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Courtesy of NASA
Astronaut Gregory E. Chamitoff PhD ’92 poses with a picture of MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department aboard the International Space Station during his time in orbit last year.
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Space, at first glance, was “hard to look at,” said Greg E. Chamitoff PhD ’92. Exciting as it may have been to travel out of this world and fulfill a childhood dream to become an astronaut, “when you first get up there you are not feeling good so it is hard to look at it at first,” he said.

Once he settled into the new environment, the view of Earth outside the window became clearer: “You know what it looks like — you’ve seen it in science fiction movies, pretty darn good rendering of it — but it’s confirmation that this is really the way the world is.”

And, beyond that, he said, “You realize how vulnerable [the Earth] is at the same time. You see it by itself, just like you are floating by yourself.”

The Course 16 PhD alumnus returned from half a year aboard the International Space Station in mid-December, 2008. On a visit to MIT this week, he recounted his experience on the Space Station working as a flight engineer and NASA science officer alongside partners from Russia and Japan.

Aboard the Space Station, Chamitoff worked on several projects, including one that aims to allow satellites to autonomously avoid collisions. The project utilized special test satellites designed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory.

Life in space was not all work and no play: an avid chess player, Chamitoff took aboard with him a chessboard on which he used Velcro to attach pieces. He started playing a game against the various control centers. “It was a disadvantage to [the control centers] because they couldn’t coordinate [with each other] but if they lost they didn’t have anyone to blame,” said Chamitoff. He also engaged in a chess game against US youth chess champions, initiated by the US Chess Federation. Earth-based participants sent their moves in on the internet. The program manager joked with Chamitoff: “whatever you do up there you can’t lose to 3rd graders.” They didn’t get to finish the game while Chamitoff was in space.

Each astronaut was allowed to take a certain number of items for organizations they represent, as well as personal mementos. One of the items Chamitoff took with him was a picture that was taken of students and faculty in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics from Spring 2008. One of the personal items he took with him was a collection of music that his father had recorded before he passed away. “I was able to play with him and kind of bring him along,” said Chamitoff.

Training to be an astronaut took several years. Throughout those years, he and other astronauts in his class worked to support on-board crew members in current missions. Chamitoff served as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for one expedition and also spent time working with partners in Russia before the launch.

Chamitoff also went through several survival training sessions. Aquarius, an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida, served as a “space flight analogue,” in which astronauts practiced missions with real equipment, he said. He spent nine days in Aquarius to get a simulated feel of running missions.

Chamitoff said he remembered fondly the friendships he made as a graduate student at MIT: “This is the time in your life you get to know those who are going to be your lifetime friends,” said Chamitoff. He recalled studying for qualifying exams with fellow students at the Draper lab, spending hours talking through exam questions. “This was the most bonding time, to survive those exams together,” said Chamitoff.

How does one become an astronaut? “Never give up, never surrender is the motto,” said Chamitoff, advising budding astronauts to always keep their dream alive. Reaching your dreams is all about pushing yourself, said Chamitoff, adding, “you need to set your own standards and not what others expect of you … If you have done your best, that is all that you can do.”

A video of the interview is at http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N12/chamitoff/.