Taking Flight

USD alumnus and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick


In his first official visit back to his alma mater, NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick ’05 (BS/BA) offered some salient advice to current Toreros: dream big and never be afraid of failure. 

Along with meeting with various student groups around campus, Dominick was the special guest of Toreros in Space, a homecoming event hosted by the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering that featured a meet-and-greet brunch with the USD community and a live interview with the founding dean of the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, Chell Roberts, PhD.

Following is an edited version of that conversation.

Roberts: Matt, how did you become an astronaut? 

Dominick: I mean, you just go to USD. Next question? I’m joking, of course. But that is a part of how you become an astronaut. It’s not just one thing: It starts with having a family that nurtures exploration and creativity. Being an astronaut was a cool thing I wanted to do as a kid. Of course, I also wanted to be an architect or a veterinarian. I did know when I got to the University of San Diego that you can do anything you want after you become an engineer. There’s a skill component to becoming an astronaut, but there’s also luck and there’s timing, and I control one of those three things. I wanted to do things I was passionate about, and to keep doing things that I was interested in. I knew that if I did that, I would never feel I was at work. 

Roberts: Did they call you or did you call them?

Dominick: I applied in 2013. They send you a really nice rejection letter in the mail. 

Roberts: You got a rejection letter? 

Dominick: I got a nice letter many, many months after they announced the new class. This is the government. Things take a while. 

Roberts: You applied again?

Dominick: Yes. There’s a process where they call references and then there are multiple interviews. The first for me was four days long; they fly you out to Houston for that. The final round is a whole week, seven days straight. Actually, I just realized it was my first-ever job interview. I went to USD and then I was in the Navy, which wasn’t really a job interview. They said, ‘Hey, join us.’ And I said, ‘OK. So, my first job interview was with NASA. I’m batting a thousand. 

USD Dean of Engineering Chell Roberts alongside alumnus astronaut Matthew Dominick on stage during a live interviewRoberts: How do you train to be an astronaut?

Dominick: Well, you train to do everything. When you’re in space, there’s no plumber. You are the plumber. I can fix a space toilet. I’ve taken it apart and put it back together many times in training. You train to do electrical work. You’re trained to fly the space station. If somebody gets sick, you’ve got to help them. 

Roberts: Don’t you have to do the weightless thing? Do they take you up and drop you from an airplane or put you underwater?

Dominick: Can you imagine, on the space station being that person hanging on with one arm going 17,500 miles an hour, going around the Earth every 90 minutes? You train to do this. It’s super dangerous. At that point in time, the person’s spacecraft is their spacesuit. And most of the boxes that you need to repair are outside the space station. The orange rails are there to walk around with your hands, going hand over hand. The gloves are important. While most glove sizes come in small, medium, large and extra-large, since we’re the government, we have 42 sizes of space gloves. There’s a laser scan of your hands to figure out what might work.

Roberts: You’ll do this sort of thing hours at a time? 

Dominick: We start briefing at about 6:30 a.m. I’ll get in the suit at 8:30 in the morning, and I’ll be out by 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Also, I’m wearing a diaper. This is a long day. My kids love the fact that I wear a diaper. They love to remind the general public that I wear a diaper, but they don’t realize that I’m comfortable saying it. I am wearing a diaper. Well, not right now.

Roberts: I imagine you spend a lot of time learning the name of the tools, right? 

Dominick: Yes, just learning the names of the 1,500-plus tools we use, so that we can communicate clearly with the ground. We are their eyes. For example, one of the big tools that we use is very expensive and made of metal. It has a very specific turn rate and torque for every bolt on the Space Station. This is what we use underwater because it’s neutrally buoyant. 

Roberts: Have you spent weeks underwater? 

Dominick: We’re always training to do everything and so that we don’t forget it, we keep doing it. I think our minimums are that about four times a year I need to go underwater. Sometimes we go underwater to test something and sometimes something breaks on the Space Station, which actually happens quite a bit. It’s giant, it’s massive, it’s 20 years old. They’ll say, ‘We’ve got to fix this thing.’ We’ll take two people on Earth with the whole engineering team and we’ll practice the repair that we’re going to do on Space Station 10 times to make sure it’s just right. And then we’ll email the procedures to the Space Station and talk it through with them. 

Roberts: As a pilot, would you ever see yourself as the lead pilot flying to the moon?

Dominick: It’s absolutely an option, yeah. The systems today for space are a little bit different than classic flying. Flying in an atmosphere is much harder than flying in space. Space is pretty much frictionless. The mechanics are pretty simple. When you’re flying an airplane, it’s much harder to test. If you change your angle of attack, you have all these nonlinear effects with the atmosphere. It’s a total disaster mathwise, and you’ve got to go to computational fluid dynamics and it’s just a mess. But in space, you just bump it and it just keeps going forever. It’s easy. 

Roberts: How about Mars? Is Mars in the future? 

Dominick: Mars is in the future. I hope so. We need to be a multi-planetary species. There’s a really cool international component: Six months or a year ago, three countries launched space probes to go to Mars, and they all had to launch within a 20-day window from Earth to meet the timing to go to Mars. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from; we’re all humans and the laws of physics apply equally to all of us. Mars is in the future, but it’s really hard to get there and we need to go test out the engineering stuff on the moon to figure it out. 

USD graduate and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick.Roberts: It used to be that NASA was the only U.S.-based organization going into space, but now we’ve got a whole bunch. How does that change the role of NASA? 

Dominick: A rising tide raises all boats. In 2011, there was one ride to space. Then SpaceX started launching cargo vehicles to the International Space Station. They used that technology and leveraged it so that, in May 2020, they launched their first set of humans, two people. 

Just yesterday, we brought home four people from the Space Station and it’s just background noise. How many people knew that we landed four people yesterday? A few, right? And this is a nerd-heavy room. I feel the energy. I want to get to the point that it’s just like commercial air travel. In May 2020, we launched two people on a test flight. Now, if my numbers are right, 30 people have launched and landed. 

Roberts: What’s a day or a month like on the Space Station?

Dominick: I work in Mission Control a lot and I haven’t been to space yet, but [in space] everybody plans your day. You have an iPad and a laptop with a moving red line that kind of looks like a Gantt chart. On the left on the vertical axis is every crew member’s name. And the horizontal part is time. Each block is what you’re supposed to be doing in that time block, like an Outlook calendar. 

It’s very specific, like ‘You need to go swap the seals on this thing. It’s going to take you an hour and a half.’ If you have trouble, you call the ground and talk to me at Mission Control or another person like me, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you skipped Step 12, get back on it.’ 

You do the timeline, and it shows you the red line is progressing. Here’s your scheduled wakeup time at 7 a.m. There’s a morning meeting at 8:30 after you take a sponge bath. There’s a designated work out time because if you don’t work out, bad things happen because your bone density goes away. They upload your workout program to the machine and you do the workout program scheduled for you by the staff that tells you what you’re supposed to be doing, based upon your mission performance. You’re a lab rat. 

You do the timeline, and then maybe you have an experiment to do. We have universities and researchers from around the world that want to see what happens to certain things in space. 

Roberts: Don’t astronauts take an artifact [to space] with them? Like a secret thing in their pocket when they go?

Dominick: We smuggle absolutely nothing.

Roberts: If you could take an artifact, which you wouldn’t, what artifact would you take?

Dominick: You get a very small amount of personal stuff to take with you. My father was in the Air Force. In 1971, he bought an original moon watch that’s analog; there are no batteries. I have very vivid memories as a kid when every Thanksgiving we would drive from Denver to Phoenix to see family. There were no iPhones back then; there was no digital stuff, there was no data. You had to live with your brain. I remember having the Rand McNally Atlas out and noting the distance between cities, and I would line my head up with the vertical column of the window in the car and at the exact second we hit the mile marker, I’d start the stopwatch on this 1971 chronograph and I’d stop it and calculate our velocity every mile and then recalculate our arrival time, and I’d get it down to within a couple of minutes, I could probably beat a modern GPS doing that.  That watch of my father’s is important to me. He gave it to me a couple years ago and I’ve taken it flying around places. I plan to take it with me.

The following questions were asked by audience members.

Audience: What was the hardest part of your training? Was there something that made you question if you really wanted to do this? 

Dominick: That has never been a question for me, but from the technical side, the hardest thing, for me, is foreign language. Part of the international agreement for the International Space Station is that everybody who goes shall speak English and Russian, regardless of where you come from. A Japanese astronaut has to speak English and Russian in addition to Japanese. That’s part of the agreement; the Space Station is done in partnership.

It’s hard for me to learn Russian; I’m an engineer at heart. The truth is, it’s very difficult. But I want to learn to speak Russian out of respect. They’re incredibly intelligent human beings. I love working with them. Their engineers are incredible. The stuff they build is incredible. So, I learned Russian out of respect for them. 

Audience: Can you talk about your time at USD? 

Dominick: I learned a lot of good lessons at USD and the first one I learned is that I was a hot mess because I wanted to do everything. I didn’t say no to anything. I was involved in way too many campus organizations my first couple of years. My grades were less than stellar. I didn’t really narrow my focus until my junior or senior year, so I really recommend the victory lap, also known as the fifth year. 

USD was great because of the liberal arts. It’s worth the extra time to be an engineer and do liberal arts. When I meet USD engineers out in the field, they’re able to communicate what they’re doing in a more well-rounded way. Every job I’ve been in is about finding a way to meet somebody where they’re at. Having an exposure to a broad diversity of cultures and ideas and languages and thoughts gives you a huge advantage. 

Audience: If you were to go back to when you were a freshman and give yourself some words of wisdom, what would you say?

Dominick: I’d tell them, ‘Narrow your focus. Be good at a few things.’ But the other side of that is that you can afford to make a bunch of mistakes. ‘Go hard. Push yourself. Make mistakes.’ This is the time to make them so that you can learn from them. And go hard the first couple of years to set a strong foundation, because you’ll use that. Those are the building blocks from which you’ll do everything else.

Audience: What advice can you give for those who want to follow your footsteps in wanting to become an astronaut one day?

Dominick: We love people that work well with others. That’s really the key. The technical side of being an astronaut is totally doable by the vast majority of the population. It’s people skills, working with people, working in a closed environment. Just imagine hopping in an SUV with three or four other people and spending 30 days in there. You’re eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom in that spot for 30 days. You don’t want the person who’s just clicking their pen while you want to tell them, ‘Stop it!’

Audience: What keeps you up at night?

Dominick: An immense responsibility to not let humanity down.Edited by Julene Snyder

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