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Mission Viejo native Michael López-Alegría to be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame

Michael López-Alegría is one of only 102 people to be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Michael López-Alegría, who holds two NASA records for spacewalks, is one of only 102 people to be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
(Courtesy of NASA)

Fifty-one years ago on July 20, 1969, a then 11-year-old Michael López-Alegría was playing on Laguna Beach’s shores with his family and friends. He remembers the adults calling the kids out of the water and everyone gathering around transistor radios that broadcast Apollo 11’s historic landing onto the surface of the moon.

“And once they said, ‘Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed,’ all these adults who were kind of strangers to each other were hugging and, like, slapping each other on the back like they were relatives or friends,” López-Alegría, 62, said. “It was really quite a moment.”

Later that day at his family’s home in Mission Viejo, López-Alegría was entranced watching grainy black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon.

The events on that summer day were influential in inspiring López-Alegría’s 20-year career as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and 37-year career in aviation and space flight.

Now López-Alegría will join his childhood heroes as an inductee for one of the industry’s highest honors: the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Though it was announced earlier this year (the ceremony was originally scheduled for May 16), the 2020 ceremony has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. López-Alegría and two other retired astronauts — Pamela A. Melroy and Scott Kelly — will be inducted at a later date.

“They exemplify bravery, dedication and passion, and their hard work has paved the way for what promises to be an unprecedented new decade of space exploration and interplanetary travel,” said Curt Brown, space shuttle astronaut and board chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which oversees the selection process.

Michael López-Alegría
Michael López-Alegría had a 20-year career as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and 37-year career in aviation and space flight.
(Courtesy of NASA)

A place in the Hall of Fame is a rare honor. López-Alegría will be one of only 102 people in a revered company of space greats that includes Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn.

Not that he’d brag about it. López-Alegría is down-to-earth (pun intended) about his accomplishments.

“Let’s be clear: I think the people I looked up to as a kid and even later as a 20-something-year-old — they really accomplished a lot more in terms of being on the cutting edge,” he said. “I mean, people who walked on the moon or flew to the moon or were the first in space — that’s a pretty elite group. I’m honored to be a part of it, but I’m not really in the same league as those guys.”

López-Alegría went on four spaceflights for NASA (three Space Shuttle missions, and one mission as the commander of the International Space Station), holds two NASA records for spacewalks (for the highest number of spacewalks — 10 — and duration of time spent — 67 hours and 40 minutes), and speaks four languages (English, Spanish, Russian and French).

When asked which career highlight he’s proudest of, López-Alegría points to his experience in spacewalks, or extravehicular activity (EVA).

Michael López-Alegría
Michael López-Alegría traverses along the Starboard One truss on the International Space Station during the mission’s third and final scheduled spacewalk in 2002.
(Courtesy of NASA)

“I didn’t set out to specialize in that, but I ended up being in the right place at the right time, and it is sort of the most iconic of the activities that an astronaut does,” he said. “And so, having [those records] is special. I know that [they] will fall someday, and I’d be happy to hand the baton to the next person.”

Born in Madrid and naturalized as a U.S. citizen, López-Alegría moved to the U.S. with his family at age 2 and to Mission Viejo at 8. He graduated from Mission Viejo High School in 1976, then from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1980. Designated a naval aviator, López-Alegría’s childhood dream of becoming an astronaut was reinvigorated at age 25 after he read a magazine article about Navy test pilots segueing into astronauts.

He trained at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot school and earned a master of science in aeronautical engineering before joining NASA in 1992. Three years later, López-Alegría was launched into orbit for his first Space Shuttle mission — the first Spanish-born astronaut to do so.

Among his favorite aspects of space flights are the launch (“an incredible roller coaster, white knuckle thrill ride”), the fun of floating in microgravity, and the consuming but rewarding hours spent on research.

His most tense moment on a spacewalk — and likely the most comical — involved the “least important” work he ever had to do: He and his Russian crewmate were tasked with hitting a golf ball in space for a commercial.

López-Alegría nearly lost his grip on the ball when it was exposed to the vacuum of space,

“And then my next thing was to hold my partner’s feet, like an anchor, while he took a swing, and the bad news is that he shanked it, and we didn’t get much video of it at all,” he said with a laugh.

Initially skeptical of space tourism and commercial space flight, López-Alegría had a change of heart after Iranian American entrepreneur and engineer Anousheh Ansari joined the crew on his last mission in 2006.

Ansari was the fourth space tourist in history and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. Her blog and subsequent book about the experience introduced space travel to people who may not have considered it before.

“Literally a million people were reading her blog, and these are people who would otherwise not care two cents about what was going on in space and human space flight,” López-Alegría said. “This sort of idea of sharing the experience clicked with me, and really ever since then I’ve become a pretty big proponent of this idea of democratization of access to space.”

Following his retirement from NASA in 2012, López-Alegría moved to Washington, D.C., and served as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy group for commercial spaceflight companies. He continues to work in D.C. as an independent consultant for the industry, serves on advisory boards and is a public speaker.

He is excited about the industry’s progress — that there has been “a little of a renaissance in human spaceflight” in the past several years — and suspects that it will be accessible to laypeople sooner than we think.

With the return of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission on Sunday — the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station — that reality just got a little closer.

He hopes that whoever goes into space — whether it’s astronauts or tourists — will get to experience the Overview Effect, a phenomenon where space travelers return with a different perspective about life on Earth.

“When you come back, you definitely feel more connected to other people and to the planet. A little bit more tolerant maybe, a little bit more skeptical about conflict,” López-Alegría said. “It just seems like we all ought to figure out a way to get along together, because we’re all crew members on the same spaceship — planet Earth — and there’s only one of them. And I think the more people who experience it, the better off our planet.”

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