Pilot Bill Oefelein
Bill Oefelein didn't plan to become an astronaut. But what better way is there to do the two things he wanted to do -- fly and explore?
Image to right: STS-116 pilot Bill Oefelein. Credit: NASA
"I grew up in Alaska, and I always liked exploring," Oefelein said. "I was in the Scouts and did a lot of camping and hiking. As I got older, given the vastness of the state and the lack of roads and all, it became apparent to me the best way to get out and explore was by flying airplanes. So I worked hard and got a pilot's license, and got a floatplane rating and was able to kind of do some of my exploring that way. I started thinking, 'Well, maybe somebody will actually pay me to fly airplanes for them.'"
He earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University and joined the U.S. Navy. He became a test pilot, and, later, an instructor at the United States Naval Test Pilot School. He also earned a master's degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.
"A lot of folks who do that test pilot work also go on to fly space shuttles," he explained. "I started talking to a bunch of those folks, and at that point it just seemed natural for me to go to the next phase and try to fly space shuttles. I never really, as a kid, wanted to become an astronaut. I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore. I always liked math and science. And I just kind of found myself in a position about 10 years ago [when I said to myself], 'Hey, I can use all this background of test aviation and exploration, and maybe help fly a space shuttle for NASA someday.'"
Oefelein was selected as an astronaut in 1998, and shuttle mission STS-116 is his first spaceflight. He recalls being called in to see the chief of the astronaut office, and being told about his first flight assignment. "They asked me, 'Hey, you still interested in flying in space?' I said, 'Sure.' I was pretty excited and went home and told my family. NASA wanted to get the media announcement out, I think, on the Monday. So [my family] had to be hush-hush about it for the weekend. Maybe the hardest part about that was not sharing it with the rest of my family, beyond just my immediate family."
The STS-116 mission involves some complicated work. The International Space Station must be rewired to allow for further assembly. Some people might see the challenging task as a major obstacle on the way to returning to the moon. But Oefelein explains that, after growing up in Alaska, challenges are just a matter of perspective. "The people that stay up there see what other people see as obstacles -- no roads and all that -- as opportunities to get out and explore, develop new roads or develop new communication systems or somehow connect the remote parts of the state, to develop new technologies or employ existing ones like airplanes to connect the state," he said. "I think that just makes you more of an explorer, when you see things like that, and you don't see them as obstacles but opportunities to get out there and apply existing technologies or develop new ones."
Oefelein may have been talking about Alaska, but his words seem very appropriate for his new frontier as well.
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services