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Mon, Dec 11, 2006

Three Navy Astronauts Part Of Discovery's Mission

Continues Tradition Started By Shepard's 1961 Flight

Three service members with the US Navy are part of the crew of NASA's space shuttle Discovery, which is now on its way to a Monday rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Capt. Robert L. Curbeam Jr. and Cmdrs. William A. Oefelein and Sunita L. Williams are part of STS-116, a mission that will continue construction on the station, rewire the orbiting laboratory and add a segment to its integrated truss structure.

The electrical repairs are the crew’s main mission, but they also will be rotating a crewmember out of the space station. Williams will take the place of astronaut Thomas Reiter, and Reiter will travel back with the shuttle crew.

The ability to perform this part of the mission showcases the space shuttle’s versatility, due to its large size, Oefelein said in recent interview.

"I think it just highlights one of the capabilities of the space shuttle system and one of the capabilities that we’re going to continue to have with our next-generation space vehicle," Oefelein said.

This is Oefelein’s first space flight. An Anchorage, AK native, he said he became interested in flying at a young age. Oefelein received his commission from the Navy in 1988 and was designated a naval aviator in 1990. He was selected by NASA in June 1998 and reported to Johnson Space Center in August 1998. After completing two years of training and evaluation, he became qualified for space flight assignment as a pilot. He is assigned as a pilot on the Discovery mission.

Curbeam, a Baltimore native, says he has always been interested in spacecraft. While in test pilot school in the Navy, he visited Johnson Space Center and talked with an astronaut, and that conversation convinced him to pursue a career with NASA, he said.

"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," Curbeam 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."

Curbeam graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1984 with a degree in aerospace engineering. He was selected by NASA in 1994 and after a year of training and evaluation, he was assigned to the computer support branch in the astronaut office. He is a veteran of two space flights and has logged more than 593 hours in space, including three spacewalks.

Williams, of Needham, MA, worked in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency on the Russian contribution to the International Space Station and with the first expedition crew to the station. She is currently assigned to the crew of the 14th expedition to the station, and will join that crew after traveling on Discovery.

"I think just the appeal of people in space and people on the ground being able to relate to those people in space really makes people start to wonder, ‘Wow, what else can we do?’" she said. "So many people in the astronaut office are from different countries and cultures, and every time someone goes up that can identify with a group of people on the ground, you get that group of people wondering, ‘Wow, maybe that could be me one day.’ There are a million possibilities out there."

Williams received her commission from the US Naval Academy in 1987. She was designated a naval aviator in July 1989 and went on several deployments as part of a helicopter squadron. She was selected by NASA in June 1998, and after her training, went to Moscow to work on the International Space Station. She will serve as a flight engineer at the station.

Navy astronauts are a major part of NASA’s history, since America's first manned space flight  piloted by Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr. in 1961.

(Aero-News salutes Army Sgt. Sara Wood, American Forces Press Service)

FMI: www.navy.mil

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