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Dream Big
Not many 3-year-olds know what they want to be when they grow up. But while most children at that age are content simply playing with their toys, Astronaut Mike Fincke talks to workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Mike Fincke was awestruck by men walking on the Moon and imagining himself as one of them.

He's now NASA astronaut Fincke, the flight engineer for Expedition 9 who returned last October from a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station. For the U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, the mission was the ultimate journey that truly made his childhood dream a reality.

Image at Left: Astronaut Mike Fincke, flight engineer for Expedition 9, talks to workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center about his six months aboard the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

The path that led him from being a toddler watching the Apollo program unfold to flying aboard the Space Station came by way of hard work, including earning two bachelor's degrees and two master's degrees in astronautics and science.

In April 1996, he achieved his childhood dream when he was selected by NASA as an astronaut. Inspired by veteran astronauts like John Young, he sees himself as a true example of the American dream.

Now back on Earth, he's sharing his experiences from his time aboard the Space Station and his life-long passion for space exploration. While recently speaking to an auditorium full of workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he expressed his gratitude for the work they are doing to keep the dream of space exploration alive.

Cosmonaut Gennady I. Padalka, Expedition 9 commander, and astronaut Mike Fincke, science officer and flight engineer, in the Unity node of the International Space Station. Image at Right: Expedition 9 Commander Gennady I. Padalka (left), and Flight Engineer Mike Fincke, pose in the Unity node of the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

"We're going to the Moon, we're going to Mars together, and I'm really glad to be here to share it with you," he told the enthusiastic crowd. "What happens here is something very special. We're on a journey as human beings to leave our planet and to explore and to live in the cosmos. That's something that's not just science fiction but it happens here at the Kennedy Space Center."

He thanked them for their hard work and dedication in preparing the Space Shuttle for Return to Flight, and expressed his excitement about flying a future Shuttle mission launched from Kennedy. Fincke pointed out that the launch pads of Kennedy are the only ones from which men have journeyed to the Moon.

His ride to and from the Space Station -- Fincke's first trip into space -- was aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He holds the distinction of being the only U.S. astronaut to fly in space without ever having flown on a U.S. spacecraft (something he hopes to remedy as soon as possible by flying on the Space Shuttle.) Yet throughout his presentation, Fincke's respect and admiration for the Russian space program, and for Expedition 9 Commander Gennady Padalka, his Russian crew mate for six months, was very evident.

Fincke holds yet another distinction: he became a father for a second time while aboard the Space Station when his wife gave birth to their daughter. Thanks to communication technology, he was able share in the event and hear his baby's first cry while he floated high above the Earth.

This image features the eye of Hurricane Ivan at center, partially framed by solar array panels on the International Space Station. During his presentation, Fincke showed both his enthusiasm and his humor. His video from the days aboard the Space Station gave glimpses into both the work and everyday life on the scientific outpost.

Image at Left: Photographed by the Expedition 9 crew, Hurricane Ivan, one of the strongest hurricanes on record, is framed by solar array panels on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

Highlights of the mission included four spacewalks, Space Station maintenance, and science that focused on the study of how muscle and bone are lost in the weightlessness of space. "During our mission, we were first able to characterize the long-term effect of how muscle and bone are lost over time by using an ultrasound machine," said Fincke.

But by far, the biggest and longest lasting impression left by his days aboard the Space Station seems to be the view of planet Earth, in all its beauty -- so much so that he took more than 21,000 pictures of the planet.

Astronaut Mike Fincke after the successful landing in the Soyuz spacecraft. "I was very blessed and very lucky to have a chance to see our planet from 250 miles above," he reflected. "I would just look down and smile -- both on the inside and on the outside -- because it's such a beautiful view."

Image at Right: Astronaut Mike Fincke smiles just after landing in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

But his observations about Earth were deeper than just its loveliness, and he admits seeing it from that perspective has changed him.

"It changed me, honestly it did. I was able to get a perspective that the Space Station and our Space Program is about what human beings can do when they work together constructively."

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center