A smiling ambassador of goodwill with a message of international cooperation, Lt. Col. Mike Fincke appeared from outer space on an enormous video screen in Kresge Auditorium on Saturday, June 5 to greet his MIT classmates at their 15th reunion.
"I miss MIT. I really was sad I couldn't come to this year's reunion," said the astronaut alumnus, who is on the International Space Station (ISS) through October.
But there wasn't a touch of sadness about Fincke (who earned S.B. degrees in 1989 in aeronautics and astronautics and in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences) when he appeared at the Alumni Association's annual Technology Day via a video teleconference call at about 11:45 a.m.
President Charles M. Vest stood at the podium on the Kresge stage, the head and shoulders of Fincke towering behind him on a 30-foot screen. The two chatted about space exploration and MIT for about 15 minutes.
Fincke requested the teleconference so he wouldn't miss his reunion, even if he couldn't be at MIT physically. He has been living on the ISS since April 21 as the Expedition 9 flight engineer and ISS science officer, working with Russian cosmonaut Commander Gennady Padalk.
Fincke and Padalk trained in Kazakhstan before the launch, and Fincke clearly relishes the international aspect of the ISS. His message to the approximately 1,100 alumni gathered in Kresge was one of peace and international cooperation.
"Human beings should work together constructively and not destructively," he said appearing to gently bounce in the zero-gravity atmosphere as though standing chest-deep in water. He wore a blue jumpsuit and his hair was cropped short. He waved several times to the crowd (which he could see) and grinned and laughed often during the call.
"MIT prepared me nicely for this next sphere of globalization. To some people that's a bad thing. But I think it's a really good thing--working together across national borders," he said.
He described the space station as "beautiful, remarkable, an incredible piece of engineering and a great laboratory" in response to a question from Vest. "It's a great place to do science--though it's a little odd to do science in an atmosphere where the surface tension is more of a factor than gravity."
"As for the workload, we're busy, but it's nothing compared to Unified," he said, in a joke that only an MIT crowd would understand. (Unified Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics is described by some students as the most demanding series of subjects at MIT.)
Over the years, Fincke has remained in touch with other members of the Class of 1989, some of whom prepared a care package for him that will travel to the ISS on the next NASA shuttle. Charles Whetsel, head of the Mars robotics division at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, included a home movie of a whale watch that Fincke, Whetsel and their wives took in 1998. Martin Serrano of TV Guide Onscreen put together a DVD montage of photos strung together with the Talking Heads' "NaÃ¯ve Melody" ("Home is where I want to be"), and other favorite songs of Fincke's as background music.
Fincke is the second alumnus to live on the ISS; the first was ISS commander Captain William Shepherd (S.M. 1978), but he's certainly the first to attend his college reunion from space. His broadcast traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and then on to Kresge, where it was picked up through an ISDN line.
In addition to setting a record for the most miles traveled while attending a reunion, he probably set some sort of record for space acrobatics. He's surely the first alumnus to turn a cartwheel on Kresge's stage during Tech Day, a feat he performed with a grin and a goodbye wave.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 9, 2004 (download PDF).