OSU’s Pettit keeps eyes on the stars

Thinking about space as the final frontier might sound a little cliché, but take it from someone who knows, that’s a good way to describe it. Astronaut and Oregon State University graduate Donald Pettit has always found himself drawn to places where few humans have ventured, but where adventurous souls seem always drawn.

Astronaut Donald Pettit, Class of ‘78, has gone on two space missions. He was on campus in late February to talk to students about exploring frontiers and focusing on science. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Astronaut Donald Pettit, Class of ‘78, has gone on two space missions. He was on campus in late February to talk to students about exploring frontiers and focusing on science. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

“It’s a place where our intuition doesn’t apply,” Pettit said. “It’s a place for discovery.”

Pettit was on campus in late February to talk to students about the magic of space travel, and the joy of exploring new frontiers. He likens current space exploration to the early voyages of explorers to the New World. He believes we’re just on the cusp of a great age of exploration.

Pettit has gone on two space missions, the most recent in November 2008, where he helped work on expanding the International Space Station, but he has also traveled to Antarctica to do research on meteorites.

Pettit was born in Silverton, and graduated from OSU in 1978 with a degree in chemical engineering. He went on to get a doctorate in chemical engineering from University of Arizona, and worked for Los Alamos for 12 years before joining NASA. His first space flight was a five-month trip to the International Space Station.

Pettit is the father of twin 8-year-old boys, and finds echoes of his parents in the way he’s raising his sons. He recalls his father’s hobby workshop as a magical place where one could build anything they wanted, and as a child he often spent time there, honing the skills that one would day help him craft inventions on the fly, literally, during his time in space.

Now, when Pettit is back home in Houston, he often finds himself in his own workshop, where his sons are learning the joy of invention by his side.

Pettit’s rural upbringing inspired him to use what he had at hand.

“You have to work really hard to make a living. If a tractor breaks, you have to find another piece of junk and weld it together,” Pettit said. This kind of approach helped Pettit on the space station, when he used a Flight Data cover and turned it into a zero-G coffee mug that kept him from having to depend on silver pouches and straws to drink his coffee.

OSU helped Pettit hone the skills he’d need as an astronaut.

“It gave me a strong engineering background,” he said, without which, he wouldn’t have had a chance to participate in the NASA program. “It prepared me well for graduate school, and for the real world.”

He advised any student with a deep, heartfelt-love of space to focus on technology and the core sciences in order to achieve their dreams of space travel. And despite the weak world economy, or in fact, because of it, Pettit has high hopes for the future of space travel.
“What better way to pump money into the system then investing in high technology,” he said. The government should be supporting the development of high tech jobs, not service industry positions.

“Every dollar spent on space flight is spent here on Earth,” he said. “It all has a huge socioeconomic impact.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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