Like any traveler, Drew Feustel found it difficult being away from home for 197 days.

The Michigan native likely had gone farther than most, though. His first thought after returning to Earth on Thursday from the International Space Station was: “Wow, that was really hard.”

Feustel, commander of Expedition 56; Flight Engineer Ricky Arnold of NASA; and Flight Engineer and Soyuz Cmdr. Oleg Artemyev of the Russian space agency Roscosmos orbited the Earth more than 3,100 times before landing in Kazakhstan in Central Asia at 7:44 a.m. Thursday. 

Feustel’s latest trip to space — his third — was a bit more challenging. His previous missions in 2009 and 2011 each lasted only two weeks, he said. 

“The length of the mission and landing … was really hard,” said Feustel, 53. ” … I was just happy to be back. The feeling of return, gravity, nausea is taking time to get over, but I’m becoming happier and happier about being home.”

Feustel, a Battle Creek native who now lives in Houston, said he was excited to accept this mission because he missed being in space.

“I missed looking down on Earth and seeing it pass by, a view you could only get from 250 miles above the planet,” said Feustel. “I’d look out each night at the northern lights dancing. It was like a green curtain reaching up to the space station.

“There’s no better feeling than being in space. I often looked out at the window at sunrise — there are no words to describe it. Pastel blue, purple and bright reds, unbelievable colors you’ll never see with your eyes on Earth,” he said. 

The crew conducted more than 350 research and scientific experiments, including tests to help prepare for missions that aim to travel fartherfrom Earth. The team worked on studies into ultra-cold quantum gases using the first commercial European facility for microgravity research and a system that uses surface forces to accomplish liquid-liquid separation.

Although he didn’t take a traditional path, Feustel always knew he would work in the space program. After graduating from high school, he attended Oakland Community College, worked in a Detroit auto mechanic restoration shop and graduated with a Ph.D. from King’s University College in Ontario. 

Feustel said his favorite part of the mission were spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades like replacing cameras and installing wireless communication antennas. He has accumulated 61 hours and 48 minutes over nine career spacewalks and ranks second overall among American astronauts.

He said he was living out his dream, but he missed his wife of 28 years, Indrina Feustel,  and his two sons. 

“Every time we passed over Texas and Michigan, I thought of the people I missed most, family and friends. I also missed my bed, shower and food that was fresh,” he said. “The first thing I ate was a cheese sandwich with fluffy bread on the plane back to Houston. It was delicious compared to the tortillas we ate every day and got old.”

Feustel couldn’t take any Michigan cherries or Vernors with him but said he took some of his wife’s jewelry, trinkets from home and photos. He said he was grateful to be back in time to see a son, 24, before he left for the Navy on Saturday and help his other son, 22, apply to medical schools, including University of Michigan. 

In space, the crew tackled issues that developed in addition to the experiments.

“We did have a small leak develop in the space station and lost air. We reacted quickly, isolated, plugged it up,” said Feustel. ” … There’s always a risk we may not make it back.

“We train for emergencies and prepare on a regular basis, should the need arrive. It’s just the nature of the work we do. We rely on the engineering teams to support us and build tech to keep us alive.”

Indrina Feustel said they were “four happy of the happiest hearts on the planet” when he returned.

“It’s not easy watching them go through everything they do,” she said. “He did not one, not two, but three spacewalks in this mission. I was clenching on my couch with a cup of tea watching as they went through their mission, and for me, the biggest challenge is I have a tough time sleeping when he’s not home.”

While in orbit, he participated in dozens of educational tune-in video streams as a part of NASA’s Year of Education on Station in a bid to inspire more than 200,000 students in 29 states.

“They’re important because (students) can directly ask an astronaut about the work their doing, and some of those individuals may not be thinking about a career in space, but maybe they will be inspired to set their goals high,” he said. “I wanted to inspire others that it’s OK not to be on a traditional path.”

As Expedition 56 wrapped up, Feustel handed over station command to German astronaut Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of European Space Agency. He said he relax for a bit before returning to NASA. He doesn’t have another mission planned. 

“Time will only tell,” he said about another mission. “I’ll do what I can as long as I’m needed.”

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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