By Barbara LeBlanc
Scott Tingle ’87 doesn’t remember when he first dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Maybe it was when his mother talked to him about Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, which happened when Tingle was just four years old. Maybe it was when he realized he was attracted to anything fast and mechanical—he was racing and repairing motorcycles by the time he was 12.
Whatever his inspiration, Tingle always knew he wanted to fly in space. “It’s a goal that sat in the middle of my head and just would not leave,” he said. “It’s in my DNA.”
Tingle’s dream came true on December 17, when, at age 52, he launched into space aboard a Russian Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft. Flying with crewmates Anton Shkaplerov, of Russia, and Norishige Kanai, of Japan, he docked at the International Space Station a day and a half later. The crew is scheduled to return to earth in April.
The mission’s flight engineer, Tingle will also serve as a subject for research on how the human spine responds to life in space. The aging process accelerates in zero gravity, with astronauts losing bone and muscle mass while on missions. Exercising at least two hours a day while in space can prevent some of the deterioration, he said.
In addition to serving as a research subject, Tingle was selected to make a spacewalk to repair the space station’s robotic arm. He trained for the task in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, donning the spacesuit and performing procedures underwater.
Just getting into the spacesuit is a challenge, he said. And because it is pressurized, simple tasks, such as moving your arm or squeezing a wrench, exhaust astronauts during a six-hour spacewalk. Tingle has lost as many as seven pounds each time he trained in the suit.
“It’s the toughest thing you can do,” he said. “You have to concentrate your mind. The system is complicated and you have to be able to figure out what to do.”
UMass Dartmouth nurtured his dream
Tingle has been drawn to mechanical challenges since he was a boy growing up in Randolph. He attended Blue Hills Regional Technical High School, in Canton, where instead of attending shop classes during his senior year, he worked in machine design at the Phoenix Electric Corporation. He also worked the night shift at a bagel bakery.
Saving enough money to pay for his first year, he enrolled at what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University (SMU).
“It is not often that a student tells his professor that his goal is to become an astronaut,” said Ron DiPippo, now Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering. “I’ve only had one in my 37 years of teaching.”
In the 1980s, vocational high schools were not the path to college that they are today. Before the mechanical engineering program would accept him, Tingle had to prove himself with advanced courses in math, physics and mechanics. He got As in all three classes. “Well, I hope you like engineering,” DiPippo said, in what Tingle recalls was his first inkling that he was accepted.
DiPippo became one of Tingle’s mentors at UMass Dartmouth, along with engineering professors John Rice and the late John Hansberry.
“They were very patient with me,” Tingle said. “I didn’t have the academic preparation that my classmates did.”
He still remembers the Chevy V-8 engine that DiPippo had on a stand in class. Measuring the engine’s thermodynamic properties, calculating its efficiencies and producing technical drawings and diagrams started his understanding “that a system is just a system and the laws of physics will apply,” he said.
“There isn’t anything in my house that I can’t fix,” he said. “Very frequently, I will draw a basic diagram and try to figure out the symptoms I’m seeing, and technically think my way through it.”
Hansberry would begin class by describing a noise he heard in his car that morning, and lead the class in creating an equation to pinpoint the problem. “He was the best I ever saw in doing that,” Tingle said.
Flying was in his blood
Tingle paid for the rest of college by joining the Navy ROTC and the Naval Reserve in 1984, and went on to earn his master’s at Purdue University, where he applied only because there was no application fee. When he arrived on campus, he realized his good fortune. Purdue is known as “The Cradle of Astronauts” and now lists Tingle among its 22 astronaut alumni, including his boyhood idol, Neil Armstrong.
After earning his master’s in mechanical engineering, he worked on satellite systems for the Aerospace Corporation, in El Segundo, CA. He satisfied his need to fly with lunch hour stunts in the company’s acrobatic bi-plane.
One day, flying upside down, his tie hit him in the face. That was his sign, he said. It was time to leave for active duty.
In 1993 he qualified as a naval aviator, earning his wings of gold. Five years later, he graduated from the Navy Test Pilot School and tested the legendary FA-18E/F Super Hornets. Responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he served with Carrier Air Wing Eleven aboard the USS Carl Vinson, which launched the first airstrikes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also served aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, and flew 54 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before becoming an astronaut, Tingle flew a total of 3,500 hours on 48 different aircraft.
Tingle was selected for astronaut training in 2009, part of the class that calls themselves “The Chumps.” His years of training have included International Space Station systems, spacewalking, robotic operations, flying the T-38 jet, and six to eight hours a week of Russian language instruction.
As an astronaut, he has traded his combatant role for one of international cooperation. He did much of his training in Russia, and he calls his crewmates, Commander Shkaplerov and Flight Engineer Kanai, brothers.
Tingle sees that the International Space Station, with “18 international partners who are very dedicated,” could be a model for international collaboration in a world facing a host of seemingly intractable problems.
“The most exciting thing for me is getting up there and working with the incredibly capable team of people who come together from all over the world,” he said. “The fact that we have a cooperative environment makes it cool to work in. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, we’re friends. We’re a team of professionals.”
He is grateful to everyone who supported him in achieving his dream, including his hometown community, and his wife of 24 years, Raynette, and their three children, Amy, Sean and Eric, “We’re doing this as a family,” he said.
“I’ve trained for decades for this,” he said. “And everyone who has supported me along the way is launching with me in my heart.”