From small-town Kansas to space: Astronaut prepares for NASA mission

Nick Hague will be the fourth Kansan to fly into space.
Nick Hague will be the fourth Kansan to fly into space. Courtesy NASA

He’s headed into space, but when Nick Hague was growing up in Hoxie, his path to astronaut was not quite clear.

“Growing up in western Kansas, looking at the night sky, you can feel so close to space yet so far from anything that has to do with space,” Hague said.

At the same time, Hague says it gave him perspective for his career as an Air Force pilot and for his preparation to be the fourth Kansan to fly into space. The others are Steve Hawley, Joe Engle and Ronald Evans.

“I grew up in small-town Kansas feeling like the world was gigantic and that I was not connected to most of it,” Hague said. “Through my service in the Air Force and my experiences in my career, I realized that the world is much smaller than I can ever imagine.”

Speaking alongside his Russian crewmate Alexey Ovchinin at a recent NASA press conference at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Hague discussed the expedition to the International Space Station, set to launch Oct. 11. The two will travel to the station aboard the Soyuz 56S from Kazakhstan. He’ll be on the station for six months.

Hague said he has learned some Russian so he can communicate with Ovchinin and that a lot of the conversations on the ISS are just trying to speak each other's language. Over the years, astronauts from countries like the U.S., Russia, Germany and France have worked on the station.

At the station, Hague and his crewmates will assist with hundreds of experiments and research investigations. Hague said it’s a privilege to be “the eyes, ears and hands of scientists dedicated to space research” and that he wants to bring back his experience on the station to share with all who support the mission.

“There is such a vast number of people on the ground helping support us on a daily basis,” he said. “You’ve got six people in orbit, and you’ve got a team of over 100,000 people on the ground working to support them. I want everyone to know there’s a large, international diverse team that makes this all possible. Not that many people know they’re directly supporting us in space.”

The crew is also scheduled to receive the first flights from NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, which will bring crewed launches back to the U.S. Astronauts last flew to space from American soil back in 2011, when the space shuttle program was retired.

The journey

It’s been a long journey to space for Hague. It took him two tries to get into test pilot school in the Air Force, and once there, one of his first flights was a “colossal failure.” He said this was a wake-up call to ask for help.

“Everyone is going to have stumbles on the road. It’s unavoidable. It’s how you respond to them. Sometimes, you’re not going to be able to respond by yourself. You’re going to rely on the people around you to give you support to be successful.”

He first applied to be an astronaut in 2003. It took two more tries and 10 years until he got the call. After two years of training, he’ll be the first member of the 2013 astronaut class to fly to space.

At times, Hague said, it’s been hard to find time to spend with his wife, Air Force Lt. Col. Catie Hague, and his 7- and 11-year-old sons. He said that one afternoon, he sat down and calculated that from the time that he was selected until the end of his mission in April, he’ll have spent four out of those five years away from his family.

He said he’s prioritized his time with his family when possible, and he’s worked to make life as normal for them as possible. He’s spent time explaining the different processes of the mission.

“I hope my children come to appreciate why I’m doing this, to know why it’s so important for me to leave home for so long,” Hague said. “My job is to let them know that it’s important to do something bigger than yourself.”

Small-town roots

Born in Belleville but raised in Hoxie, Hague went to the U.S Air Force Academy, where he graduated with a degree in astronautical engineering in 1998. In 2000, he earned a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Over the years, he’s served in the Air Force in a variety of capacities — experiences he credited with helping him expand his worldview and prepare for his mission.

“There are opportunities out there to engage with the rest of the world,” he said. “It may not be easy as you go along, and there’s going to be bumps along the way, but if you’ve got a dream and you’ve got a big heart, you’d be surprised at what you can achieve. I hope I’m an example for all kids in rural America that anything is possible.”