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Military Astronaut Trainees Excited, Ready

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, Greenbelt, Md., Sept. 16, 2004 – When Air Force Maj. James Dutton Jr. returns from his first space mission, he hopes to bring back a U.S. flag -- but not just any U.S. flag.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Cassidy, Air Force Maj. James Dutton Jr. and Marine Corps Maj. Randy Breznik are three of the four servicemembers selected as candidates for NASA's astronaut training program. They visited the Goddard Space Flight Center Sept. 15 as part of their orientation. They have been touring NASA facilities around the country. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

He's to focus on the one planted on the moon 35 years ago by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. At least, that's the request Dutton's oldest son, J.P., 7, made after learning his father was selected in May as one of 14 new candidates to begin astronaut training this fall.

Dutton, and fellow servicemembers Marine Corps Maj. Randy Breznik, and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Cassidy were among the new trainee class visiting here Sept. 15. The fourth military officer, Army Maj. Robert Kimbrough, was called away. Recently the group has been touring NASA facilities to learn about the research and work being done. The candidates reported to NASA for training Aug. 6.

Dutton, a pilot, said he and other astronauts had already spent a week in Maine for survival training. They also traveled to the Johnson Space Center, in Houston. There, they trained in the T-38, a small aircraft that NASA uses to help pilots maintain their flight proficiency and where nonpilots learn navigation skills.

This fall or early next year, Dutton said he'll be excited to begin academic training on the orbiter, space station and space shuttle systems. For him, that training will begin the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to explore space.

"As a young kid I was just fascinated with space," Dutton explained. "The thought of being able to go into outer space and the idea of being able to work on something that would benefit all mankind is just amazing."

Cassidy noted there is "no secret recipe" for becoming an astronaut, even though most candidates hold advanced degrees in math, science and technology. For example, he has a bachelor's in mathematics from the U.S. Naval Academy, and a master's in Ocean Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The key part is just to get the interview," he said, adding, then it's a plus to be really nice. "They (the selection board) really look for nice people. So I guess I'm a nice guy."

Duane Ross, who manages the astronaut-selection process and candidate basic training program, agreed. He said it takes a mix of attributes to make a good astronaut candidate. He stressed "education, work experience and then all the other outside activities people get involved with that gives them a good broad, diverse background."

"After you've gone through the paper screening and finally bring folks down to interview for the program, what you're really looking for are nice people, people who can get along with everybody from kids on up to members of Congress."

Marine pilot Breznik had felt the odds were too great for him to be selected. But he said he was "was pleasantly surprised, because I never thought it was something that was ever going to happen.

"The thousands of people that apply, the caliber of people that they choose from is something you dream about doing, but you never think it's going to happen," he noted.

Countering the dream is the inherent danger facing astronauts. The military astronauts said NASA's past tragedies had no bearing on their decision, even though they had all applied one month after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy Feb. 1, 2003. Five of the seven astronauts killed aboard that flight were serving U.S. military officers.

"Being around aviation, I realize that accidents do happen," Breznik said. "For me personally, it didn't shake my confidence in the space program; however, it just reiterates how dangerous space travel is."

Added Dutton: "We each had a chance to think the Columbia tragedy through. Risk is inherent to exploration, and space flight is dangerous, we know that."

"But it's worthwhile, and something that's worthwhile is worth taking the risk," he said.

Cassidy emphasized that "being in the military, you understand about mitigating risks and choosing the course of action that will best mitigate that risk." He said NASA has done a good job of mitigating risks with "good solid engineering practices and safety checks."

Meanwhile, the astronauts said they are anxious to get on with their training and one day finally travel to space. "To see our planet from the outside will be just amazing," Dutton said, "to see how incredible this planet is in the middle of the universe."

"NASA has been very honest with us and said it's going to be a few years, so just enjoy the training, noted Cassidy. "But I know it will happen one day."

That far-off day can't come too soon for Cassidy's 5-year-old son. Cassidy said after only a week of training, he was met at the door each day by Colin, who excitedly asked the same questions over and over:

"Did you go to the moon, today, Dad? Did you go to the moon today? I know you didn't go yesterday, but did you go today, Dad?"

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