Scott Tingle woke up on a recent late fall morning feeling a little down. He was scheduled to speak to engineering students in MIT’s AeroAstro Lab, the oldest engineering program of its kind in the country. The Randolph native always wanted to go there for college. “I tried and I couldn’t get in. I wasn’t smart enough,” he says. Now years later, Tingle thought perhaps he just didn’t fit in. It’s a funny thought—and one that quickly subsided—considering Tingle is an astronaut.
Similar to many kids in 1969, Tingle knew he wanted to be an astronaut when he watched the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. But a 4-year-old’s dream carried through decades while developing the experience and skills needed for the NASA program, which led to a 168-day mission aboard the International Space Station that returned in June. That part of the story is a little less common. Tingle’s journey from a blue-collar community south of Boston to low earth orbit with NASA took some focus on his part. Now, as he stood in a room full of some of the brightest engineering students in the country, these MIT kids wanted to know more, mostly about how to get in to the program and what life was like in space. He was more than happy to oblige.
Tingle is evidence that there is no one path to NASA. He grew up in a household with a supportive mother he says sowed the seed, with friends who understood him and teachers who mentored and pushed him to keep moving. At Blue Hills Regional Vocational School, his teachers Paul Dumas and Bill Cahill first got him interested in engineering. “They’re the reason I got my first job, which helped pay for my first year at college.” And then it was Ronald DePippo and his thermal dynamics class at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) who pushed Tingle to discover his own potential.
“I was always working to just try to feed myself and keep my car running,” he says. “It wasn’t until I got into his classes that I realized what I had as far as where I could go.” DePippo first introduced Tingle to what became his passion for thermal sciences and gas dynamics. He realized that he might actually be able to pull off what he’d been telling people: Becoming a NASA astronaut was actually possible.
“I didn’t sleep very much at college because I was coming in from behind but [Dr. DePippo’s] teaching, patience and demand of excellence of meeting standards was absolutely incredible.” Tingle still keeps in touch with DePippo and even called his mentor from the space station.
After earning his graduate degree at Purdue, Tingle worked at the Aerospace Corporation before spending the next two decades as a naval aviator logging more than 4,000 flight hours, including 54 combat missions. One of those missions included the first response to the Sept. 11, 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from the USS Carl Vinson. While the Navy is not an established pipeline to NASA, Tingle still went for it. He passed every exam and requirement, but a false positive result for tuberculosis exposure nearly kept him back. “You could do everything right and still not get in.”
At his interview with the selection board he didn’t discuss his resume. He knew he was qualified as much as the other candidates. So he talked about music. A longtime guitarist, Tingle spent his early years in a rock band that played clubs along the East Coast. The selection board asked about his repertoire as their own band, Max Q, needed a guitarist. Tingle laughs retelling the story, noting it’s not all about the resume. “Are you someone NASA wants to stick in a minivan for six months?”
He was selected in 2009 to join the 20th astronaut class. After years of training, Tingle departed on Soyuz MS-07 as a flight engineer for Expedition 54 and 55.
Back at MIT, a student asked about daily life on the station. Tingle says it typically starts with exercise, moves to station maintenance and running more than a hundred tests, like studying plant growth and the impact microgravity has on bone marrow. When a cargo ship would arrive, the crew had no breaks. Tingle performed a spacewalk to replace parts on the stations robotic arm, Canadarm2. There are, if you think about it, so many questions to ask someone who has lived on the space station. How does one bathe, one student asked? According to Tingle, it’s just baby wipes. Are we really close to walking on Mars? Yes, he says. It’s happening. “Or it’s continuing to happen,” he corrects himself. “Now we have top-down support to go to Mars. It’s the strongest I’ve seen since the Apollo.” His interest and a big technological concern is astronauts’ exposure to radiation. But he is hopeful. “We are at a knee curve for innovation.”
Was he surprised by anything in space? If you can believe it, he said, not really. It was a rewarding aspect of life on the station that nothing came as a surprise. “If we did an hour of work on the station, there was probably 100-1,000 hours of preparation or planning that had gone on in the year prior to executing on that.”
Tingle answered questions for at least three hours. When the last student left after taking a photo next to an astronaut, Tingle finally sat down. Inside his velcro sleeve pocket, he pulled out an energy shot and smiled. “Just a little bit at a time.”
Tingle says his engagements like this visit to MIT are well balanced. When asked what he does to make sure his personal life is good, he pauses before saying, “I listen to my wife!” He laughs but he recognizes how his wife, Raynette, gives him perspective. “I’m a frontline operator and without focus I would never survive. Sometimes you focus so much that you don’t get to defocus and see the bigger picture. She’s really good at making sure I do that. She sees me going down the rabbit hole in very aggressive, direct ways. She makes sure that I don’t go down that rabbit hole too deep.”
Tingle has three kids, his oldest works in advertising in New York, another is a sound engineer, and his youngest is still in high school. With his career mostly in the Navy, Tingle had been concerned with the toll it has taken on the family. Moving 12 times in 20 years meant changing schools and forcing his kids to into new environments each time. “Even up until I was in this last deployment on the station, I didn’t know if I’d screwed it up,” he says. But as his youngest nears the end of high school and his two older children are succeeding at the start of their own careers, he feels better about how they have grown up. “Their ability to join new groups, adapt, thrive, complete and move on was what we taught them.”
Photo: Robert Markowitz (top), Bill Stafford (bottom right)
Tingle turns sentimental when it comes to being back home. “When I was walking on campus last night, I was like, yeah I’m home,” he says. “Because you can smell it. It’s coming through the tunnel when the map doesn’t work anymore. I’m back home again.” He had plans to visit friends the next day. Nothing adventurous, just catching up. “As you get older, the relationships become the important part of your life. That’s where we’re all at now.”
His friends and family he left early on has always played a role. “Now that I’m older, I realized I lost decades with them.” He adds, “not that I’d do it any different, but it’s just something that catches up to you.” It was an excruciating experience, he says.
Tingle brought photos of everyone who influenced his life to space and let them float in the cupola, where crewmembers can observe earth. He says it’s what kept him grounded. “It’s a big endeavor not just for a single person but for the human race. It can really be overwhelming to think about.” He adds, “The sacrifices you have to make to make it happen.”
At 53, he’s not certain he will be able to return to space. He remains one of 39 active astronauts still eligible for flight assignment. When asked if he will retire, he says it’s something he might think about in a few years. He would still love to return on another mission, but for now he’s catching up with the people whose photos he carried with him on the station. “They were in my heart the whole way.” ◆
Get a feel for the new frontier at the Museum of Science’s Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience through Jan. 1 or watch Destination Mars, showing at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, to see how mankind is pushing the limits of space exploration.