A.J. "Drew" Feustel is headed to space on March 21, with a couple of tennis racquets in tow. The experienced astronaut will spend six months at the International Space Station, while finding time to fit in some baseline rallies.
"Tennis has always been a part of our family. When I was young my grandparents were into tennis," Feustel said. "Once I met my wife Indira at Purdue University in 1988, I started getting back into tennis because she comes from an avid tennis playing family. She has played and taught tennis for most of her life, even making the Purdue team as a walk-on."
Naturally, the tennis bug extended to his two sons, Ari and Aden.
"Our sons played varsity tennis for Clear Lake High School and taught tennis, as well," Feustel said. "They were ball kids for 10 years in Houston at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships."
The tennis-playing lineage doesn't end there. Feustel's father-in-law Vijay is a passionate tennis fan and goes to the Rogers Cup in Montreal with his wife, Alena.
"Vijay will be 83 this year and although he has suffered from a heart attack and two strokes, he stills plays with us when we visit," Feustel said. "I love tennis. It's a sport for life and there is a lot of passion for the game in our family."
As part of an initiative with USTA's Net Generation, Feustel will play tennis on the International Space Station where the obvious lack of gravity will present some serious challenges.
"For me it's going to seem like the old video game Pong where you hit the ball and it just goes straight and doesn't bounce until it hits a wall" Feustel said. "It's going to be a little challenging. Net Generation provided us with some micro racquets to take to space and some tennis balls. We're going to give it our best shot."
Like almost everyone on the planet and likely outer space, Feustel is a fan of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The Michigan native has been to the US Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. The Australian Open is on his list, but the miles to Melbourne have made it tough to plan—which may seem crazy given he travels to space.
"The space station is only about 250 miles above the planet,” Feustel said. "So it's not that far away when you consider the distance to Australia. And because our rocket goes 17,500 mph it only takes us 8 minutes to get to space. If I get on a plane to go to Australia, it's a whole day of travel to get there."
While long airplane travel may put Feustel off, the tough training regime that pro tennis players live through does not. He has been training for almost two years in preparation for Expedition 55 (his third career space mission) and the hard work amps up once he gets to the International Space Station.
"Certainly it's a physically demanding job. When we are in space we exercise every day for three hours a day," Feustel said. "For athletes that perform at the level of pro tennis players, there's a strong requirement to stay fit, stay focused and physically sharp. The way you do that is by frequent exercise, healthy eating and having a plan. These are the practices that makes for a successful space flight as well."
Feustel and his tennis-playing family hope you will all be following his launch, mission, landing and more on Instagram and Twitter. The launch will be live streamed (coverage begins at at 11:45 a.m. EST on March 21—please check for your local times). Docking at the space station is scheduled for 2:41 p.m. on March 23 with coverage beginning at 2 p.m. EST.