An alumnus of a west metro high school and St. John’s University blasted off from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station for a nearly half-year stay.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, 50, along with another American and a Russian, launched on schedule Tuesday at 4:17 p.m. CDT on a Soyuz spacecraft for Expedition 53/54. After a five-plus-hour journey, they were set to rendezvous with three others on the station.
During his anticipated 5½-month stint orbiting 250 miles above Earth, the retired Army colonel who twice served in Iraq will participate in various biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science experiments.
This is Vande Hei’s first trip into space. He had been assigned to a Space Station launch in March but was reassigned to his current mission.
Vande Hei, who now lives in his native Virginia with his wife and two children, graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis Park in 1985 and then St. John’s in Collegeville in 1989, with a degree in physics. His parents, Thomas and Mary, live in Chanhassen.
Vande Hei began working at Johnson Space Center in 2006 as part of the Army contingent there. In 2009, he graduated in NASA’s 20th astronaut class, and he finished astronaut candidate training two years later.
Students, staff and administrators were in the Benilde-St. Margaret’s library to view the launch, said school spokesman Devin Harrington, who added that Vande Hei was active in football, track, Math League, choir and earned National Honor Society recognition while at Benilde.
“It’s red, white and blue dress-up day here at school, too,” Harrington said.
Much closer to the launch is a 14-person contingent in Kazakhstan representing the high school and visiting with Vande Hei. The group includes several alumni, among them Vande Hei’s sisters Jenny and Lisa. The group’s red carpet treatment comes with two astronauts as escorts.
“Mark has been in quarantine in the hotel next to ours,” said Michael Hoffman, a Benilde classmate of Vande Hei’s who made the trip to Kazakhstan, “but we have had several visits and meetings with him while he is behind glass to make sure he can’t pick up any last-minute viruses.”
St. John’s hosted a big-screen showing of NASA’s video feed of the launch at its 300-seat Pellegrene Auditorium in Collegeville.
Prof. Thomas Kirkman, who had Vande Hei in his quantum mechanics class as well as in other courses, said, “I certainly can’t say that I thought Mark would one day become an astronaut ... however, I can say I’m not surprised at his success. Mark was first and foremost a go-getter. He was not one to idle away his time and talents.”
In a profile published in the school’s magazine earlier this year, Vande Hei said he remembers being 6 years old and thinking that “being an astronaut was kind of like saying I wanted to group up and be Spider-Man. ... I always thought of astronauts as superheroes. I certainly thought it was cool, but I don’t remember feeling like that was a possibility for me.”
Leaving the Space Station early this month were two Americans and a Russian. Among that trio was NASA’s Peggy Whitson, who wrapped up a record-breaking flight that catapulted her to first place for U.S. space endurance.
Whitson’s 665 days off the planet — 288 days on this mission alone — exceeded that of any other American and any other woman worldwide. Whitson grew up on a farm outside the south-central Iowa town of Beaconsfield.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482