Drew Feustel is a true Jalop if there ever was one. He grew up in the Detroit area, where he worked as an auto mechanic in college. He’s had an enviable list of cars over the years and nearly went into car design himself, but ended up using his mechanical and science background for something more incredible: becoming an astronaut.
Feustel’s unusual-sounding career path grew out of a sense of mid-century space-age optimism, when even cartoons made it seem like everyone would be working in space in the future anyway. He explained in a press conference for the next astronauts to join the ISS:
I grew up watching those shows [like Lost in Space and The Jetsons], so I was always interested in space and exploration. I just believed that I would someday—I thought all of us would just be working in space and the space industry as we matured in our careers.
The technology isn’t there yet where we can all go to space if we want to—but at least Feustel gets to work on moving towards that, all while listing a BMW Car Club of America membership and a three-year stint as the chairman of the Purdue University Grand Prix on his official NASA biography page. Clearly, the man is one of us.
Feustel will leave with fellow NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos crewmate Oleg Artemyev in March 2018 to stay aboard the International Space Station for about six months. It will be Feustel’s third spaceflight and his first long stay aboard the ISS, which he will will join as a flight engineer on ISS Expedition 55 and later act as a commander on Expedition 56.
Back on earth, though, Feustel got his start working on cars as a hobby, moving into racing karts and motocross at a young age, and restoring a ‘67 Mustang that he started working on when he was 13-years-old and finished five years later.
While attending Oakland Community College near Detroit, he worked as an auto mechanic at a restoration shop called International Autoworks. Feustel explained to Jalopnik that his knack for solving problems—well, and reading the friggin’ manual—actually landed him that first auto gig:
We went to this guy’s shop, and the guy had a CV joint out on the work bench, and he and his other mechanic friend couldn’t quite figure out how to put back together. I was just there along with my friend, just to go along because I was curious.
So, we stood there, staring at the CV joint. I asked him if he had a manual there, and I just looked at the picture and said, okay, well, clearly you’ve got to turn this around, and turn that around. I put the thing together and he said, “are you looking for a job?” I said, “Yeah, I’m looking for a job!” And that was how it all started.
I spent the next three years working at this shop that had this huge collection. I think we had 10 XK120 Jags that they found around the country and we basically disassembled these things. They came in as complete wrecks and we tore them all down to the chassis and slowly rebuilt them.
From there, there was no specific gunning-for-space track for his life. Rather, Feustel told the press conference that he just pursued whatever he found interesting:
I clearly didn’t do anything specifically in terms of education and early work experiences that were with the intent of becoming an astronaut. Most people who do those things think about being a scientist right away, or they want to be a jet pilot, and then work on the space industry.
For me, it was just—I found the things that I liked, and the things that I was good at, and those were the things I pursued. I enjoyed working with my hands, and enjoyed fixing mechanical things, and I enjoyed racing, so that’s what I did. Those things just eventually led me down a path where at some point, I had to pick between automotive design and science, and I chose science, but I was able to take all those mechanical aptitude skills with me, and they served me well.
Community college gave Feustel the opportunity to study both automotive industrial design and geology at once. While he initially wanted to be an automotive designer, geology eventually won out as his main focus.
“I still take a pencil and doodle out a car design occasionally,” Feustel admitted.
After community college, he ended up at Purdue as his great uncle, uncle and dad had before him—although he admitted to Jalopnik the fact that the school had graduated more astronauts than any other university was a major plus.
“I thought that if I went to Purdue, and studied geology and geophyics, then I could mine resources on other planets,” Feustel told Jalopnik.
Feustel eventually got a doctorate in Geological Sciences from Queen’s University and settled down into a relatively normal career in geology. Still, an early nineties W5 news magazine program on Canadian astronauts Chris Hadfield, Julie Payette, and Dafydd Williams got him thinking about where else his background in geology and cars could take him.
Finally, a job offered by one of his old Purdue classmates at ExxonMobil brought him very close to NASA’s outpost in Houston, Texas, as Feustel explained to Jalopnik:
In 1996...I moved to Houston to work for the ExxonMobil oil company doing oil and gas exploration. At that time, I realized I was basically on the other side of the city from the Johnson Space Center, which is where all the astronauts live and train. So, I started scheming at that point to apply to the program. In 1999, I put my application in, and in 2000, I was selected. Now we’re here 17 years later getting ready for this ISS mission.
Thousands apply each year to be an astronaut, so practical experience like Feustel’s early auto shop gig is more valued in NASA’s selection process than you might expect.
“We see a lot of astronauts everyday—the work that they do on the Space Station involves repair and replacement of components in space, and work on payloads, and just general operations that require a lot of those mechanical aptitude skills,” Feustel said in the press conference.
All of the astronauts at Thursday’s press conference reiterated that the practical and critical thinking skills needed to fix things fast are invaluable when you’re relying on complicated systems just to stay alive in an environment not meant for humans. Feustel’s crewmate and former science teacher Ricky Arnold lamented to the press room that it’s the one thing he wish schools would spend more time on over getting students to recite facts and pass tests.
Feustel hopes his stint aboard the ISS will excite kids about technical careers for a change, especially since he isn’t the only astronaut to get the job after getting a community college degree. He’s even been working with the RPM Foundation, which offers grants for students going into technical careers related to vehicular restoration, and firmly believes that he won’t be the only astronaut who starts out wrenching on everyday earth-bound vehicles.
“I still have four projects in the garage right now, I mean, there’s always projects going on” Feustel told the press room. “I think of it as [extra] training. It’s what makes me better at my job here at NASA.”
“It’s always good to have a friend who’s an auto mechanic,” Arnold said.
“Then I get free beer!” Feustel chimed back—clearly familiar with the near-universal currency of working on cars with friends.
Feustel’s own car collection over the years—a list he struggled to remember in its entirety—has been no slouch. The long list of cars included a little bit of everything: both coupe and convertible versions of the 1967 Ford Mustang, a 1990 BMW M3, a 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite, a 1972 BMW 2002tii, a 1966 Mercury Cyclone GT Comet, and a 1968 Volkswagen Fastback—among other things.
The tinkering definitely won’t end when Feustel heads to space. In addition to keeping the ISS working properly, the crew expects to work on some 250 experiments during their time in topics ranging from earth observation to cell science.
It took Feustel and his crewmates about two years to prepare for their next flight, where they will leave from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Russian Soyuz MS-08 capsule that will launch them to the ISS.
They’ve also had to run through simulations of every conceivable failure they might encounter for about a year and a half. That way, what to do becomes more of a habitual response as opposed to a panicked one if anything does happen. The two Americans even had to learn just enough Russian to get by aboard the craft, as it’s the primary language of the Soyuz controls as well as Soyuz flight commander Artemyev.
So, if you’re interested in becoming the next astronaut picked for duty, it’s definitely worth bringing more than a scientific degree to the table. Get dirty on your own, wrench away and learn how to fix stuff. You really never know when it’s going to come in handy.