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Alumnus Fincke blasts off for half a year in space

Astronaut and MIT alumnus Mike Fincke (left) looks over a procedures checklist during a training session for his International Space Station mission with cosmonaut Gennady I. Padalka (right).
Astronaut and MIT alumnus Mike Fincke (left) looks over a procedures checklist during a training session for his International Space Station mission with cosmonaut Gennady I. Padalka (right).
Photo courtesy / NASA

Spending six months away from home is a challenge for any family man, but spending that time away from the planet is tougher yet--even for an MIT graduate.

Lt. Col. Mike Fincke of the U.S. Air Force (S.B. 1989) blasted off from Kazakhstan in the Soyuz 8 spacecraft on April 19 and docked with the International Space Station two days later. He'll spend six months on the ISS as the Expedition 9 flight engineer and science officer, working and living with cosmonaut Commander Gennady Padalk.

Fincke, Padalk and European Space Agency astronaut Andr��� Kuipers (who went along for the ride) were welcomed to the ISS by Expedition 8 crew Alexander Kaleri and Michael Foale. Kuipers, Kalerie and Foale are scheduled to leave the station aboard Soyuz 7 tomorrow and return to Earth, leaving the new crew to begin work.

Fincke and Padalk left Earth prepared to make two spacewalks. NASA mission managers are now discussing the possibility of a third spacewalk to fix a hardware problem with one of the three gyros, which hold the ISS in orbit. NASA says the hardware problem is not a safety problem; the other two gyros can keep the station in position.

Fincke, who said he "always dreamed of being an astronaut," is ready for the space walks. "I've been trained by the best instructors both in Houston and Moscow and we're ready for whatever comes," he said in a news article published on NASA's web site.

"Only recently did I actually start to think how really exciting that is--to be alone in the cosmos without a spacecraft around me, except for this suit that was put together by human hands," he said. "It's made out of material and a little bit of metal and a lot of plastic, and yet we'll be able to look out there on our planet below and the stars in the sky and really experience a true space flight."

The 37-year-old Fincke left on Earth his wife Renita, who is expecting their second child this summer, and his two-year-old son, Chandra. Fincke's parents went to Russia with Renita for the launch; his father even went to Kazakhstan to watch it live. Fincke's five younger brothers and two sisters watched from the States.

His three youngest brothers live in the Boston area. Jason Fincke, a 28-year-old law student at Boston College, spoke with his brother in Moscow on April 10.

"He sounded good and very excited. He was really busy--his two-year-old was running around, so he still had his dad duties. I mean, this is his lifelong dream, but he has a life here on Earth, too," said Jason, who also said that the two brothers closest to Mike in age are named John and Glenn, after the astronaut.

"I feel pretty excited for Mike," said Jason. "There's some anxiety and a little bit of--not fear--maybe worry, from the Columbia disaster last year. We all know it's a dangerous business. But it's his dream and he's working with an international crew and doing something that's going to benefit all of humanity. We're really excited for him and supportive of him and we're going to take good care of his family while he's gone."

Fincke continues a long MIT tradition of astronauts. In fact, the Institute has had more alumni astronauts than any other non-military university in the nation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 28, 2004.

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