Mission Viejo High graduate Michael Lopez-Alegria will soon become one of just 102 people to be inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
On May 16, Lopez-Alegria, along with astronauts Scott Kelly and Pamela Melroy, will join the ranks of those honored.
“Being an astronaut is special, and being selected in the group is more special,” said Lopez-Alegria, 61, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “It was a very wonderful piece of news to receive.”
Lopez-Alegria, who was with NASA from 1992 to 2012, went on four spaceflights and holds the NASA record for the most spacewalks at 10. Between 1995 and 2007, he spent more than 257 days in space, including nearly 70 hours outside a spacecraft.
“They exemplify bravery, dedication and passion and their hard work has paved the way for what promises to be an unprecedented new decade of space exploration and interplanetary travel,” Curt Brown, astronaut and board chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which oversees the selection process, said in a recent press release announcing this year’s inductees.
Lopez-Alegria, who has described himself in the past as “a pretty average kid” growing up, “probably thinking about my next hamburger,” remembers the moment he leaped out of the water while at the beach in Laguna when he was 11 to listen on the radio as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.
After graduating from Mission Viejo High in 1976 and the U.S. Naval Academy in 1980, he became a Navy aviator. In the 1980s, he read an article about experienced Navy aviators who attended the Naval Postgraduate School becoming astronauts – and his childhood memory came back to him in a flash.
Lopez-Alegria reported to NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston for training in 1992. He flew his first mission in 1995 on the Space Shuttle Columbia, during which he and others did scientific experiments in microgravity – while orbiting around the Earth once every 90 minutes.
“You have a very strong emotional response to such a magnificent experience, but you are focused on doing the work you’re supposed to,” he said. “All of it is overwhelming.”
After two more space shuttle missions, which included his first spacewalk, Lopez-Alegria spent six months from September 2006 to April 2007 as the commander aboard the International Space Station. He did five spacewalks there, of more than 33 hours combined.
He wasn’t shooting for a record walking among the stars – he said he didn’t even know when he had broken the previous record of nine. But he enjoyed every moment of those spacewalks, he said.
“There’s a lot of sensory overload with the view and speed,” he said. “But it’s a fantastic experience. Being outside – it’s mind blowing.”
Lopez-Alegria left NASA in 2012 and now works as an advocate for the commercial spaceflight industry, including as the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
He said he counts himself lucky to be among just a few hundred who have spent time in space, but he wants to see more people get the chance. If enough people share the experience, he said, perhaps there will be a better appreciation for the planet Earth.
“It’s beautiful, but you can also see its fragility,” he said. “You want to be a better steward of the planet.”
Source: Orange County Register