Minnesota astronaut leaves for International Space Station

- An astronaut from Minnesota blasted off for a six month stay on the International Space Station, and a local university had a vested interest in watching the launch.

Behind the pine curtain on the campus of St. Johns University, all eyes are on a former student who's going where no former student has gone before.

"I think it's neat. I wish he was taking me along," physics and astronomy professor Tom Kirkman said.

He was one of dozens of current students and professors who filled the auditorium at the science center to watch one of their predecessors do the unprecedented.

"Very exciting. He was just a kid when I came here. He still looks an awful lot like the same kid except with upgraded hair color," physics professor Dean Langley said.

Mark Vande Hei majored in physics at the university before graduating in the late 80's and eventually landing at NASA.

Fox9 spoke to him via Skype after he was selected to go to the ISS for a six month stint two years ago.

"I think it will be an amazing experience, just adapting to space, being able to look out the window anytime and see the earth 240 miles below you," Vande Hei said at the time.

Now the wait is finally over.

After a last minute group hand shake for good luck, the nerve-racking ride into orbit took off from Kazakhstan around 4:15 p.m. central standard time.

Vande Hei's former professors hope the launch doesn't just lift the spirits of their current students.

"The chance to do the ultimate exploration, explore the ultimate questions, what makes us human...what makes reality a reality, what makes it all worth it," CSB/SJU senior Ryan McCanna said.

They hope it broadens their horizons and lets them know when it comes to their futures, the sky's the limit.

"It opens up that these are real possibilities for them too. He was a kid like they are when he was here. Who knows what directions they'll go," Langley said.

Vande Hei planned to take some mementos from both St. John's and Benilde-St. Margaret - where he went to high school - with him into space.

He is scheduled to talk to a physics class at St. Johns from the space station in January.

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