So you look at that and you have a daily summary which outlines recent developments and then you get some storage information which helps you find all the tools you’re going to need for your job that day then you have some breakfast, a conference call with mission control and then you get to work.”
“There’s not much (leisure time),” Riesman said. “In a typical day you get maybe and hour or two of leisure time, and in that time you get a lot of e-mails to answer.”
“One of my favorite things to do is take photos from space of places I’ve been to. I’ve got some good pictures actually of San Luis Obispo and some good shots of Pismo Beach and the Oceano airport,” he said.
Each astronaut is allowed a collection of personal items about the size of a shoebox in which they can take whatever they deem worthy of the trip. While Chamitoff brought along his Cal Poly shirt, others have taken items ranging from coins and trinkets for family and friends to a vial of dirt taken from the pitcher’s mound at Yankee stadium or a knob from the historic ENIAC computer.
They are also allowed to take along a computer hard drive full of software for personal or entertainment purposes. Chamitoff took a copy of the commercial coding program Matlab to use in his spare time.
“Some guys have taken up video games, some guys have taken up software to help them learn a new language or an instrument, and we do have a guitar on board,” Riesman said.
“For myself I took a picture of the ENIAC knob on the control panel of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, so that was kind of neat.”
While all crews sent to the station are kept busy, Chamitoff and other astronauts sent up on the Space Shuttle pull double duty, as a member of a shuttle crew and station personnel.
In addition to delivering Chamitoff and bringing Riesman back to Earth, the Shuttle Discovery delivered the 37-foot Japanese Kibo Lab to the station.
“Chamitoff was involved with the robotics, moving around the modules and helping my crew members get out the door on space walks. His big part of the mission is after we undock is getting those systems up and running. He is the only U.S. astronaut on that station for six months,” Discovery’s commander, Mark Kelly said.
Despite recent developments in the United States-Russia relationship and his status as the sole United States representative, Chamitoff and Kelly agree that there is little cultural tension onboard the station.
“I do feel somewhat responsible for him, being the guy that closed the hatch on him. But he’s got a great space station commander that he’s working for, who’s a Colonel in the Russian Air Force, a cosmonaught named Sergey Volkov, who’s really a great guy, who I’ve got the upmost respect for,” Kelly said.
“Being up there with two Russians, I couldn’t ask for two better guys for him to be with.”
Chamitoff will return to Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour this fall.