NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Benilde-St. Margaret's Friday to encourage students at his high school alma mater to take on challenges and not be afraid of failure.
Earlier this year, Vande Hei broke the record for the American astronaut with the longest single space flight after spending 355 days aboard the International Space Station. On Friday at the homecoming convocation for the Catholic school in St. Louis Park, he returned items from the school that he had taken with him into space.
"Being a part of a community like Benilde-St. Margaret's, like Minnesota, like my family, it gives you a solid foundation to explore further and further," Vande Hei said.
Vande Hei started off his presentation by reflecting on his memories of sitting in the same bleachers as the students he was addressing. Benilde-St. Margaret's welcomed the alum back with heavy applause, an opening prayer, and three student volunteers ready to assist with the astronaut's demonstrations.
After graduating from the school in 1985, Vande Hei went on to earn a degree in physics from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., followed by a master's degree from Stanford. He then served in the Army and taught at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. He was selected as a part of the NASA astronaut class of 2009.
Vande Hei has returned to Benilde-St. Margaret's before. In 2017, he and others at the school came up with the idea of giving him a few pieces of home to take with him on his next space flight. After names were drawn in a raffle, two students gave him their ID cards, and he took the cards along on his record-breaking space flight.
"I didn't fly myself to space," Vande Hei said. "So many people dedicated their lives to give us — our nation — the capability to do this, and I just got the opportunity to do it on behalf of everybody else. So being able to symbolically bring a couple of other people on board, for me, was great."
Anna Carr, one of the students to lend the astronaut her ID five years ago, attended Friday's convocation to collect it. Now an alum of the school herself and a recent college graduate, she enjoyed hearing about the journey of both Vande Hei and her old school ID.
Carr said she plans to save the well-traveled ID by putting it in a scrapbook.
In his speech to students, Vande Hei had a key message:
"Be willing to risk failure," he said. "You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. … Challenge yourself."