Astronaut Don Pettit, a veteran of more than a year in orbit, the fourth most experienced U.S. spacefarer of all time, and the oldest American ever to participate in a long-duration mission to the International Space Station (ISS), turns 60 today (Monday, 20 April). A chemical engineer by training and a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., Pettit unsuccessfully applied three times to enter NASA’s astronaut corps, before finally being accepted as a Mission Specialist candidate in April 1996. Since then, he has flown two lengthy expeditions to the ISS—the first of which came about by serendipity, following the grounding of a member of the prime crew—and a 16-day shuttle mission, which has left him with almost 370 days of cumulative time in space and over 13 hours of spacewalking expertise in two EVAs.
By his own admission, Pettit has been curious about the world around him for as long as he can remember, and the onset of his seventh decade of existence promises to be no different. “I’ve been an explorer for as long as I can remember,” he once told a NASA interviewer. As a child, he watched with fascination at the behavior of oil drops in mud puddles and expressed wonderment over the structure of an anthill. “Exploring space is just one aspect of that,” Pettit explained. “It’s something that I’ve been interested in since I was a little kid.” Born in the small town of Silverton, Ore.—northeast of Salem, in the middle of the Willamette Valley—on 20 April 1955, Donald Roy Pettit was the son of Virgil E. Pettit and Ethyl R. Pettit. He grew up in a rural environment, surrounded by farming and logging, and as a youngster he frequently took advantage of the opportunity to go off into the woods and build dune buggies. He was active in scouting and achieved its highest rank, that of Eagle Scout.
During his first spaceflight, Pettit took the opportunity to look for Silverton from space. “It’s a low-contrast target, meaning it’s kind of hard to see,” he said. “If you’re looking at something in the middle of the desert, you get stark shadows and high contrast and you can see small details, but farming communities in the middle of a farming valley, the contrast is so low it’s hard to see, unless you use binoculars or a telephoto lens.”
Years later, Pettit would credit this formative experience—picking berries, working the fields, snorkeling in ponds, examining pond mud under the microscope—as an integral factor in developing him as a human being and an explorer. “You learned to make do with the resources that you have and you learn to fix things,” he said. “You learn to make whatever you want from the junk that’s laying around you. That’s what I seem to be utilizing so much in my professional career.”
With respect to space exploration, Pettit’s fascination was piqued one day in February 1962 when he was riding in his father’s car and heard a broadcast about John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. Having said this, unlike many of his fellows, he was not yet consumed by the desire to become an astronaut. On weekends, he would spend time in his father’s shop, “making all kinds of little scientific inventions,” not because it would help him to someday join NASA, but because he enjoyed it.
After graduation from high school, he studied chemical engineering at Oregon State University. “I love chemistry and I love engineering, so I figured that would be a good compromise,” Pettit reflected, “and while in the engineering department, I would take extra classes … in economics, in biology, in glassblowing and surface chemistry.” It gave him what he would later describe as a “broad view of science and engineering.” Upon receipt of his bachelor’s degree in 1978, he moved to the University of Arizona to pursue his doctorate in chemical engineering, which he gained in 1983. “I became an engineer in terms of my schooling,” he said, “but really a scientist by profession, and I think by heart an explorer.” With his PhD completed, Pettit embarked on a career as a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., and it was during this period that he seriously contemplated becoming an astronaut.
Whilst at Los Alamos, his projects included reduced gravity fluid flow and materials processing experiments aboard NASA’s KC-135 microgravity aircraft, atmospheric spectroscopy on noctilucent clouds seeded from sounding rockets, fumarole gas sampling from volcanoes, and problems in detonation physics. Pettit served as a member of the Synthesis Group, which was assembled in 1990 to begin tackling the technology requirements to return a U.S. human presence to the Moon and Mars. Later, in 1993, he was part of the Space Station Freedom Redesign Team, whose principal outcome was a co-operative venture with Russia and the blueprint for today’s ISS.
Over the course of more than a decade, Pettit tendered three unsuccessful attempts—for NASA’s Group 10 intake in May 1984, followed by Group 12 in June 1987 and Group 15 in December 1994—to enter the astronaut corps, before submitting his fourth. In the late spring of 1996, he was on a volcano fumerol sampling expedition for Los Alamos to New Zealand, when he received the long-distance telephone call to invite him to join the most elite flying fraternity in the world. Officially announced on 30 April, Group 16 comprised 35 U.S. members, tying with Group 8 as the largest class of NASA astronauts ever selected. It would later gain the empirical record for being the largest, at 44 members, when nine international candidates from the Canadian, European, French, Italian, German, and Japanese space agencies joined the class later that year.
Over the next several years, Pettit undertook shuttle and ISS training and was pointed toward a long-duration expedition. In March 2001, he was assigned to the backup crew for Expedition 6, initially teamed with U.S. astronaut Carlos Noriega and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov to support the prime crew of U.S. astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Thomas and Russia’s Nikolai Budarin. However, in July 2002, NASA suddenly grounded Thomas, following “a medical issue” pertaining to his qualification for long-duration spaceflight, specifically cumulative radiation exposure, and Pettit was advanced onto the prime crew. At the time of the crew swap, only four months remained before the scheduled November 2002 launch of Expedition 6 aboard Shuttle Endeavour on STS-113.
“You realize that something like this can happen and I was surprised when it did happen,” Pettit explained before launching on STS-113. “The training programs here are good, so there’s no surprises in terms of the skills needed and the tasks that are going to be asked of me to do.” To Pettit, it validated the importance of having backup crews for long-duration ISS expeditions. For his crewmates, exchanging one member posed few difficulties. “I already knew a lot about Don Pettit, because he lived in the cottage next door to me,” remembered Bowersox. “We walked to class every day, we spent some time in classes together, we had meals together. It wasn’t just a complete, cold switch to a new person on the crew, and on a long-duration flight that’s really important, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time together in very close quarters on-orbit.”
Launched on 23 November, Endeavour docked at the ISS two days later, and for Pettit it seemed that his career had come full-circle, from his 13 years at a National Laboratory in New Mexico to this posting at a National Laboratory in low-Earth orbit. In addition to his nominal workload as Expedition 6 Science Officer, Pettit found fame through his impromptu “Saturday Morning Science” sessions. Original plans called for the crew to remain aloft for about 110 days, through mid-March 2003, whereupon they would be exchanged for Expedition 7 and return to Earth aboard Shuttle Atlantis on STS-114. However, the tragic loss of Columbia on 1 February grounded the shuttle fleet for more than two years, and NASA found itself wholly reliant upon Russia to deliver crews to and from the orbital outpost. Expedition 7 was launched on 26 April, and Bowersox, Budarin, and Pettit returned home aboard the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft on 4 May, after 161 days in orbit.
Their landing, however, was far from nominal. A technical malfunction caused the Soyuz control system to adopt a high-G ballistic re-entry, and the descent module, bearing the three men, touched down about 300 miles (480 km) off-target. Communications were also temporarily lost with the crew when one antenna was torn away during the descent and another pair failed to deploy correctly. It was particularly harrowing, as it occurred a mere three months since the destruction of Columbia during re-entry. Pettit knew that the parachute-assisted touchdown would produce a “big thump,” regardless, but noted that “there was sufficient crosswind that after the big thump, we went roll, roll, roll, roll, and we ended up about a hundred feet from where we landed, on our side, and I was the equivalent of being strapped in a chair on the ceiling!”
Bowersox and Pettit jointly became the first American astronauts to return from space aboard a Soyuz. Despite the trauma of Columbia, Expedition 6 had proven highly successful, and during its 5.5-month span the two U.S. members of the crew completed a pair of EVAs to continue ISS construction and maintenance tasks. They first ventured outside the station for almost seven hours on 15 January 2003, to outfit and activate the newly arrived P-1 truss segment, then performed their second spacewalk on 8 April, in which they spent 6.5 hours reconfiguring power connections, providing a second power source for a Control Moment Gyroscope (CMG), and tending to other tasks. Bowersox and Pettit’s two EVAs totaled 13 hours and 17 minutes and marked the only spacewalks performed in 2003.
More than four years elapsed before Pettit received a new mission assignment. In November 2007, he was named as a Mission Specialist on STS-126, a shuttle logistics flight, following the earlier resignation of U.S. astronaut Joan Higginbotham. In the words of two of his crewmates, Pettit provided a unique perspective on the 16-day mission. “A wonderful individual,” “a brilliant scientist,” and one who “brings an awful lot to the table” was how STS-126 Commander Chris Ferguson described him. First-time flier Shane Kimbrough—who is currently training for Expedition 49/50, targeted to begin in November 2016—added that Pettit’s experience was “a totally different aspect than a shuttle mission” and described his knowledge as “amazing to draw from.” Endeavour launched on 14 November 2008 and delivered approximately 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) of payloads and supplies to the incumbent Expedition 18 crew, aboard the Italian-built Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM). They also exchanged incoming ISS resident Sandy Magnus for outgoing Greg Chamitoff, who completed a six-month expedition when Endeavour landed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 30 November.
Less than a year later, in October 2009, Pettit was named to his second long-duration mission, when he was assigned with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andre Kuipers to Expedition 30/31. The trio launched aboard Soyuz TMA-03M on 21 December 2011 and docked at the ISS two days later to join the Expedition 30 crew of Commander Dan Burbank of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoli Ivanishin. Following the return of Burbank’s crew to Earth in April, Kononenko took command of Expedition 31 and his increment was soon joined by the incoming Soyuz TMA-04M crew of Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Sergei Revin and U.S. astronaut Joe Acaba in mid-May. During their time together, the Expedition 31 crew welcomed the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo mission of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.
Returning to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-03M on 1 July, after almost 193 days in orbit, Pettit—at 57 years old—became the oldest U.S. astronaut to complete a long-duration ISS expedition, a record that he is expected to retain until 2016, when 58-year-old Jeff Williams participates in Expedition 47/48. Across his three missions, Pettit had accrued 369 days, 16 hours, and 42 minutes and established himself as the fourth most experienced U.S. astronaut of all time, sitting just behind Mike Foale, Peggy Whitson, and Mike Fincke. His record also places him as the world’s 30th most seasoned spacefarer and makes him the only American to have spent as many as two New Years off the planet. Three years after Expedition 30/31, Pettit is one of only eight members of the Group 16 class still on active flight status.