Set To Take Tennis into Space
Erin Maher | March 14, 2018
NASA astronaut A.J. ‘Drew’ Feustel will be taking the sport of tennis to new heights when he leaves for the International Space Station on March 21, 2018. The avid tennis player and fan, who will return to Earth on Aug. 28, 2018, will attempt a tennis match in space during his voyage, powered by Net Generation.
USTA.com caught up with Feustel, who was in Moscow prior to takeoff, to discuss space, his preparation for liftoff and his love for the sport of a lifetime, tennis.
USTA.com: What are you doing in preparation for takeoff in March?
Drew Feustel: I have been training in Russia for the last 22 months, but not full time. I have spent about 65 percent of my time here training, and while we are here, all the work focuses on learning to fly the Russian spacecraft that takes us to the International Space Station. ADVERTISEMENT The time that I’m not here, I’ve trained in Europe or the U.S. That time is mostly spent preparing for activities that we’re going to do on the space station when we’re actually there, so generic tasks, maintenance activities, things like that.
USTA.com: So when and how did you come to love tennis?
Feustel: Tennis has actually always been a part of our family. When I was young, my grandparents were into tennis, and they used to take us to play on the weekends when we would spend time with them in Southern Michigan. For a while, I wasn’t playing much. I mostly focused on water skiing and snow skiing, activities like that. I ran track in school, as well. Once I met my wife, Indira, at Purdue University in 1988, I started getting back into tennis, and we started playing often. That’s when it started for me again in earnest. My wife comes from an avid tennis-playing family. She and her siblings were ranked in Ontario, and her brother played in Andre Agassi's draw in the Orange Bowl one year. She has been playing since the age of 12 and began teaching tennis at 16. She was the coordinator of the Cornwall Ontario tennis program during her summers away from McGill University and made the Purdue University tennis team as a walk-on.
Tennis has always been a part of our lives together for nearly 30 years. Our sons, Ari and Aden, played competitively in USTA tournaments and varsity tennis for Clear Lake High School. They taught tennis throughout their high school years and had a blast being ball kids in Houston for the Masters tournaments at the Westside Tennis Club and USTA Men's Clay Court Championship for about 10 years. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the passion for tennis that Indi’s mum and dad, Vijay Bhatnagar, share for tennis. Vijay has most professional tennis players' autographs. He will be 83 years young in May and still plays tennis when we visit. He regularly sends our family daily updates, including scores, during notable tournaments. You can't help but love tennis when you are surrounded by such passion for the game.
USTA.com: When you’re not preparing to go to space, how often do you play?
Feustel: I can’t really play here in Russia, mainly because I don’t have the time to do that. They keep us really busy. Even in the summer months, we’re so busy with our studies. But in the States, when we’re there, we try to play every couple of weeks. The nice thing about living in Houston is that, of course, the weather is pretty much always great for tennis. We live only a block and a half from a public tennis court, so it’s real easy for us to grab a couple of cans of balls and walk over and knock out a quick game of tennis. So we try to play frequently, and it’s a great way for us to relax. We always play when the kids are in town visiting from university. It’s great to hit the tennis courts and play as a family.
USTA.com: You will be combining your love of tennis with your love of space come March, when you attempt a tennis match in space, powered by Net Generation. What do you think will be the toughest part of playing tennis in the final frontier?
Feustel: The fact that we don’t have gravity is hard. Balls won’t bounce, and gravity has no effect. To me, it’s going to seem like that old game Pong, where you hit the ball and the ball just goes straight; it doesn’t bounce on anything. So it’s going to be challenging. The USTA provided us with some NetGen racquets to take to space, and we got a few tennis balls, and we’re going to give it our best shot. There aren’t any other avid tennis players in space while I’m up there, but I’m going to recruit a couple of folks and see if I can get the Russians in on it or my American crewmates. We’ll see if we can get a game going in space. It’s going to be tricky. We might have to invent some new rules. We hope that it inspires people to try tennis if they never have before – to get outside and be active and have fun playing. Tennis is a sport of a lifetime, and we hope to convey the fun of it on the ISS. It will be the first time tennis is played in space, so we are very excited to be a part of this historical moment.
USTA.com: Out of all your colleagues you’ll be traveling with to space, whom would you most like to challenge?
Feustel: We’re going to have a great international team up there. We’re joining the Russians in space, a Japanese astronaut, and there’s an American up there right now. When I launch, it’ll be myself, another American and a Russian. While we’re there, we’ll be joined by a German astronaut, another Russian and another American. Maybe what we’ll do is have a tournament organized by nationality and see how long we can have the tournament run. Maybe we can have the tournament run the whole time we’re up in space and see which nation wins. So I’ll just have to play it by ear and see who’s willing to give it a shot.
USTA.com: Have you ever been to the US Open?
Feustel: Yes, we have been to the US Open. We went during qualifying the week before main draw started a couple years back. It was a nice visit. We’ve been there, we’ve been to Roland Garros, and we’ve been to Wimbledon. We’re hoping to go to the US Open again in the coming years.
USTA.com: Wow, you only have the Australian Open left to visit!
Feustel: You are right! The only challenge is it’s a little farther from home than everywhere else. We are truly looking forward to a trip to Australia and hopefully the Australian Open! It's a long trip but well worth it.
USTA.com: It’s funny to hear you say that Australia is a long trip, considering you’re going to space.
Feustel: Well, you know, the fact is that the space station is only about 250 miles above the planet. Then you consider Australia, which is several thousand miles away, so it’s actually farther. And, because our rocket goes 17,500 mph, it only takes us eight minutes to get to space, whereas if I get on a plane to go to Australia, it’s like a whole day of travel to get there.
USTA.com: What advice would you give to people about making their dreams come true?
Feustel: I tend to provide pretty consistent advice to everyone. Set lofty goals, literally and figuratively. Don’t lose sight of those things. The path I took to becoming an astronaut was not direct; it was not standard. In fact, if you talk to anyone who has become an astronaut, most folks don’t take a standard, common path to get into this profession. It’s something that most of us had dreamed about for a long time in our lives, and I think that the important point is for people to have far-reaching goals, set their dreams in their mind and not lose sight of them. If you have that focus, eventually, hopefully, things will work themselves out, and you end up in the place that you’ve intended and you’ve desired to be. Focus is important and determination and being relentless with your pursuit of those goals.
Launch of the Expedition 55 crew: Wednesday, March 21, at 12:45 p.m. ET
Docking of Expedition 55 crew to the International Space Station: Friday, March 23, at 3:00 p.m. ET
Expedition 55 crew welcoming ceremony: Friday, March 23, at 4:45 p.m. ET
Watch on NASA TV:
Join the movement: #TminusNetGeneration
Follow Drew on his journey to the International Space Station: