Mission Specialist Bob Curbeam
Bob Curbeam grew up interested in spacecraft.
He was "a big fan" of rocket designer Wernher von Braun, and studied his work on rockets like the V2 and Saturn V. Curbeam thought that perhaps one day he, too, would design spacecraft.
Image to right: STS-116 mission specialist Bob Curbeam. Credit: NASA
Today, he's riding on one.
Curbeam joined the Navy, and earned his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the United States Naval Academy. He later earned graduate degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. He became a Naval Aviator and went to test pilot school. He was working toward a goal of designing and testing aircraft. And then one day, that changed.
"When I was going through test pilot school, we actually took a field trip down here to Johnson Space Center," he said. "We got to see what the astronauts did and how they did it, and had lunch with Kathy Thornton, who was an astronaut at the time. I'll tell you: After having lunch with her and talking to her, I decided I wanted to do what she did! So here I am."
Curbeam applied to become an astronaut in 1994. He was selected on his first try. He has made two shuttle flights before STS-116. He first flew in 1997 on the STS-85 mission. Then, in 2001, he visited the International Space Station with the STS-98 crew. That early station mission delivered the Destiny laboratory module.
During the STS-116 mission, Curbeam is involved in hands-on work building a spacecraft. He'll participate in all three of the scheduled spacewalks to further assemble the station. During those spacewalks, the P5 truss segment -- an addition to the station's "backbone" beam -- will be installed, and the station's electrical wiring will be reconfigured.
Working on the outside of a space station in orbit is a long way from where Curbeam originally planned to go. It's an example of the importance of education in opening new opportunities.
"I think it's actually kind of funny, because 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," he 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.
"The destination is not exactly the one that I had planned, but because the Navy had given me many opportunities to go to school and I took all of them, I was eligible or competitive, as I said, in this regime without even planning it that way."
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services