Philly astronaut to command test capsule in 2019 launch

Just days before the launch of the final space shuttle mission, Philadelphia native Chris Ferguson, the commander, was asked what it felt like to be a part of the historic flight.

“It’s good to be last. It would have been wonderful to be first,” he said in a 2011 NASA video.

Ferguson, a 56-year-old graduate of Archbishop Ryan High School and Drexel University, may get his shot to be first next year.

On Friday, NASA announced that Ferguson will command what could be the first launch of astronauts from U.S. soil since the shuttle program’s swan song seven years ago.

What makes the mission stand out even more is the fact that Ferguson is retired from NASA and now works for Boeing. He is the director of Crew and Mission Systems for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

The aerospace company calls him the first “corporate astronaut.”

Boeing and SpaceX, under contract with NASA, are competing in their own space race to launch capsules next year. Boeing said it would be ready sometime in the middle of 2019. SpaceX has committed to April. Both companies have been hit by delays, so nothing is certain.

Ferguson grew up in a rowhouse on Amity Road in Northeast Philadelphia, playing wire ball and stickball and delivering the Inquirer for pocket money, he said in a 2005 Inquirer article.

He was 7 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon in 1969.

“My father woke me and he said, ‘You want to get up and watch this because you’re going to appreciate it someday,’ ” Ferguson recalled.

His father, Ian Ferguson, a computer salesman who died of cancer in 1981, prominently displayed in their house a framed autograph of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Ferguson graduated from Archbishop Ryan in 1979 and then earned a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering from Drexel in 1984.

John Fry, president of Drexel, said in a statement Friday night: “Chris Ferguson has long represented the pioneering spirit of Drexel. We’re honored by NASA’s selection, and certain that Chris will continue to set the bar high for future Drexel graduates as he reaches for the stars.”

In the 2011 NASA interview, Ferguson said there was not a particular moment when he decided he wanted to become an astronaut. When he was in high school, Ferguson became “intrigued” with joining the Navy and flying jets, he said.

Ferguson trained at the Navy Fighter Weapon School, also known as TOPGUN, and eventually accumulated 5,700 flight hours in more than 30 aircraft types.

Astronauts come from the ranks of test pilots, so Ferguson said it became a natural step for him to aim for NASA, which he joined in 1998.

Ferguson was the pilot for the Atlantis mission in September 2006. He became commander for the Endeavor mission in November 2008. He flew Atlantis again as commander in 2011. When Atlantis returned to Earth on July 21, 2011, Ferguson was the last person to step off the shuttle.

He logged more than 40 days in space.

Ferguson is married to the former Sandra A. Cabot, who is from Plymouth Valley in Montgomery County, and they have three adult children.

In the 2011 NASA video, Ferguson was asked what he would tell someone who wants to be an astronaut.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “… I made it. You can make it. I was just an average dude growing up.”