“I Liked Things That Had A Right Answer”: Engineering, Teaching Physics, And Conducting Experiments In Space

Mark T. Vande Hei


Mark Vande Hei grew up with his brother and two sisters. After his father left the military, the family resided in New Jersey. He attended St. John’s University, where he was a pole vaulter on the track team and participated in ROTC. While attending St. John’s, there were protests on campus against ROTC, and Mark did “lots of soul searching.” He considered branching aviation, but picked engineers instead because he wanted to protect people, and engineers protect Soldiers. His first assignment was with the 3rd Battalion, 325th Infantry, where LTC Abizaid was his Battalion Commander. He served as a combat engineer platoon leader (his best time in the military), a heavy engineer platoon leader, a cold-weather training officer, and support platoon leader. When he first arrived in the infantry battalion, the combat engineer platoon had been used for R&U (Repair and Utility) projects around the battalion. Mark approached one of the field grade officers and said, “You can have really good R&U projects, or you can have good combat engineers.” His initiative changed the way the battalion employed the engineers and led to a more meaningful and effective relationship. He was able to identify Soldiers’ talents and use them to make the unit better. Under his leadership, his three engineer squads took 1st, 2nd, and 4th place in a USAREUR-wide sapper competition. In April 1991, he deployed to Iraq for Operation Provide Comfort to protect the Kurds. In 1994, he assumed command of C Company, 4th Engineer Battalion, at Ft. Carson, Colorado. He then earned a Master’s Degree in physics from Stanford and reported to West Point to teach in the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering. While at West Point, he was an Officer Representative for the Ski Patrol and the Cycling Team. He then reported to the Army’s 1st Space Battalion at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. In 2006, he reported to the Johnson Space Center, where he was assigned as a Capsule Communicator at Mission Control and in the Astronaut Office’s Director of Operations in Russia. He was then selected for Astronaut Training and learned to fly the T-38 as a common basis for understanding among astronauts. As an astronaut he participated in Expedition 53/54 (September 13, 2017, to February 28, 2018) and Expedition 65/66 (April 9, 2021, to March 30, 2022) which was the longest continuous spaceflight for an American. While in space, he conducted experiments on satellites and vegetation. At the end of the interview, he reflects on what his service means to him, noting that it fills him with joy and a sense of purpose.


topics Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie Military Techniques Military Family Space
interviewer David Siry
date 14 September 2022


name Mark T. Vande Hei
institution St. John’s University; Stanford University
graduation year 1989, 1999
service Engineer
unit 3rd Battalion, 325th Infantry; C Company 4th Engineer Battalion; West Point Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering; 1st Space Battalion; NASA
specialty Astronaut
service dates 1989