Remember when a doll of the Czech cartoon character Krtek, or Little Mole, left the Earth’s atmosphere on a Space Shuttle mission? The person to thank for that is Indira Feustel, wife of US astronaut Drew Feustel. Indira, who describes herself as the leader of Team Feustel, has a Czech-born mother and is extremely proud of that connection – as she told me when I spoke to her at the family home in Houston, Texas.
Could you tell us please about your Czech background? What part of the country did your family come from?
“My mum, Alena, is Czech and I still have many of my relatives in the Czech Republic.
“She was born in Znojmo. She was 15 years old when her parents and siblings moved to Brno.
“So I still have relatives in Znojmo, Brno, Plzeň, Prague; I’m sure I’m missing a few cities.
“But definitely my heart is just really, really happy there when I go back to the Czech Republic. It feels like home.”
Your mum left when she was 19. What were the circumstances of her departure from Czechoslovakia?
“I’m pretty sure my mom said that even on the plane she had a dictionary that had – somehow, I don’t know how – Hindi, Czech and English.”
“Love, for sure. It was during Communist times and one of the only ways you could leave legally is if you were married to a foreigner.
“I’m going to back up [laughs]: My dad, Vijay, was spending the summer at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno and he went to drop off a telegram at the post office.
“I don’t know whether it was love at first sight, but he spotted my Mum and noted that she was the only one who spoke a little English. They started dating. Later, they married by proxy, with my grandfather standing in when my Dad had to leave for Nashville. Mum had to wait for certain documentation before she could meet up with my Dad.
“Afterward, Mum left for Nashville, and that’s where I was born.”
What has she told you about her beginnings in the States and how she began building a new life there?
“You know, I think it was a huge culture shock. She was 19 years old. I can’t even imagine.
“I’m pretty sure she said that even on the plane she had a dictionary that had – somehow, I don’t know how – Hindi, Czech and English.
“Or maybe she had two dictionaries.
“I see happy pictures and everything like that, but I think it was a tough transition.
“And at the time, if I’m not mistaken, interracial marriage was illegal.”
In what country?
“In the US. I think Loving vs. Virginia [landmark court ruling overturning ban on interracial marriage] was 1967.”
What were the Czech influences on the way she brought you up?
“She would sing all the Czech nursery rhymes to me [laughs]. The national anthem even – I knew Kde domov můj. And the little finger plays: Vařila myška kašičku, na zeleným rendlíčku, for example.
“We just felt very honoured to have met Mr. Zdeněk Miler. When we did get to meet him it just seemed ‘full circle’.”
“She would read all the Czech books. I remember [comic book character] Ferda Mravenec and Krtek [Little Mole] and the other characters.
“I was very fortunate in that way. AND she spoke to me in Czech.”
Were there other Czechs in Nashville? I know Czechs got everywhere, but still Nashville seems a bit out of the way.
“I’m not sure whether at the time she had met any Czechs but I don’t think so.”
“Then they moved to Kentucky, where my dad was doing an assistant professorship, and I’m not sure about there either.
“But eventually when they immigrated to Canada, in Cornwall, Ontario, where I grew up from the age of I think four or five, my mum had a best friend there.
“That was wonderful. Ria and Miroslav Pruša. And they are now in Praha, so every time I visit I try to meet with them.
“And so my mum would be chatting with Ria on the phone every day, and I think that really helped my Czech as well.
“Yes, it was nice for her.”
When did you first visit your mum’s homeland? And did you come to the Czech Republic with her?
“My mum took me back when I was a baby and then for a while my mum and dad made sure we came every summer. While they could – it wasn’t easy with four children.
“Yes, I would visit my Babi [grandmother] and my Dodi [grandfather] – we called him Dodi – and aunts, uncles and cousins.
“So it was great.”
Coming more up to date, your husband Drew Feustel is a well-known astronaut. On his first mission in 2009, on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, he carried the Czech flag and a copy of the poet Jan Neruda’s collection Cosmic Songs. The book had been selected, I guess for him, by the Astronomical Society at the Czech Academy of Sciences. How come Drew had agreed to carry something Czech with him? Why was he carrying Czech things?
“We were just very fortunate to be able to close that loop and bring the portrait to space for Petr Ginz and for all the people that died in the Holocaust and for the survivors.”
“He wanted to take up things that were very meaningful to us.
“And because of my Czech and Indian heritage, and being Canadian, and being American, and Drew having German ancestry, we made sure we took something special from every country.
“We wanted to bring all the citizens from those countries aboard as well in a certain way, so I hope that they enjoyed that.”
Ten years ago your husband also took a toy of Krtek, the Little Mole, which is of course a very famous and much loved cartoon character, with him on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. How did that come about, that he took Krtek?
“Well after 2009 when we had worked with the Czech Academy of Sciences they were wonderful to want to be involved again, and we did some brainstorming.
“The first item [Neruda’s Cosmic Songs] was maybe geared more toward the adults.
“And for the second mission we did some brainstorming with Jiří Drahos, Pavel Suchan, Milan Haloušek and Mirek Konvalina and eventually Krtek won the day, because of how beloved he was.
“Everyone knew Krtek.”
I was reading that your husband gave a smaller copy of Krtek [which he had also taken to space] to his creator Zdeněk Miler?
“Oh yes, that brings up a lot of emotion.
“We just felt very honoured to have met Mr. Zdeněk Miler.
“When we did get to meet him it just seemed ‘full circle’ – the fact that he wrote the story of Krtek going into space in a rocket and then actually seeing this, being part of the mission and watching his creation go to space
“And how that was inspirational for the kids, for the families – I think for all of us there was just so much joy involved in all of that mission.”
What was his response when he got this copy from your husband?
“There are photos of this moment. His beautiful smile just lit up his face – he was so happy.
“That’s what I remember, and it touched my heart.”
Rather poignantly your husband also brought to space a copy of a drawing by the Jewish boy Petr Ginz from the Terezín ghetto, entitled Moon Landscape. For people who don’t know, what was the story of that picture and its journeys to space?
“Oh I hope I do this justice, because it is a very emotional topic.
“I went to the bathroom and just burst into tears. It’s not easy to launch people on a rocket ship.”
“Petr was a Czech Jewish boy who was sent to Terezín. With some of the boys there he came up with a magazine called Vedem, which means I think, On Our Way.
“With those tragic circumstances that they were in, they still found this ray of hope, this creativity of what they would like the world to look like.
“He must have wanted to imagine Earth from the Moon.
“My mom had told me his story a while back, because the Czech Republic put out a Petr Ginz stamp.
“So I had these stamps that are displayed in our house for a long time.
“And then I know [astronaut] Ilan Ramon brought a copy of Moon Landscape for Petr, for all the people who perished in the Holocaust… [Ramon and the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Colombia were killed in an accident on re-entry in 2003].
“So it meant a lot for us to close that loop.
“At the time we reached out to Ilan’s wife and she was on board. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel [which possesses the original drawing] was on board.
“And we were just very fortunate to be able to close that loop and bring the portrait to space for Petr and for all the people that died in the Holocaust and for the survivors.
“It’s hard to talk about. There’s just so much you can say about all of it and there are never enough words.
“And we always have to remember what people went through.”
My wife is concerned if I go on a work trip to London. How do you deal with the fact that your husband is taking part in these dangerous missions, and spending 200 days on the International Space Station?
“So when I married Drew he was a Purdue University student, like I was.
“When we started dating I think he mentioned over lunch something about wanting to be an astronaut.
“I just thought, Oh, that’s everybody’s sort of childhood dream, and I didn’t really pay much attention to that.
“And then one day he came home here in Texas – and we were only supposed to be in Texas for a year – and said, I think I want to become an astronaut.
“Right there I just had this faith. I thought, This is it, and I saw my life flash before my eyes, my previous version of what I thought it was going to look like, spending the rest of my life in Canada, my family and friends there, my work, it all flashed by my eyes very quickly and I thought, OK, this is what we’re going to be doing now.
“Then with the first mission I call it the fear of the unknown.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be like. All I knew was that I had our boys, who I was holding onto, and I was praying for a good day. Drew was happy to be fulfilling his lifelong dream so keeping that in mind definitely helped.
“The second mission was the fear of the known, and it’s almost a little bit worse.
“But I just remember that it’s I think pure adrenalin at that time.
“Your body goes into a little bit of shock, I think.
“With the third mission, when Drew went up in the Soyuz – and I think you’re the first person to hear this – you hold it together for your kids… And then I went to go to the bathroom and was sitting on the toilet and just burst into tears.
“So you know, you’re human.
“It’s not easy to launch people, your loved one, on a rocket ship.
“I think we just do the best that we can with the circumstances we have, and we try to be strong for everyone around us.”
You and Drew have two sons, Ari and Aden. Have they been to the Czech Republic? And do they take any interest at all in Czech culture?
“Yes, we’ve brought them back a few times. For each PR trip, for sure, but also just on our own for family trips.
“What surprised me the most – they’re now 25 and 27 – was when Aden came up to me when he was in high school, he might have been 15, and he said to me, Mum, I’d like to go to the Czech Republic, but I’d like to go alone [laughs].
“Something about it just hit him in the heart and soul, and I totally understand that.
“So with one of my Czech relatives, Jiří Červený, we planned it and organized it so he could go for six weeks.
“And then Aden again, he’s the younger one, he, most recently, for his gap year, spent six months in the Czech Republic and did a semester at UJOP, at the same wonderful language school that I’ve gone to for intensive language courses.
“So we’ll have to try to get Ari to take that course someday, and Drew as well.”