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Three Navy Astronauts Set For Discovery Mission

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2006 – Three Navy astronauts are part of the crew for NASA’s latest Discovery shuttle mission, which is set to launch at 9:35 p.m. Eastern Time today.

Navy Capt. Robert L. Curbeam Jr. and Cmdrs. William A. Oefelein and Sunita L. Williams will be on the space shuttle Discovery when it launches tonight toward the International Space Station, where the astronauts will continue construction on the station, rewiring the orbiting laboratory and adding a segment to its integrated truss structure.

NASA reported on its Web site a 60 percent chance of weather prohibiting the scheduled liftoff, but all systems on the shuttle are functioning normally.

The electrical repairs are the crew’s main mission, but they also will be rotating a crew member out of the space station. Williams will take the place of astronaut Thomas Reiter, and Reiter will travel back with the shuttle crew. The ability to perform this part of the mission showcases the space shuttle’s versatility, due to its large size, Oefelein said in an interview on NASA’s Web site.

“I think it just highlights one of the capabilities of the space shuttle system and one of the capabilities that we’re going to continue to have with our next-generation space vehicle,” Oefelein said.

This is Oefelein’s first space flight. An Anchorage, Alaska, native, he said he became interested in flying at a young age. Oefelein received his commission from the Navy in 1988 and was designated a naval aviator in 1990. He was selected by NASA in June 1998 and reported to Johnson Space Center in August 1998. After completing two years of training and evaluation, he became qualified for space flight assignment as a pilot. He is assigned as a pilot on today’s Discovery mission.

Curbeam, a Baltimore native, has always been interested in spacecraft, he said in his interview on the Web site. While in test pilot school in the Navy, he visited Johnson Space Center and talked with an astronaut, and that conversation convinced him to pursue a career with NASA, he said.

“I started out on this journey not with the goal of being an astronaut, but with the goal of learning enough about airplanes so I could go and help design better ones,” Curbeam said. “It just so happened that when I did meet an astronaut and speak with her at length, it sounded interesting to me. It sounded like something that I wanted to do. And I was fortunate enough to have pursued education through enough of my life that I had the qualifications necessary to be competitive.”

Curbeam graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1984 with a degree in aerospace engineering. He was selected by NASA in 1994 and, after a year of training and evaluation, he was assigned to the computer support branch in the astronaut office. He is a veteran of two space flights and has logged more than 593 hours in space, including three spacewalks.

Williams, of Needham, Mass., worked in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency on the Russian contribution to the International Space Station and with the first expedition crew to the station. She is currently assigned to the crew of the 14th expedition to the station and will join that crew after traveling on the Discovery.

This is Williams’ first flight mission. In her interview on the Web site, she said she feels extremely lucky to be part of a mission that will be construction-intensive. She said she recognizes the dangers of flying in space, but she enjoys the inspiration it brings to others.

“I think just the appeal of people in space and people on the ground being able to relate to those people in space really makes people start to wonder, ‘Wow, what else can we do?’” she said. “So many people in the astronaut office are from different countries and cultures, and every time someone goes up that can identify with a group of people on the ground, you get that group of people wondering, ‘Wow, maybe that could be me one day.’ There are a million possibilities out there.”

Williams received her commission from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987. She was designated a naval aviator in July 1989 and went on several deployments as part of a helicopter squadron. She was selected by NASA in June 1998, and after her training, went to Moscow to work on the International Space Station. She will serve as a flight engineer at the station.

Navy astronauts are a major part of NASA’s history, with the first manned space flight being piloted by Navy Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr. in 1961.

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Related Sites:
The Space Shuttle


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