Growing Up to Be Astronauts

HDTV and the NASA channel on cable brought yesterday’s spacewalk right into my living room. I watched with curiosity and anticipation as Danny Olivas zoomed his helmet camera in on the piece of thermal blanket that he had been assigned to staple and pin back into place. He tucked the blanket into place, and then got out the stapler. I had pictured a staple gun, but this surgical stapler was about the size of his thumb! It got away from him once, bouncing away on its tether until he corralled it again. After the staples came the “hat pins” that he wove through the blanket and poked into the tiles.

Then Danny helped Jim Reilly with the installation of hardware on the outside of the Destiny Lab to allow hookup of a new system to reclaim oxygen from waste water. This involved lining up a metal plate so the bolts would line up properly with the holes. Those of us who have struggled with “some assembly required” shelving are very familiar with this kind of problem! When the two of them finished that task, they tackled the retraction of the stubborn P6 solar arrays. Using a tool dubbed “the hockey stick” they “fluffed” the blankets, allowing the crew inside to command them to fold into the boxes little by little. Though it was a drawn-out and somewhat tedious task, JR said that he considered the view from out there the most memorable of his life.

I hope some kids out on summer break witnessed these stellar repairmen in action. Maybe some of them will be inspired to pursue becoming astronauts themselves one day. Spacewalker Danny Olivas was inspired after a family vacation when he was 7. He told the Houston Chronicle that his father, who worked on rocket propulsion systems, took him on a tour of Johnson Space Center where he examined an old rocket engine. A telescope his parents found at a garage sale sealed the future astronaut’s fate. He got a degree in mechanical engineering from UT-El Paso, a masters’ degree from UH, and a doctorate from Rice. He then went to work at JSC on spacesuit design, and later as an engineer at JPL in California. He was selected as an astronaut in 1998.

Jim Reilly also became an astronaut in 1998. “I was one of those kids that followed every mission, every flight NASA ever flew,” he told reporter Mark Carreau.

Sunday’s spacewalkers, Pat Forrester and Steve Swanson, didn’t consider careers in space until they had graduated from college. Forrester followed his father’s footsteps and attended West Point, where he got an engineering degree. He became interested in flying, earned a masters’ degree in aeronautical engineering, and then went to the Navy’s test pilot school. It was there that he thought of becoming an astronaut. He first got a job with NASA at JSC doing software and robotic work, and was selected as an astronaut in 1996.

Swanny thought about a career in space while he was at grad school in computer science at Florida Atlantic University. Like Forrester, he first took a job at NASA JSC, and then was selected as an astronaut in 1998, the same year as Olivas and Reilly and also Pilot “Bru” Archambault. The new Expedition 15 crewmember, Clay Anderson, also first took a job with NASA at JSC, and then became an astronaut in 1998. Do you see a pattern here?! (Major in engineering, learn to fly, accept a job with NASA, then apply to become an astronaut.)

Would you or your child like to “grow up” to explore Mars? Maybe you should consider a family vacation to Johnson Space Center, or a trip to Space Camp or to see a Space Shuttle launch or land! A telescope makes a great gift, and don’t forget to stock up on space books for summer reading (see NSS’s Reading Space for recommendations) for yourself and the kids.

Sunday’s spacewalk starts around 2 PM Central Time. The hatches between the ISS and Shuttle will be closed on Monday night at 5:23 PM, with undocking Tuesday at 9:40 AM, and landing on Thursday at 12:52 CDT. Expedition 15 mission continues into the fall with a schedule full of activities. Space offers plenty of opportunities for inspiration!

Marianne Dyson

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