Celebrated Astronaut and BSM Alum Mark Vande Hei Returns to Campus

When he returned home on March 23, 2022, Mark Vande Hei had broken the record for an American astronaut’s longest single space flight. He spent a total of 355 days on the International Space Station completing numerous spacewalks and running experiments for the United States.

On Friday September 23, BSM celebrated Vande Hei’s accomplishment with a convocation ceremony. Vande Hei graduated from BSM in 1985, before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics from St. John’s university and a masters degree from Stanford.

Vande Hei credits his experiences at BSM, as well as his later education, for helping him get to space. “I didn’t fly myself to space…so many people dedicated their lives…to give us our nation’s capability to do this. And I just got the opportunity to do it on behalf of everybody else,” Vande Hei said.

While in space, Vande Hei remained connected to the BSM community. After hearing he was allowed to take a few objects from home with him to the station, he connected with BSM to select two student IDs to accompany him on the journey. One of the students, Anna Carr ‘18, returned back to campus on Friday to receive her ID from Vande Hei personally. “It’s really important, like the presentation I did today, to try to share [my opportunity] because it’s all about students. So being able to symbolically bring a couple of other people on board with me was really special,” Vande Hei said.

It’s really important, like the presentation I did today, to try to share [my opportunity] because it’s all about students. So being able to symbolically bring a couple of other people on board with me was really special”

— Vande Hei

After presenting the students with their ID,Vande Hei spoke to the audience. He encouraged students to try different opportunities, even if they risked failure. “Be willing to risk failure… You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone … Challenge yourself,” Vande Hei.

Vande Hei had to take this advice himself in space; being away from Earth for so long presents physical and mental challenges. After his first journey to the International Space Station, Vande Hei lost 7% of his bone density. He didn’t lose as much on his landmark flight, but he’s still recovering. “My bone structure right now is such that when I went for a run, I stepped off the curb and I ended up with a bone contusion,” Vande Hei said.

Mentally, living on the space station was a big adjustment. As a perfectionist, Vande Hei would beat himself up when he forgot protocol or struggled to keep up with deadlines. “There’s a lot of frustration with making mistakes… I recognized I needed to put some effort into my own mental health. And it ended up being a super pleasant time because I meditated every day. I had a much better appreciation for what things that I was doing with whatever internal stories that I was creating to fill in information,” Vande Hei said.

Although Vande Hei expected these challenges, he didn’t anticipate an international relations crisis. Just weeks before his homecoming, in February 2022, the Russian government threatened to leave Vande Hei on the station after they retrieved their two Russian cosmonauts. Although his wife (and news outlets like The Guardian) were concerned about his return, Vande Hei wasn’t worried.

“I had a really hard time believing that, even though the gentleman… [who put this on social media] from the Russian space program [said] they might leave [me] behind. The last time I saw him he gave me a watch as a present and [said] ‘thank you for being part of this program.’ And I’m very good friends with the Russian cosmonauts,” Vande Hei said.

Despite his success at NASA, Vande Hei didn’t expect this career. As a high school student, Vande Hei didn’t think his interest in physics would lead him to space. “I thought that the possibility of becoming an astronaut was about as likely as becoming Spider-Man. So both things would be really cool, but I didn’t think it was realistic,” Vande Hei said.

I thought that the possibility of becoming an astronaut was about as likely as becoming Spider-Man. So both things would be really cool, but I didn’t think it was realistic,”

— Mark Vande Hei

It wasn’t until his military service in Italy that he considered becoming an astronaut. “The first time I got really excited about the possibility that I could become an astronaut was when I first joined the Army in 1990 after college. I showed up on my first assignment a few months into the assignment, and my commanding officer, [a] gentleman named Captain Christian, handed me a document from the Human Resources command in the army that said NASA wants us to provide applicants to become astronauts…It was like seeing a list of the things you need to be considered to become Spider-Man,” Vande Hei said.

Vande Hei spoke about this career path, as well as his experience in high school physics, to BSM’s AP Physics class. The students enjoyed hearing about Vande Hei’s career. After he spoke, the students could take photos with the astronaut and got to talk to him in smaller groups. “It was astronomical,” Senior Jackson Sando said.

Governor Tim Walz also recognizes Vande Hei’s groundbreaking accomplishment. At the ceremony, BSM’s Chair of the Board Laura Portz read a letter from the governor, declaring September 23 as “Mark Vande Hei day.” Along with September 23, on March 30, the day of his homecoming, BSM will celebrate Vande Hei with “festivities worthy of him.”

Although he’s proud of his record, Vande Hei hopes it will soon be broken. “I hope that that record is broken in the next couple of years because it’s just a stepping stone. We need to keep pushing the boundaries,” Vande Hei said.

Now, NASA is setting their sights on missions to Mars and the moon. Who knows? Maybe a BSM alum will be aboard those flight too.