Astronaut Duane Carey touches down in St Andrews

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Illustration: Dillon Yeh
Illustration: Dillon Yeh
Illustration: Dillon Yeh

On 21 September, St Andrews was lucky enough to play host to former NASA astronaut and all-around inspiring guy Duane Carey. Here to speak to both the department of physics and the wider University, Mr Carey was yet another star to add to the list of notable people who have spoken at St Andrews so far this semester.

Mr Carey’s rich and varied past provided an excellent basis for storytelling and inspiring discussion, as he recalled his freight-train hopping years before he entered higher education. A child of the housing projects, he was the first person in his family to attend college. With financial support from the US Armed Forces, he completed both a bachelor’s and a master’s in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, which provided the foundation on which he was able to become a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. His distinguished Air Force career included over 30 combat sorties during Operation Desert Storm, along with tours in the United States and Korea. After a promotion and further training, Mr Carey became a test pilot and system safety officer, which directly led to his transition into space flight. All told, Mr Carey has logged more than 4,000 hours in over 35 different types of aircraft.

The Saint caught up with Mr Carey last week, ahead of his talk in the physics department on aerospace engineering. Despite the drizzle, Mr Carey was in high spirits, complementing me on my NASA t-shirt and introducing himself with a warm handshake. Given the limited time available for the interview, our discussion was brief but still insightful, inspiring and entertaining.

Our conversation began with an explanation of how he transitioned from military test pilot to astronaut, which he described as a “small step” given the similarities between the technologies used in both military and NASA crafts. NASA has a history of hiring military test pilots for their projects and, according to Mr Carey, he was simply in the “right place at the right time.” He describes himself as incredibly lucky.

He described the work itself as both “the hardest work I’ve ever done” and the “most fun.” Ultimately the experience was incredibly rewarding for him. Columbia, the 2002 mission he piloted, was devoted to upgrading the Hubble telescope. He spent more than ten days in space, orbiting the Earth 165 times and travelling nearly four million miles. The technology he helped deliver 13 years ago, which included a new power unit, a new camera and new solar arrays, is still in use today.

Upon returning to Earth, he admits he had difficulty adjusting to the change of environment and atmosphere. Though he did not face the same issues that affect long-term space denizens, it was a still a struggle for him to readjust. In particular, he suffered from problems with balance as well as issues with the way in which his body handled liquid. In short, he was “dizzy and thirsty” for days after his return to Earth.

His main issue, however, was with gravity. While most of us go our entire lives without ever being truly aware of its pull, Mr Carey immediately noticed it after landing back on Earth. “Oh, here we are, back in gravity again…” he recalled thinking. Years later, he still feels its effect, saying that he has had to “resign [himself] to gravity.” Several minutes of what might be the best rant I have ever heard followed this statement, in which Mr Carey complained about how oppressive gravity feels and how freeing being without it was.

The experience of beings sans gravity is not the only unique perspective Mr Carey gained in space. Seeing the Earth from a distance, he said, gave him a sense of a “bigger picture” and made him appreciate the importance of our home planet. Photographs taken by the Hubble telescope can tenuously achieve a similar effect, but seeing it in person was a truly transformative experience for him. When looking beyond the Earth, into the darkness, he described open space as something that “reeks of danger,” which makes protecting our home even more important. Many astronauts return from space with a renewed sense of responsibility for the environment and for society and Mr Carey is no different. Since retiring from NASA in 2004, he has channelled this sense of activism into his work with both charity and education services.

Mr Carey also devotes his time to riding motorcycles, a lifelong passion. “Even while looking down from space, I would imagine moving across those green expanses on a motorcycle. Now I’ll be travelling those roads and looking up to where I once was,” he has said. Mr Carey’s sense of adventure is endless, as evidenced by his successful career. His advice to others hoping for the same kind of experience? “To explore, we must always take some risks. We don’t know what we’ll find out there, but we have to go out and find our future.”

My final question for Mr Carey was less poignant. I inquired as to where he got his call sign “Digger” from. The answer, it turns out, is simple. When flying in his third fighter squadron, as the new guy he was regularly picked on and made fun of. One of the ‘amusing’ nicknames given to him during this time was ‘Digger,’ and Mr Carey made it known that he absolutely hated it. Naturally, it stuck.

At this point we sadly ran out of time due to Mr Carey’s hectic schedule and the session concluded. Speaking to Mr Carey was truly an honour and an experience I never expected to have whilst at university. Other students who attended the talk and spoke to Mr Carey had the same reaction. Aaron Young, treasurer of the astronomical society (AstroSoc), said: “[Mr Carey’s] importance in the upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope is phenomenal and the impact in astrophysical research is  untold. Having [Mr Carey] visit and talk about his life story, as well as [deliver] an introduction to orbital mechanics, inspired everyone present. Meeting an astronaut really reinforced my love and passion for physics and made me feel especially connected to the scientific community.”

Current Rector of the University Catherine Stihler also had kind words for Mr Carey, having introduced his public lecture on Monday evening. “It was an honour and a privilege to spend time with [Mr Carey] and his wife Cheryl,” she said. “[Mr Carey] was inspiring, down to earth and a true public servant. I hope that we will see him back in St Andrews.”

Mr Carey’s visit has been one of the highlights of this semester and speaking to him was something I certainly will never forget. He really is out of this world.

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting story-great life. Sometimes when your back is against the wall, you strive harder to achieve your space in life. He is a real winner. I love him for all he has done. Lovely wife and children. Best to you and yours Digger. Love from Georgia, Bert C.

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