Iowa Astronaut Raja Chari Promotes STEM Education in Des Moines

Raja Chari made his first appearance in Des Moines on Wednesday since becoming the 10th Iowan in space.

The NASA astronaut spent 177 days in orbit – 175 days of those on the International Space Station – from From November 10, 2021 to May 6, 2022. He spoke Wednesday at the downtown Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center at the Future Ready Iowa Summit, a conference hosted by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council to promote science, technology engineering, and teaching and education. innovation in mathematics.

Chari, 45, grew up in Cedar Falls, graduated from Waterloo Columbus and had a distinguished career in the US Air Force before joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017. He became the 10th Iowan to go into space when he commanded NASA’s SpaceX Crew 3 mission to the International Space Station.

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During his half-hour speech, Chari told educators and business owners that Iowa schools prepare students well for careers in engineering and science. But if any of these kids want to work in the space industry, they should find a different path than the one they took.

Prioritizing STEM education in Iowa

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke Wednesday ahead of Chari’s appearance; his office established the STEM Advisory Council in 2016. Chari pointed to the council and Iowa’s strong education system as a benefit to all Iowa children considering careers in science, technology engineering or Mathematics.

“You have this unique blend of agricultural education, hard work ethic, academic influence and it all comes together,” Chari said. “You just need to capitalize on that. All the pieces are there.

“You have such a good foundation, and I don’t think it’s really known outside of Iowa.”

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‘Go find your own way’

Chari said in June that kids interested in space should find something they’re passionate about in science, math or medicine and “stick to it”. His path to NASA began when his parents emigrated to the United States from India and settled in Cedar Falls. Chari eventually became an Air Force colonel and later a test pilot.

NASA astronaut and Cedar Falls native Raja Chari speaks during the Future Ready Iowa Summit in Des Moines, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.

“All of our paths are completely different,” Chari said. “If you’re trying to be an astronaut or go into space, the last thing you want to do is look at our bio and try to do it, because we already have it. Go find your own way.”

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There will be setbacks — big and small — along the way, he said. Crew 3 was supposed to launch on October 31, but Chari woke up with a scratchy throat from respiratory syncytial virus.

“Talk about feeling really bad,” Chari said. “The thing you’ve worked your whole life for and then sent everyone home.”

The kids should dream big and they could end up like him or Peggy Whitson, a Beaconsfield native who spent 665 days in space – more time than any other American or woman in the world. But there are only about 40 astronauts, he said.

Jobs in the space industry are available in mission control, rocket manufacturing, and servicing payloads and experiments. Private space companies are booming and “looking for people to come,” Chari said.

“At NASA, we have people who do IT, we have people who do public affairs. It’s like a small town,” Chari said. “It’s not just engineering and science jobs. There are plenty of places kids can get involved in space, even if it’s not about flying in space. .”

Spacewalks feel like they’re in a ‘really bad fight’

NASA astronaut Raja Chari is pictured March 15 strapped to the International Space Station during a six-hour, 54-minute spacewalk to set up the orbital laboratory for his upcoming solar array deployment.  On the right, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance is docked to the Harmony module with the Atlantic coast of South America 268 miles below.

At the end of his speech, Chari released a video of highlights from the recent mission. He performed spacewalks on March 15 and 23 to perform maintenance on the exterior of the space station.

Spacewalks look fun, he said, and can be, but they are also physically taxing.

Space shuttle-era spacesuits aren’t custom-fitted, so they “don’t feel comfortable, even on the ground,” he said. And these suits, pressurized at 4.3 pounds per square inch, leave the astronauts feeling like they’re just in a “really bad fight.”

“Every movement you make is opposed by a force of four and a half pounds per square inch for seven hours,” Chari said. “It’s quite common when we do debriefs that you don’t write because you can’t hold a pen. Your hand just gets shot.”

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Return to Iowa ‘energizing’ for astronaut Raja Chari

Chari spoke in January 2020 at his alma mater, Columbus High School, during his first public affairs visit as an astronaut. But he hadn’t returned to Iowa since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

During Wednesday’s return, his second public affairs trip as an astronaut, which will also include a speech scheduled for Thursday at Central College in Pella, Chari said such events – especially when he can meet and talk to kids – break the monotony of the intense, constant training in Houston.

NASA astronaut and Cedar Falls native Raja Chari speaks during the Future Ready Iowa Summit in Des Moines, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.

At around 10:30 a.m., after Chari was done with his speech and media obligations, more than 100 students from Indian Hills High School in West Des Moines thronged a ballroom to meet him.

“For me, it’s energizing,” Chari said of meeting the next generation of engineers and astronauts. “You live vicariously through young people. Go on public affairs tours…you don’t see the tangible long-term outcome, but you can see the faces.”

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Philip Joens covers public safety, municipal government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

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