CORVALLIS - Twenty-eight years ago, Donald Pettit came to Oregon State University to study chemical engineering. At the Corvallis campus he met and was mentored by two professors who both saw that this bright young man was bound to go far.
And indeed Pettit has - about as far as any human being can go and still be within the Earth's orbit.
Along the way, Pettit has always kept in touch with the OSU chemical engineering professors who influenced him during his early college days. Now a NASA astronaut, Pettit this week paid his former professors a very unusual visit - via video link from aboard the International Space Station, where he's been living since last November.
Orbiting the earth at approximately 17,000 miles per hour, Pettit talked with professors Octave Levenspiel and Goran Jovanovic and a dozen engineering students and professors gathered in a classroom on the campus of his alma mater to watch the high-tech reunion.
When the video link blinked on, Levenspiel enthusiastically greeted his former student and asked Pettit to smile at the camera. Pettit responded by floating upside down and saying, "I'll just sit up here on the ceiling for awhile."
During the 20-minute exchange, Pettit fielded questions about the experiments he's doing, the CDs he listens to in space, how he stays in shape and what would be his advice to aspiring astronauts. He said he's not seen the elusive green flash that's rumored to appear just at sunset on Earth, and he joked about waving to his wife the last time the space station passed over their home in Houston.
Pettit gave a lesson on the effects of weightlessness by spinning two eggs in mid-air, one hard-boiled and one fresh, and asking the audience to guess which was which. When asked what he will he miss most after he returns to Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in early May, Pettit responded, "being able to fly." Then he backed across the room and launched himself through the air until his grinning face almost collided with the camera.
"And you don't even have to flap your wings!"
A student asked what the most important characteristic aspiring astronauts should possess. "Explore a discipline that you really enjoy," Pettit advised. "Don't change what you're studying in school because you think it will make you look more attractive to NASA. Study what you feel really motivated about, be really, really good at it, and apply yourself."
A typical workday for Pettit, fellow astronaut Ken Bowersox and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends about 12 hours later, the Silverton native said. Except when a space shuttle is docked at the station. Then the astronauts work around the clock.
"It's kind of like what you do down there during finals week," he told the students, who laughed knowingly.
Asked about the CD collection aboard the space station, Pettit explained that listening to music was one of the things they did during "off-duty" downtime. "It's kind of nice to put on a CD of classical music or Jimmy Buffet or something as you look out the window and watch the Earth go by," he said. "It's amazing."
To combat the negative health effects of life in space, like bone density loss and an enlarged heart, Pettit said he exercises two hours a day, one hour on a treadmill and one on a weight machine modified for the weightless environment.
He said space life "does something" to the body's metabolism that he hasn't figured out yet.
"You get hungry all the time up here. We just chow down big time. I've been eating between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day. We lick our plates clean up here, I'll tell you. In fact, we're starting to eat some of Expedition 7's food because we've already eaten most of the Expedition 6 food. The folks who are coming up to spell us should get up here pretty quick if there's going to be any food left." Levenspiel invited Pettit to pay OSU a "real" visit this summer after he returns to Earth and is acclimated to gravity. "I need someone to mow my lawn," Levenspiel joked.
"I'll take you up on that," Pettit said. "It will be fun to drop by the department and say hello to everyone."