Drew Feustel to touch down from space

Queen’s alum returns to earth after six-month mission aboard the International Space Station

Drew Feustel suits up before his trip to the International Space Station.
Credit: 
Supplied by Queen's

On Oct. 4, NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold, and cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, are to climb into a capsule, push off from the International Space Station (ISS), and blast back to earth.

After preparing to disembark from the ISS for several hours, Feustel and his

fellow astronauts should spend close to an hour and a half slowly exiting the orbit around Earth—careful not to crash into the Station while doing so.

Mark Richardson, an astrophysics expert at Queen’s, told The Journal in a phone interview, the trip from the station to earth is a “bumpy ride.”

“The process of coming in itself is not this gentle breeze,” he said. “It’s a heck of a ride, like a really intense roller coaster.”

During the four-hour journey home, Feustel and his colleagues are expected to slow down from nearly 28,000 km per hour to zero in a short period of time—more than 20 times the speed of sound—before a 50-minute plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“They’re basically slamming on the brakes so hard they feel the weight in their belts and seats as if they weigh four times more than what they’re used to when they’re just standing on the earth,” Richardson said. “Four times the force of gravity is being weighed on them.”

Feustel and his colleagues need to enter the earth’s atmosphere at exactly the right angle and with exactly the right amount of time burning—four minutes and forty-five seconds.

Too slow, and the crew would have to perform another burn, causing them to land outside the designated landing zone.

That has dangerous connotations, but if the trio entered the atmosphere too quickly, they would have burned alive in the earth’s atmosphere.

“They basically start ramming into the atmosphere,” Richardson said.

The capsule has heat shields to protect its inhabitants from temperatures up to two thousand degrees Celsius, but a high speed would compress the air inside the vessel, heating it up thousands degrees more.

Burning alive, though, may be the least of Feustel’s worries.

Richardson said six months in space can wear down the muscles of the human body because they’re not being used.

“Everything on earth is just used to battling gravity,” he said. “When you’re in the space station in orbit around the earthyou’re essentially weightless.”

Nearby medics are expected to carry the trio out the capsule into wheelchairs when they touch down in Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodome.

“They’re really not used to carrying their weight,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of when you go to the dentist and you get your lip frozen: you can bite your lip just because you’re not paying attention to it, you don’t even know.”

“You really want to ease into it, almost like coming out of surgery.”

Feustel, who earned his PhD in physics at Queen’s, spent 197 days on the ISS, first serving as a flight engineer before becoming commander. 

While Feustal performed maintenance duties, such as installing antennas and cameras, he also participated in a Facebook live event and performed experiments in physics, biology, and extended navigation relevant for future space missions.

Last January, Feustel told The Journal he hopes his work will have a lasting impact. 

“I hope that the work we do makes a difference, does inspire people to do great things with their lives, does inspire us to think of travel off our planet and living off our planet to ensure the continued existence of the human species,” he said. 

Richardson—who believes astronauts are heroes—thinks Feustel accomplished this goal.

“They’re the ones that are able to go up there and endure all these physical stresses and mental stresses,” Richardson said. “Astronauts are just so inspiring because they’re the people pushing the boundaries of what we’re going to achieve over the next hundreds and thousands of years.”

“I find a lot of inspiration in that.”

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