Jayhawk Astronaut Connects With KU Students From Space

Loral O’Hara was more than happy to welcome dozens of Jayhawks into the 13,696-square-feet complex where she lives and works.

And given the conditions — speeding through space at 17,500 mph, 248 miles above the Earth — the astronaut’s inquisitive greeting could have just as easily been received as a real-world engineering challenge.

"Loral O'Hara answers questions from the International Space Station"
A stuffed Jayhawk floats by as NASA Astronaut Loral O'Hara talks with students at KU from the International Space Station during a Q&A session in February 2024. 

“Good afternoon, University of Kansas,” O’Hara says with a smile, from inside the International Space Station. “How do you hear me?”

Her query would be answered with cheers of affirmation from students and faculty from the School of Engineering, assembled in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union to hear insights, observations and encouragement from one of the University of Kansas’ most high-flying alumni.

O’Hara is the fourth Jayhawk to travel into space, following Joe Engle, Ron Evans and Steven Hawley decades earlier. She earned her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2005, started her six-month stay on the ISS in September 2023, and welcomed all the support looking up her way during what would be a 25-minute Q&A on Feb. 9.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “And it’s great to see you.”

“We miss you here in Lawrence,” said Rick Hale, chair of aerospace engineering, who started the questions by asking how his former student had realized her vision of becoming an astronaut.

The quest started with the long-term goal of becoming an astronaut, O’Hara said, which helped guide the many decisions — such as pursuing degrees and conducting research — that would make a difference: “It’s all of these little things that you do along the way and all the things that you learn along the way that really help build up who you become and what you’re able to do.”

Lauren Brinsfield, a sophomore in aerospace engineering, asked about the testing O’Hara experienced in the astronaut program. O’Hara said it starts as a “standardized flow” akin to Astronaut 101 but then is supplemented with critical specifics once a mission is assigned: payload particulars, medical training, and more.

“Each of those flows usually has some kind of exam, or just a ‘knowledge gate,’ we call them, afterward,” O’Hara said. Then there’s training specific to the Soyuz launch vehicle, which was all conducted in Russia.

Reanne Reida, a senior in aerospace engineering, was curious about how training for weightlessness is different from, well, the weightlessness of space. O’Hara said she initially found herself fighting microgravity, but soon came to embrace the new normal, even using it to her advantage: “So now, if I let go of something and it’s drifting away from me, I can kind of look at it and judge if it’s just going to hit the wall and come back. And I don’t have to move to go pick it up.”

And while her memories of microgravity flights while a student at KU remain vivid — using a single finger to push off the floor of a plane to float, even for only a few moments, “was just the coolest feeling,” she said — she now takes such sensations in stride.

“It’s, maybe, like dipping your hand in the ocean versus jumping in the ocean,” she said with a chuckle, effortlessly flipping to sit on the ISS ceiling. “It’s pretty amazing being in extended microgravity.”

Other differences in space:

  • Simple sounds on Earth — falling rain and snow, a splash in the ocean, a breeze in the trees — are noticeably absent, and much missed: “Up here, we just hear machine noise all the time.”
  • A cargo shipment — sending up food including blueberries, apples, peppers, grapefruit and oranges — can bring a welcome awakening of the senses: “The smell just explodes out of the box.”
  • But the regular morning coffee isn’t the same: “You can’t smell it, because it’s in a bag with a straw. It’ll be nice to have a cup of coffee that you can actually smell.”
  • Going for a walk takes practice: “As astronauts … nobody comes in with spacewalk training. We learn that from scratch. So that has represented seven years of training on the ground. And getting to put all that together and actually go out the door and do a spacewalk was just a peak life experience.”

But even amid walking in space and accepting cargo and conducting research and troubleshooting equipment and everything else that keeps the ISS — “this incredible thing that humans built,” O’Hara says — orbiting the Earth, there are still opportunities to stay grounded.  

“We actually have pretty good connectivity,” she said. “We have brief periods of time when we don’t have comm or, basically, Wi-Fi connection, but we’re able to stream music and download books onto our tablet, so that’s what I like to do up here.”

O’Hara also has picked up what she calls “little life skills” in space, including mindfulness, that she hopes to both retain herself and share with others. In particular are the importance of good communication and relationships, she said, and to always strive to improve skills in those areas: “Tough times build relationships, but good relationships can also avert tough times.”

Seeing Earth against the blackness of space, she said, has reinforced her appreciation for the planet’s beauty, complexity and diversity.

“It really gives me a sense of urgency to come back down to Earth and play a part in making it better,” she said, “and I would just love for everybody to get to enjoy that view and recognize what a special place we have to call home.”

During the Q&A, aerospace engineering students saw an astronaut sporting a uniform with familiar colors – crimson short-sleeved shirt, blue utility pants – and spinning a weightless Jayhawk doll that she had brought aboard. But it was O’Hara’s messages, experiences and insights that particularly hit home.

Sam Ross likes knowing that he’s learning from some of the same professors who helped launch O’Hara’s NASA career. Matthew Turner sees evidence that KU engineers can “land anywhere you really put your mind to.”

And Shanya Dorsey? The graduate student from St. Louis entered the auditorium embracing dreams of working in design or structures in the aviation industry, and now she’s thinking about adding another long-term goal, one that could fuel decisions going forward.

“She’s walked the same halls that I’m walking right now,” Dorsey says. “This makes me want to put my application in to become an astronaut.”

O’Hara returned to Earth from her mission on April 6.