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Toddville native Mitch Harger orchestrating NASA spacewalk

Former Iowa State University football player says his NASA role is 'absolute joy'

Mitch Harger, a Toddville native and former Iowa State University football player, trains in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab
Mitch Harger, a Toddville native and former Iowa State University football player, trains in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. Harger is an extravehicular activity — or spacewalk — flight controller. (Submitted photo)
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In April, NASA will help install a platform outside the International Space Station to be used for hosting scientific experiments in space.

The person in charge of developing the tasks astronauts do to connect and power the platform, called Bartolomeo, is Mitch Harger, a Toddville native and former Iowa State University football player.

“It’s my very first EVA I’m planning for,” Harger said, referring to an extravehicular activity — NASA’s term for a spacewalk.

“I develop how the two astronauts will go out there and do these tasks,” Harger said. “We have the mock-up right now. It’s very complicated and has a lot of cables on it. They have to be routed just perfectly.”

Harger, 25, graduated in 2016 from ISU with a degree in aerospace engineering. Inspired by a former Cyclone teammate’s father, a retired astronaut, Harger applied for the EVA program and earlier this year became a certified EVA flight controller at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston.

There have been 11 spacewalks so far this year at the International Space Station, NASA reported.

Harger has been involved with most of these missions, either assisting or, since certification, performing his EVA Task Operations role.

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He compares it to scenes from the movie “Apollo 13,” which depicts the real-life efforts of mission control engineers to find a way for three astronauts to return to Earth after their oxygen tank explodes.

Harger was serving as EVA task manager on the first all-female spacewalk Oct. 18 as American astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir replaced a power controller outside the space station. The spacewalk, which lasted seven hours and 17 minutes, was done with only a week for the astronauts to prepare, Harger said.

“She (Meir) had to study all the new products, positions, the robotic arm,” Harger said. “In my opinion, since they only had a week to study, it was a lot harder than other EVAs. That’s where our skills as flight controllers really pay off. They did an awesome job.”

Other major spacewalks this fall have been to repair the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which has been operating at the space station since 2011. Astronauts have spliced in coolant pumps to extend the equipment’s life and swapped out nickel-hydrogen for lithium-ion batteries, Harger said.

“AMS is a massive payload that studies particle physics,” he said. “We want to keep it operational.”

But Harger’s biggest challenge yet will be the Bartolomeo project, which he already is testing with mock-ups in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

The underwater lab is 202 feet in length, 102 feet in width and 40 feet deep, allowing room for two activities to be tested at the same time in conditions similar to the zero-gravity space environment, NASA reported.

On Friday, Harger was scheduled to do a test in the lab, fully outfitted in a spacesuit. Then he will fly to Germany, where the European Space Agency is building Bartolomeo.

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Harger will install preintegrated tools that astronauts will use in April to attach the platform to the space station.

“That’s how it’s going to fly up,” he said. “A lot of the development has to happen now, four to five months in advance.”

Hundreds of hours of planning and study go into each hour of a spacewalk, Harger said.

But EVA flight controllers also must be prepared for the unexpected. Like in 2017, when a debris shield being installed by astronauts, including Iowa native Peggy Whitson, floated away. On-ground EVA engineers quickly developed a plan to install a temporary cover on the remaining port that worked well enough to avoid another mission.

“That saved us hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Harger said.

The 2017 spacewalk showed Harger that study alone doesn’t make a good EVA flight controller.

“The real skill is to have something you have no idea about and know the proper places to find the answer,” he said.

Harger said he deals with the job’s pressures by exercising and talking with his parents, Rick and Kris Harger, and sister, Maddie Harger, by phone.

“I may be stressed out by it,” he said. “But being able to scuba dive today or get in the spacesuit is an absolute joy.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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