Scott Tingle likes to go fast.
Whether it’s in a tricked-out Harley-Davidson speeding down the highway, or an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier, Scott is cool, calm, and in control. Soon, however, he’ll be moving at 17,000 miles an hour, in a vehicle the size of a football field. When he launches for the International Space Station on Sunday, December 17, Scott Tingle will become the latest Purdue University graduate to fly into space.
Scott’s fascination with machines began at an early age. Growing up in Randolph, Massachusetts, he eagerly followed space launches; in the pre-Internet age, he wrote letters to NASA and aerospace companies requesting brochures and information on space vehicles. “My memory is that I was 10 years old when I declared I wanted to be an astronaut,” says Scott. “And I followed a technical track to do that.” He attended a vocational technical high school, where he learned metal fabrication, welding, and auto repair. He went on to what is now called University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, studying mechanical engineering technology -- but soon realized that becoming an astronaut would require more of a theoretical background. “I worked my butt off,” says Scott, “every day, every night with these engineering classes, and I finally made it as a full engineer.”
Then the Navy came calling. An enlisted Aviation Ordnanceman, Scott balanced his Navy duties with an internship at Morton Thiokol in Utah, all while looking to get a graduate degree to enhance his NASA credentials. “I saw this full-page magazine ad for Purdue,” recalls Scott. “I learned more about them, and saw the number of people doing research, and the qualifications of the professors, and I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ Only later did I find out that Purdue is the school of Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan!”
After getting his acceptance letter in 1987, he had to quickly make plans to travel from Utah. “The graduate office asked me where I was planning to live,” says Scott. “I said, ‘I don’t know yet!’ But I had a van, so I figured I could always live in my van until I figured it out. Thankfully, during the first week of class, I found an apartment across the river in Lafayette. But then my van broke down, and I had to walk across the river, up the hill to campus, and then walk back every night. Uphill both ways!”
Scott studied fluid mechanics and propulsion. “I used to do my homework in the basement of the Mechanical Engineering building,” Scott remembers. “All my friends were down there doing flow measurements with lasers. It was a geeky place; I just loved it! All we needed was the vending machine at the end of the hall. I lived on Twinkies and Snickers for a couple years!” To this day, Scott still refers to his Introduction to Fluid Mechanics textbook, written by his advising professor, Alan T. McDonald.
“I had no idea how to get into the big leagues of engineering,” says Scott. “I was just following my heart and following my dreams.” However, the advantage of being a Purdue grad student was the number of industry representatives that came to campus. “I had an interview with the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, and I really liked what they were doing.” In their propulsion division, he worked with some of the biggest systems in the business, including the Space Shuttle Main Engines, the Solid Rocket Boosters, and Global Positioning System satellites.
But then, another fork in the road. “I loved engineering and systems, but I also loved being in the air,” says Scott. “Do I want to get a Ph.D., or do I want to fly airplanes?” The answer came to him over an extended lunch break at his engineering job. To keep his chops up, Scott flew aerobatics on a Pitts Special aircraft out of Hawthorne (where SpaceX headquarters is now located). During an inverted spin, his necktie flew up and hit him in the face (“reminding me I had to go back to work!” Scott laughs). The message was clear: you need to just fly airplanes.
Scott was commissioned as a full-time naval officer in 1991, and earned his wings of gold as a naval aviator in 1993. Over the next decade, he flew thousands of missions as a test pilot, combat pilot, and instructor. He compiled more than 4,500 flight hours in 51 types of aircraft, 750 carrier arrestments, and 54 combat missions. “Being a test pilot, you have to have that confidence,” says Scott. “It goes beyond being cool under pressure; you have to be a risk manager when you’re in that cockpit. Those skills are valuable in both engineering and in space.”
Oh yes, that childhood dream. “I applied to the Astronaut Corps several times,” recalls Scott. With his engineering background and test pilot experience, Scott seemed like a shoo-in. “The first time I figured it was kind of too early. The second application, they sent out some feelers, and that was about it. Put in my third application, and got a couple of calls, but it didn’t quite happen.”
At this point, Scott was preparing to take a big job at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. He was also 40-something, married with three kids. Becoming an astronaut seemed to be an improbable pipe dream. “But I’m going to go to my grave knowing that I tried as hard as I could,” Scott says. He sent in his fourth application, and in 2009 was selected to join that year’s astronaut class.
“It’s very humbling,” says Scott, “and such an honor to realize that I’m actually part of this community. It can be overwhelming at times.” And it wasn’t just the NASA community that embraced him. “When I was finally selected, it was [Purdue astronauts] Drew Feustel and Jerry Ross who were the first to really put their arms around me and welcome me to the club!”
And that club is numerous, as he learned just how many Purdue grads are working in every corner of the aerospace industry. As Scott says, “you can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a Boilermaker!”
“Going to Purdue was the single best professional decision I’ve ever made in my life,” says Scott. “It follows me to this day. I’m 52 years old, and I made that decision when I was 21. And I still have really strong relationships with those people. Whatever you want to do in life, you need a good foundation. If you go to Purdue, you’ll be prepared academically, technically, and practically. We’re the kind of people that like to get in there and get up to our elbows in grease. We know how systems go together, and how to work in a team. You can’t get that experience everywhere.”
As momentous as Scott’s selection was, the timing was a bit awkward. With the Space Shuttle making its final flight in 2011, only Russia was capable of launching humans into space, and very few astronauts were taking the ride. But rather than becoming discouraged, Scott jumped into every role NASA gave him. “I learned how to do CAPCOM [capsule communication], sitting at the desk talking to the crew on board. I did engineering analysis with our commercial partners, like Orbital-ATK and Sierra Nevada. I also supported my fellow astronauts, escorting family members at one of their launches in Russia.”
Scott’s spaceflight assignment finally came in 2016. Thus began an intense drill-down into the many aspects of Expedition 54, including scientific experiments, crew dynamics, and a good bit of Russian language and culture. “It’s a Russian vehicle, in Russia, so we must speak Russian!” says Scott. “The good part is, when you work in a simulator, you tend to have the same conversation over and over, so you know what to expect. Casual conversation can be challenging, but the Russians are so professional, and they’ve done this for so long. They know how to train internationals on their system.”
Language isn’t the only barrier to overcome. When you’re planning to live in a confined space for several months with people from different backgrounds, psychology and sociology play just as big a role in success. That’s why the crews also go on camping expeditions, and other situations where they learn each other’s personalities, organizational skills, and problem-solving processes. “If you can learn to manage your expectations on the ground, hopefully there won’t be any surprises when you’re in space,” says Scott.
Life in Space
So what will it be like, adjusting to life on the International Space Station? Step one is exercising for two hours a day. “On earth, gravity keeps your muscles and bones strong, but in space, you quickly lose strength, and your muscles lose mass,” says Scott. So built into every day’s schedule is two hours of cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise, to preserve heart function, lungs, muscles and bones.
Then the work begins. Scott has trained with earth-based teams to conduct dozens of scientific experiments in space. One of them includes botany.
“Because of gravity on earth, plants know that the roots need to go down, and the leaves need to grow up,” says Scott. “But we’ve found on the ISS that plants grow towards the light source, regardless of gravity. So I’ll be planting seed pods, taking pictures of them as they grow, and then sealing them up into a freezer to be sent back to earth for further study.” Another big part of life in space is maintaining the station. “If something breaks in space, we’re the only ones that can fix it! And that may include going on spacewalks, or getting into the cupola and using the robotic arm.”
NASA have also purposely built downtime into the astronauts’ schedules. They can make phone calls or emails home, they can play music (Scott plans on playing his guitar on the station), and they can take photos of the amazing vistas outside their windows. “Earth observation is a big deal,” says Scott. “We have a camera Velcroed on every wall. We might get a note that says, ‘This volcano is erupting, and will be in your view at exactly 4:03,’ and when the alarm goes off, one of us floats up to the cupola to take a picture of it.”
Like any workplace, there’s always someone cracking the whip. “Our computers have this database with a big red line that moves throughout the day, showing the tasks you need to be working on,” explains Scott. “So we always joke that we’re ‘catching up to the red line.’ And if we’re goofing off, somebody on the ground will say, ‘Hey, that red line isn’t moving fast enough!’”
Still, Scott plans to savor every second of it. “I’m really looking forward to just tapping the wall and floating the whole length of the space station. That’s going to be so cool. That’s probably all I’ll do the first couple of days, until the Flight Director starts yelling at me to get some work done!”
The years of training are over, and Scott’s childhood dream has now been realized. “There’s really nothing I stay up at night worrying about,” says Scott. “I have wanted to fly in space all of my life, and this is a very happy moment to achieve that dream.”
“Everything done in the background to prepare is important, but if you ask me where I want to be... it’s on the front line. I want to be making it happen.”