An exclusive interview with Archbishop Ryan alum, U.S. shuttle Endeavour’s Commander Christopher Ferguson

By Nadia Maria Smith
CS&T Staff Writer

How many people know that Americans have been living continuously in space for the past eight years? Or that launching into space to bring supplies and drop-off or pick-up people at the International Space Station happens four or five times a year? Or that you can use laptops and make cell-phone calls in space?

The advancements in space exploration have been far-reaching – and largely missing from the news. Which is a mistake, according to U.S. space shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, a 2008 Distinguished Catholic School Graduate from the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

“The word does not get out there and it’s not getting better when a station like CNN closes its space and environmental bureau …and other national news outlets are under pressure to do the same. We have made tremendous accomplishments that every American should be proud of,” said Ferguson, a graduate of Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

“There is no doubt that there are a lot of things that compete for the time and talent of adolescent minds. There are 200 channels to surf through and enough video games a person can play in a lifetime so that what used to excite people about space may not [do so] any more,” he said. “Then, when [those adolescents] become voters, they don’t care about the space program.”

Ferguson recently completed a routine mission on the shuttle Endeavour, spending 16 days in space with six other astronauts. Their journey spanned 6.6 million miles and 250 orbits of Earth. At the International Space Station – an innovative international scientific research facility that orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 250 miles, considered the largest and most complex international scientific project in history – Ferguson and his crew helped install a recycling system designed to convert the astronauts’ urine and sweat into drinking water. If the system works properly, it will allow for six astronauts to live in space at one time instead of three – the current limit. It will also help with recycling projects on Earth.

During their last mission, the shuttle crew conducted four spacewalks to clear metal shavings from a solar wing rotary joint at the space station. The joint had been jammed for more than a year and hampered energy production at the station.

“The problem associated with this alpha joint we knew about, because it had been well documented. But we were unaware of how well grease works in space, so to use an analogy, we basically went out, pulled the wheels off of the space station and fixed the brakes using lubricated wipes with space-friendly grease – and then put it all back together,” Ferguson said. “We didn’t know how this would go because it hadn’t been done before – it was an unchoreographed and unexpected task.”

Initial tests indicated the repairs on the joint were successful and the mission a success despite one casualty – the loss of a $100,000 tool bag that floated away.

The crew also delivered and helped install a new bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine and two sleeping quarters that left the orbiting complex with more modern and deluxe living quarters for bigger crews.

They also safely delivered a new U.S. crew member for the space station, Sandra Magnus, who will stay aboard for three and a half months. She replaced American astronaut Gregory Chamitoff who returned to Earth with the rest of the Endeavour crew on Nov. 30 after six months in orbit.

Ferguson never ceases to be amazed by the experience of going into space and by the research that is being done at the space station. There are six state-of-the-art solar powered laboratories in which scientists are carrying out research that could lead to possible treatments and cures for cancer, diabetes, emphysema and immune system disorders.

Scientists are also studying the Earth, the environment and the effects of gravity on the human body, metals, fire and fluid. It’s research that Ferguson believes will have a lasting impact on life on Earth.

“It is absolutely imperative that we maintain some human presence in space,” Ferguson said. “We went to the moon and made great achievements and then we pulled back and contemplated. Now we are virtually certain that there will be an establishment of a moon colony before too long. We have to look upon space as the place where we develop the technology that will keep us alive in space, Earth, the moon, and maybe even Mars…. We are developing ways to recycle air and water for a fraction of the U.S. government budget.”

Ferguson knows that the future of manned space missions, and the success of the space station and future colonies on the moon, all depend on the support of the public. He hopes people will encourage the government to continue funding the space program which is anything but irrelevant in today’s world, he said.

During the presidential campaign, President-elect Barack Obama proposed an early education plan that would be paid for with NASA money – delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years.

The program calls for a host of spacecraft and booster vehicles to be developed in order to replace the Space Transportation System (STS), the spacecraft currently used by the United States government for its human spaceflight missions that will be retired in two years. The new spacecraft would send astronauts to the moon and to Mars.

But with the delay, the United States government would be left without its own human launch capability for nearly 10 years, while other countries advance in such technologies. It would also result in a further loss of capability, as the workforce with the knowledge to build spacecraft would not be around for re-hire in 2020.

“I have become passionate about this very recently because if we give this capability away we will never get it back and will be second or third in the world in terms of science and research,” Ferguson said. “In the big scheme of things, if we gave back that money to help prepare kindergarteners for first grade instead of using it to have astronauts and scientists in constant research that will help life on Earth … would you really get the same return on your tax dollar?”

CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at or (215) 965-4614.