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UA alum and astronaut back on campus after 6 months in space

By Aaron Mackey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
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Astronaut Don Pettit's feet might be in Tucson, but his head remains in the stars.

Pettit, a UA alumnus, will touch down on campus tonight to talk about his experiences aboard the International Space Station, where he spent nearly six months conducting experiments and helping assemble the station.

Pettit received his doctorate in chemical engineering from the UA in 1983 and said he has dreamed about becoming an astronaut since he was a child.

And now that he's been in space, he said he can't wait to get back.

"Oh yeah. I want to fly again," Pettit said.

Taking off as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on Nov. 23, 2002, Pettit spent more than 13 hours walking in space attaching a truss segment brought up by the shuttle to the station.

While the view of Earth was impressive, Pettit said trying to see stars was a bit difficult.

The UA did an outstanding job of preparing me.
Don Pettit, UA alumnus and NASA astronaut

Because of cabin lights inside the station and reflections from the windows, seeing stars is nearly impossible, he said.

But Pettit, who said his education at the UA taught him technical-problem-solving skills, had a solution.

The crew would turn off as many lights as they could, leaving only the glow of computer monitors to illuminate the cabin.

In the half-light, Pettit said he would take a dark shroud and put it over his head and press his face close to a window.

Allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 15 minutes, Pettit finally got to see his stars.

Pettit and his crew were originally scheduled to return to Earth after four months, but were delayed when the Shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry last year.

Facing an extended stay in space, the crew became the first space station astronauts to return to Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft.

Because of his work aboard the space station, Pettit was recently named as a recipient of the UA's Alumnus of the Year Award.

But Pettit said it was the UA that helped him launch his dream of becoming an astronaut.

"The UA did an outstanding job of preparing me. They gave me the education tools I need," he said.

Pettit said he considers Tom Peterson, dean of the college of engineering, one of his mentors.

"He taught me how to clearly think toward solving complex technical problems," said Pettit, who was the first student to receive a doctorate under Peterson.

Despite concerns raised after the Columbia crash, Pettit said he was confident in NASA's safety.

"There's risks associated with space travel, and every once in a while they come back and bite you. But you pick up the pieces and carry on," he said.

For now, Pettit said he's happy to wait his turn to have another go at life in space.

As for exploring regions beyond Earth's orbit, Pettit said he'd jump at the opportunity.

"I'd go to the moon or mars in a nanosecond," he said.

Pettit speaks at 7 p.m. in Room 308 of the Space Sciences building.

In addition to the speech, the Flandrau Science Center will be open to the public from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free, courtesy of the College of Engineering.

Events include a planetarium show beginning at 8:45 p.m., as well as a live viewing of a Russian Soyuz Spacecraft docking with the International Space Station. Astronomers will also set up telescopes on the UA Mall for public use.

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