Commander Mark Polansky
As a child, Mark Polansky followed the NASA missions that enabled humans to land on the moon, and his career path was set.
Today, he's playing a role in the missions that will make it possible for humans to return to the moon.
Image to right: STS-116 commander Mark Polansky. Credit: NASA
"When I was growing up, it was way back in the '60s. It was the beginning of human spaceflight, and I got pretty excited," he said. "Back then, when I was in school and there would be a launch, they would stop classes, roll in a little black-and-white TV, and you'd get to watch everything live.
"And like any kid, you say, 'Hey, I want to be an astronaut when I grow up!' I sort of just never outgrew that."
Polansky began making that dream a reality when he was in college at Purdue University. Among the school's graduates are the first and last men to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan. Polansky met Cernan when the Apollo 17 commander visited the school. It made the idea of becoming an astronaut seem like a realistic goal.
"I got to meet Gene Cernan during a visit back in the dorm I was at, and it got me thinking, 'You know, this is something that a guy could do,'" he said. "And then, I got to thinking about the background of the astronauts. I eventually started to pursue Air Force ROTC and a career in the Air Force."
Polansky earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Purdue and became an Air Force test pilot. In 1992, he went to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer and research pilot. While he was not yet an astronaut, his main job was to teach astronauts to land the space shuttle and fly T-38 trainer jets.
In 1996, NASA selected Polansky as an astronaut. Five years later he flew his first shuttle mission. The STS-98 flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis was an early visit to the International Space Station. The crew of that mission added the U.S. laboratory Destiny to the station.
Now, almost six years later, Polansky is returning to the station to continue its assembly. But while adding a segment to the station's backbone truss is the immediate goal of the mission, the long-term goal is to help pave the way for the future of exploration.
"I don’t see us proceeding on when we haven't finished what we've started," he said. "We need to go ahead and finish completion of the International Space Station. And once that's all done, then hopefully we'll be in a position that we'll be looking forward to a crew exploration vehicle, launching that successfully, going back to the moon, moving on to bigger and better things with Mars. I just see this as a continuation, a process that gets us farther and farther along the road to exploration."
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services