NASA astronaut Don Pettit (OSU ’78), veteran of multiple space missions, one including a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, delivered the 2010 commencement address at Oregon State. The 55-year-old chemical engineering graduate of OSU has served as an astronaut for the past 14 years and is recognized not only for his longevity and success in the space program, but his innovation in space, which has included such in-space inventions as the “zero-g” coffee cup. Pettit was also awarded an honorary doctorate degree.
Pettit logged 250 orbits of the Earth and more than 6 million miles on his most recent trip into space in 2008 as a part of the STS-126 Endeavour. During that 16-day trip he operated the robotic arm for a total of four spacewalks performed by three fellow crew members. STS-126 also brought a new crew member to the International Space Station.
Pettit is perhaps most famous for being 240 miles above the Earth, serving as the International Space Station’s science officer, in February 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing its crew of seven and causing NASA to suspend shuttle flights. That left Pettit and his two crewmates with no scheduled ride home. They eventually used a backup system, crash-landing in a Russian capsule in the Russian wilderness after 161 days in space.
While in orbit as the International Space Station’s science officer, Pettit demonstrated experiments for schoolchildren around the world in a series of shows called “Saturday Morning Science.”
In 2006 Pettit traveled to Antarctica as a part of an exhibition to gather meteorites – because despite Antarctica’s remoteness the rocks are most easily found there. There, he resorted to poetry to describe a type of meteorite commonly found in the open, on top of the snow and ice. Asked whether there are many poets in the astronaut corps, Pettit said his colleagues defy the single-minded stereotype epitomized in books and movies.
“You would be surprised at how many folks in the office sneak into cultural events outside the range of what the public labels one with the ‘Right Stuff,’” he said. One of Pettit’s Antarctica poems appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Oregon Stater. “I have written poetry since I first learned to write,” he said. “Whether or not I am a poet, I guess rests in the ear of the beholder.”
By Don Pettit
I’m just an ordinary chondrite,
a small piece of rock,
left over as construction debris from when the solar system was built.
A brick that would not fit in.
Locked within my lattice are stories,
of where we came from and thus who we are.
I wandered for billions of years,
and then visited a planet with a fiery welcome.
My skin crazed like pottery fired in a kiln that was too hot.
Sizzling, I sank in glacier ice,
only to surface in a thousand years.
King Arthur was but a lad.
Each sunrise and sunset was like a year,
and they passed by in numbers too many to count.
Then came a gentle touch of a hand,
followed by an exam that would make any doctor visit seem welcome.
And now under glass-masked gazes,
I hear children say,
“It’s just a rock.”