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Graduate leads in outer space

Allan Joseph | Thursday, November 29, 2012

Commander Kevin Ford, who recently took command of the International Space Station (ISS), chose one simple phrase for his sound check Tuesday morning:

“Play Like A Champion Today.”

Ford, a 1982 alumnus of the University, spoke with The Observer from the orbiting space station Tuesday during his five-month-long mission to the ISS. The 52-year-old Indiana native launched from Kazakhstan in late October and took command of the station when Expedition 34 began Nov. 18. Though Ford has been to space previously on a two-week space shuttle mission, he said there were still some surprises in the zero-gravity environment.

“Things float away from you very quietly. You learn as you get here, after you’ve been here for a few weeks, you kind of forget about where the floor is and where the walls are and where the ceiling is, and you can just operate in any kind of orientation and be happy there. So it kind of surprised me how your mind adapts to that,” he said. “The other thing that surprises you is just how bright blue the beautiful Earth is out there. Every time you see it, it just glows just like it’s neon. It’s a surprising view with your own eyes.”

Ford graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in aerospace engineering and has taken his love for the University to the ISS.

“I actually had the aerospace and mechanical engineering department supply me with a little token,” he said. “I brought up a little ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ coin along and a class ring for me and my daughter. I have a son and daughter who are also Notre Dame grads. I’ve got a small wardrobe of Notre Dame shirts and memorabilia.”

He said his liberal arts education at Notre Dame has continued to be useful to this day – especially on board the space station.

“A funny thing that happened to me senior year was that I found out late that I needed one more social science because I was an engineering graduate,” Ford said. “The one that fit just happened to be Intro to Russian and I took Intro to Russian and I speak Russian now on a daily basis up here with my Russian colleagues.”

Ford has also continued his lifelong love of Irish football while on the space station. He said he was able to use a high-speed data system intended for scientific use but not used on the weekends to watch Notre Dame’s 22-13 win over USC last weekend to cap off a perfect regular season.

“It’s a lot of fun, it makes the season great. I love college football season anyway, but it’s really special this year – especially watching the games from space,” he said. “I would say my recreation time in a day so far has been pretty limited, maybe to an hour a day … but I did stay up until 4 on Saturday night my time to watch that West Coast game: Notre Dame against USC up here live. I watched it to the very end and it was fantastic.”

After graduating from Notre Dame, Ford earned two more master’s degrees and a Ph.D, according to his NASA biography. He joined the Air Force as a test pilot and began applying to the shuttle program shortly thereafter, but wasn’t accepted until shortly after he turned 40.

“There are a lot of jobs out there you think are cool when you see people doing them, and you know, an astronaut was always one of them that seemed special to me,” Ford said. “I was an Air Force pilot and became an Air Force test pilot and from there it was kind of the next step because the space shuttle is really kind of the top-of-the-line really cool flying machine. That’s why I ended up applying to the space shuttle program and being an astronaut.

“I know it’s a very unique job. One of the things that makes me sad is that more people can’t come off the planet and see what it looks like and what a space station’s like and live out here. I never expected to be able to be here. I applied for the astronaut program many times and was rejected and finally when I was 40 years old I just happened to fall into a slot and get selected.”

Now that he’s on board the ISS, Ford said he keeps busy with his various duties, especially scientific experiments in zero gravity.

“Day to day I do maintenance, I take care of the space station as the … managers and flight directors direct me to do,” he said. “So I’m really just the hands-on for all the people around the world who put these experiments together and decide what we want to do in space.”

Despite being miles above the Earth, Ford said Notre Dame continues to have a special place in his heart.

“I love keeping up with what’s going on on campus. Not just the sports, but all the other things you guys are experiencing too. It is like home for me,” he said. “We just flew over South Bend about one orbit ago, by the way, made an almost direct pass overhead. It was still dark out on the ground for you, so nothing was visible, but I’ll keep my eye out and try to get a shot of the Dome some time.”