by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff
While the Philadelphia PAL Cadets were holding a picnic/reunion in Pennsylvania’s Washington State Park the weekend before Labor Day, one former member was in Cape Canaveral, FL, awaiting his first trip into space as a member of STS 115 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
Delays for equipment malfunctions and weather concerns kept Captain Chris Ferguson, USN, a former PAL Cadet drummer, and five fellow astronauts earthbound until September 9. Twelve days later, STS-115 completed its mission at the International Space Station and made a safe landing in Florida. After returning to his home in Houston, TX, Cpt Ferguson graciously sat down and answered a few questions.
Ferguson was born and grew up in Philadelphia, PA. In 1976, he joined Philadelphia PAL Cadets, playing typani (and carrying it as he made it a point to note), then progressing to triple-tenors and eventually snare his last year in 1979. After joining the drum corps, PAL director, Jim Bell, encouraged Ferguson to join Archbishop Ryan High School’s band where he was also a drummer.
Ferguson received a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University in 1984 and a masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. He and his wife Sandra have three children and his hobbies include golf, running, woodworking and playing drums for Max Q, a rock and roll band.
Harry Heidelmark: What do you remember of your drum corps days?
Chris Ferguson: Very late summer evenings of practice, the bus rides (especially the part about trying to get a good night’s sleep on the road), the comaraderie and lasting friendships. I learned later in my Navy days that you tended to remember the most about the times in life when you were challenged; I remembered a lot about my drum corps days.
HH: Did you also march in your high school’s band?
CF: Yes, Archbishop Ryan had a pretty good band for a parochial school. I was the drum major as a senior and played the drums before that. I was involved in drum corps before high school, but never thought I would be in the school band. I distinctly remember the director of the drum corps, Jim Bell, pretty much telling me that I had to join the school band. Seemed like a strange request (demand), but I obliged and was glad I did.
HH: Did you play any instruments after high school and drum corps?
CF: On and off. Currently, I play drums for MAX Q, a classic rock band comprised of astronauts.
HH: What led you to military service?
CF: The short answer is the scholarship I was offered by Navy ROTC. A better question would be, “What made me stay in military service?” The answer lies in the string of challenges military life presented, the opportunity to fly high performance aircraft and the educational opportunities.
HH: As a pilot, what aircraft have you flown?
CF: The list is pretty long compliments of my test pilot training. Most of my flight time is in the F-14 Tomcat, followed by the T-38 which I still fly regularly here in Houston.
HH: Have you been involved in either of the Gulf Wars?
CF: I deployed to the Gulf a couple times in the early- and mid-90s and flew missions in defense of the no-fly zones imposed after the Gulf War. It was considered a combat environment, but personally, I was never involved in offensive operations.
HH: Where you recruited for the space shuttle program?
CF: Selected would be a better word. The selection process is usually held every two years and takes over a year to complete. After two failed attempts, I was selected on my third try. The lesson here — persistence pays off.
HH: How would you describe the weightlessness of space?
CF: Unique. It take the body a couple of days to adapt to the new sensation, which defies any previous experience. Malaise is common(not feeling quite “right”). It took me about 36 hours to adapt after which I could do just about anything . . . ceiling up; ceiling down . . . it just didn’t matter. We always tried to maintain a feet-to-the-floor attitude while in the space station as momentary bouts of disorientation were common in some of the large volumes.
HH: Do you believe any part of your drum corps experience prepared you for military service?
CF: Yes, PAL Cadets had a military overtone . . . uniforms (at least initially) and haircuts during the season were very “military.” I had a leg up on my military peers as I was used to short hair and marching.
HH: Did you follow the drum corps activity after you stopped marching?
CF: For awhile, then competing priorities took over. Recently, however, my children have become involved with music at school and we’ve attended the “eXcitement of Sound” competition here in Houston on several occasions. The kids love it!
HH: What do you think of modern drum corps and do you have a favorite?
CF: The Bridgemen of Bayonne were my favorties back when I was following closely. Modern drum corps is great, but different than the drum corps I grew up with.
HH: What is your fondest corps memory?
CF: The trips to DCI East, Orlando, Lynn, MA, and the energy of big competitions . . . oh, and just hanging out with a great group of folks for the whole summer. We still keep in touch, too. PAL Cadets just held a reunion compliments of one of our former members and instructors, Tony Arena. I would have gone, too, but our first launch attempt was scheduled on the same day.
HH: What part of the drum corps activity did you like the most?
CF: I didn’t know jack about music the first day I showed up for “practice.” I wanted to learn, though, and the ad in the paper said that “no prior experience necessary.” It was a bit humbling at first, but the best part of it all was learning to play the drums. Of course, some of my peers would question if I learned anything at all, but that was part of the fun, too.
HH: What instruments do your children play and would you support them marching in a drum corps?
CF: Absolutely! My oldest is a first-rate flute player and my son plays trumpet in the symphonic band in middle school. The youngest has his eyes on my drums which I hope to pass along to him soon. Unfortunately, drum corps isn’t quite the big attraction here in Houston.
HH: Are you scheduled to pilot future shuttle missions?
CF: Perhaps I should know more in a couple months.
HH: Many thanks for your time.
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Publisher’s note: This article originally appeared in the November 2006 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 35, Number 14), mailed to subscribers on October 19, 2006.