Pittsburgh native an ambassador for International Space Station

Mike Fincke


As a child, Mike Fincke built his first model rocket and launched it with his parents at the Community College of Allegheny County on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Soon, he had his own chance to leave the Earth’s atmosphere as an astronaut for NASA.

Spacesuit“Who would’ve guessed that 30-something years later, that I would actually be sitting in a rocket that’s very similar to the model that I built right here in Pittsburgh and smiling all the way up,” Fincke said.

Fincke and other NASA representatives touched down Nov. 6 at the University Club to show off the work being done 254 miles above Earth at the International Space Station, or ISS.

The presentation was part of Destination Station in collaboration with Pitt’s Office of Economic Partnerships. The representatives were met with an enthusiastic crowd of Pitt faculty, staff, students and grade schoolers.

The ISS orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes. A collective of astronauts, some from Russia, Japan or other countries, conduct research on behalf of companies such as SpaceX and Boeing.

Jonathan Volk, commercial innovation manager at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, told the audience that since the ISS was established in 1998, there have been more than 2,000 experiments conducted on it and 230 people have visited it.

Volk said the center is looking to grow interest in CASIS through reaching out to K-12 students and universities.

Jennifer Buchli, acting deputy chief scientist for the ISS, said microgravity at the ISS allows for some unique experiments as it changes the properties of fluids, cells and certain chemical reactions.

“Hot air doesn’t rise in microgravity like here on Earth,” she said. “Flames burn differently in microgravity; for sedimentation, particles don’t settle out. So, mixing is very different.”

Thanks to the experiments on board the ISS, Earthlings have received flame retardant clothing, which first responders use for protection, products that improve the shelf life of shampoos and shaving creams and several other innovations, Volk said.

Finke, who formerly held the record for longest time spent in space at 381 days, shared some of his experiences as an astronaut working on board the ISS with his colleagues. It wasn’t all work and research though as he and some of his fellow astronauts knew how to have fun and “fly” around the space station.

ISS video

Toward the end of his presentation, Fincke said sometimes he wished people on Earth would stop fighting and look up.

“We have a whole fantastic universe to go explore,” Fincke said. “Yet we decide as human beings to put our resources to fighting each other down here when we can actually be putting our resources together to go work as a team to explore the universe.”

He compared the planetary squabbling to his children getting into arguments in the back of his minivan when he drives.

“I’d have to tell them ‘stop it, don’t make me come back there,’ ” Fincke said. “I have the same kind of feelings aboard the International Space Station. I look down at our beautiful planet Earth as it goes by and I know we’re all fighting down there. … Sometimes, I have to look out the window and almost say, ‘Hey, don’t make me come down there.’”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.