To Infinity…and Back!

On Friday, April 25, 2014,  Bruce Nieschwitz dedicated a gift to Minnesota State University, Mankato that was truly out of this world.

This t-shirt was worn by U.S. Astronaut Kevin Ford as a part of his exercise and conditioning routine while aboard the International Space Station. It was launched aboard an Automated Transfer Vehicle on March 23, 2012, and came back to Earth on March 26, 2013.IMG_4325

Neischwitz, a former Minnesota State Mankato graduate student who today is an athletic trainer for NASA, presented the shirt to the Athletic Training Department in a ceremony in the Centennial Student Union’s Hearth Lounge .

As a member of NASA’s Astronaut Strength, Conditioning and Rehabilitation team (called ASCRs—or Acers—for short), Neischwitz works directly with astronauts, ensuring their pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight safety. The main facets of his role as an athletic trainer are injury prevention and treatment, developing strength and conditioning workouts, and reconditioning the astronauts for their return to Earth.

Neischwitz and the other ASCRs at NASA have one of the most unique positions in the athletic training field.  The astronauts that they work with have to strive diligently to be at the peak of their physical health to endure long stints in zero-gravity environments.

The training he received during his undergraduate days at Kent State University and his graduate studies in Mankato helped prepare him for this unique opportunity.  “My mentors at Kent State helped me to become an athletic trainer,” Neischwitz said. “My mentors at Minnesota State Mankato prepared me to be an athletic trainer.”

Col. Kevin Ford on the International Space Station, honoring athletic trainer Bruce Neischwitz by wearing a Minnesota State Mankato T-shirt.

Col. Kevin Ford on the International Space Station, honoring athletic trainer Bruce Neischwitz by wearing a Minnesota State Mankato T-shirt.

Neischwitz emphasized the importance of the real-world experience he received at Minnesota State Mankato.  “I was considered one of the certified staff, and I had responsibilities that prepared me for things I am facing now,” he said. “You really become an athletic trainer once you start working, not just because you pass a test.”

“Pat Sexton’s program is top-notch; he was my mentor and he taught me things that I use on the job every day—things I will never forget.”

—Bruce Neischwitz

Neischwitz has been working as an athletic trainer at NASA for almost nine years. He says that their job is one of the most demanding because what they do for the astronauts is one of the most important facets of preparation.  “Exercise is really the most valuable thing that they can do to condition their bodies,” he said.

It was as he was working with Col. Kevin Ford in preparation for Ford’s trip to the International Space Station that Neischwitz was given the opportunity to give back to the schools that paved the way to this unique and rewarding profession.

Neischwitz was approached by Ford with an idea for promoting education. Ford requested a shirt that would represent a school program that was significant to Neischwitz.  The first thing Neischwitz thought of was the Athletic Training program at Minnesota State Mankato.

“He asked me to send him one, so I sent him about five!” joked Pat Sexton, director of the Athletic Training program, at the dedication ceremony.

Nieschwitz chose this particular shirt because it was lightweight, a necessity due to the difficulty of actually getting items into space and the fact that it would be used in Ford’s rigorous exercise protocols (Ford did in fact wear the shirt while exercising in-flight).  “Also, I’ve just always really loved that logo,” Nieschwitz admits.

Usually, the items astronauts bring with them are disposed of before returning to Earth; it’s rare for anything to go up to space and come back to Earth. “They generally just put it in the capsule that would be released from the space station, and it burns up on re-entry,” Neischwitz explained. “I was shocked when Kevin just walked into my office with this t-shirt that he had brought back with him. That really meant a lot to me.”

The framed T-shirt with photo and certificate of authenticityDedicating the shirt to Minnesota State Mankato was the first thing that came to his mind.  “I sent Pat Sexton a picture of the shirt and just said ‘Look what made it home,’” Nieschwitz said.  “It was never about me.  It was always about doing something for the University and promoting athletic training and education in general.”

The framed T-shirt, with signed photographs of Ford and a certificate of authenticity, will be hung outside the College of Allied Health and Nursing Dean’s Office for everyone to enjoy.  An endearing note fromFord reads, “Thanks for the important influence you had on my space flight.”