Admit it. When you were a kid, you dreamed about becoming an astronaut. Maybe you were inspired by NASA's Apollo program - or Star Trek. Maybe you dream about it today. And maybe that led you to a career in engineering. Things weren't all that different for two EEs on board the Space Shuttle Endeavor during August's STS-118 mission.
"I didn't know I could be an astronaut until I graduated from college," said STS-118 mission specialist Rick Mastracchio, who collected his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Connecticut and his master's in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was always interested in airplanes, space flight, and their operations, though. After seeing an ad in a magazine, he applied to NASA.
"The Johnson Space Center was looking for engineers to develop things," he said. "They didn't want me as an astronaut but as an engineer." But he wasn't disappointed at all, seeing it as a way to get his foot in the door. Soon, he was at work with the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, and over the next nine years, he supported 17 missions as a flight controller with Mission Control. This inside background was an advantage, as expected, when he was chosen for astronaut training in 1996.
Scott J. Kelly, commander of STS-118, followed a similar path. He always had an ambition to be a military pilot, earning a BSEE from the State University of New York Maritime College and a master's in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His Navy career followed, with 3700 hours in more than 30 different aircraft and time as a test pilot with the Strike Aircraft Test Squadron at the Naval Air Warfare Center, where that BSEE came in handy.
"You need some kind of technical degree to be a test pilot. As a test pilot, you're working as an engineer. Besides the flying, you're doing a lot of the engineering work, helping the full-time engineers figure out what's wrong," he said, and that time at the Naval Air Warfare Center eventually inspired him to apply for astronaut training. Like Mastracchio, Kelly was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996.
Heading for Orbit
Kelly's first launch was as a pilot on board the Discovery and STS-103 in December 1999, where the crew installed new instruments and upgraded systems on the Hubble Space Telescope. Mastracchio's first trip was as a mission specialist on board the Atlantis and STS-106 in September 2000. During that journey, the crew installed batteries, power converters, and even a treadmill on board the International Space Station.
"The work in Mission Control really prepared me as an operator seeing the whole system," Mastracchio said. "We basically outfitted the Russian Service Module. There was a lot of engineering work there. Good, hands-on engineering."
STS-118 proved to be more exciting for both astronauts. Mastracchio, who stayed inside Atlantis during STS-106, took part in three spacewalks this time as he added a truss segment to the ISS, replaced a control movement gyroscope, and moved and installed an antenna.
"I was pretty excited, but you have to keep things very mechanical. I was going outside. I was going to turn some bolts, move some hardware around. But when you think about itâ?¦" he said. "The first time, we were on the night side of Earth, and there was a lightning storm below. You try to work but take a few moments to think about the wonder and beauty. By far, it's the most beautiful thing you could do in space."
"I wouldn't mind doing that," Kelly said, though he was responsible for getting the astronauts into and out of their spacesuits - a task far more difficult than it sounds - and for managing the "big picture" of the EVA missions during the spacewalks themselves. "I can't do it as the commander of the shuttle, though. You have to be there for the entry and the landing. They don't want additional risks."
Back on the Ground
An astronaut's work is never done. When they aren't scheduled and training to go up again, they're assigned to other roles and positions supporting other flights.
"As I get more senior in this office, I fill in more of a leadership role than a technical role, doing all kinds of things," Kelly said, "from developing systems and techniques for vehicles other than the shuttle for ISS docking to other space station systems, like caution warning systems and oxygen- generating systems."
"As an astronaut, you're an engineer first and an astronaut second. When you're not assigned to a mission, you're assigned to technical duties in the astronaut office. They go across a lot of areas, like hardware engineering, software engineering, and human factor design like the development of cockpits and displays," Mastracchio said.
It's no wonder that NASA looks for strong technical backgrounds in all of its candidates.
"That's one of the things we like to do," Mastracchio said, remembering his surprise at seeing that magazine ad. "We like to tell people that they can be an astronaut too."
So maybe it's not too late for you to submit your application.