Shuttle Discovery: Commander, Pilot Ready for Complex Mission
Discovery shuttle commander Mark Polansky (left) and pilot William Oefelein pose for a photo while training for their STS-116 mission.
CREDIT: NASA. Click to enalrge.
When NASA's shuttle Discovery launches toward the International Space Station (ISS) this week, you can be sure that a self-described Jersey boy and Alaskan explorer will be at the helm.
Commanding Discovery's STS-116 mission to rewire the space station's power grid is veteran shuttle astronaut Mark Polansky of Edison, New Jersey. In the pilot's seat next to him will be first-time spaceflyer William Oefelein: Alaska's first orbit-bound astronaut.
Ahead of them is a challenging 12-day spaceflight to deliver a new piece of the ISS, activate a primary power and cooling system for the first time, and replace a station crewmember. NASA mission managers have billed STS-116 the most complex shuttle flight to date.
"I don't think that it's any more or less important to successfully accomplish this mission than it is for any other," Polansky said in an interview, adding that each ISS construction flight depends on its predecessor. "If we don't get the rewiring done for the station to get into its normal power grid, it's going to be hard for any subsequent mission to get done the things they need to do."
Polanksy, Oefelein and their five STS-116 crewmates plan to launch towards the ISS on Dec. 7 just before 9:36 p.m. EST (0236 Dec. 8 GMT). The spaceflight will mark NASA's third shuttle flight this year and its first night launch since the
Edison native makes good...in space
For Polansky, it was a chance encounter with Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan while still a student at Purdue University that set him on a path to the U.S. Air Force and space.
"[I]t got me thinking, 'You know, this is something that a guy could do,'" Polanksy, who's call sign is "Roman," said in a NASA interview.
Polansky, 50, joined NASA's ranks in 1992 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot. By 1996, he was an astronaut and, in 2001, served as pilot during NASA's STS-98 mission to deliver the U.S. Destiny laboratory to the ISS. STS-116 will be Polansky's second trip to space and his first as mission commander.
"So it's sort of like being both a player and a coach at the same time," said Polansky, who is one of only two veteran spaceflyers--spacewalker Robert Curbeam is the other--among the STS-116 crew.
The two shuttle veterans have worked to go over the finer points of orbital life with their crewmates, including basic activities like sleeping and brushing your teeth, Polansky has said.
The success of NASA's last two shuttle missions, which returned the agency's three-orbiter fleet to flight status and resumed ISS construction, leave Polansky confident of STS-116's success, but there will always be risk.
"If anybody says we can take the risk completely out, they're just blowing smoke," he said, adding that he believes the gains of human spaceflight outweigh its hazards.
A fan of ice hockey, snow skiing and light aircraft flight, Polansky is married to wife Lisa, with whom he has a daughter, but keeps space in his heart for his hometown.
"Sure, I am a Jersey boy," he said in a NASA interview, recalling Edison. "My mom still lives there."
Built for exploration
Unlike his shuttle commander, Oefelein did not see an astronaut career ahead of him while growing up in Anchorage, Alaska.
"I never really, as a kid, wanted to become an astronaut," Oefelein said in a NASA interview. "I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore."
Oefelein first took to the air on his own flying gliders at age 14, then moved on to floatplanes and ultimately to the U.S. Navy in 1988, where the now 41-year-old aviator holds the rank of commander.
Oefelein--his crewmates call him "Billy O"--joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1998, where his youth in Alaska served as an asset.
"I guess it gave me an advance in the winter training for sure because I think it was just another camping trip to me," shuttle pilot told reporters, adding that he never realized you could go camping in 80 degree heat because he'd never seen such days. "I remember, one time, getting bogged down on a dirt [landing] strip and I had to get out and push the airplane out of the mud. But that's flying in Alaska for you."
In addition to his duties as Discovery's pilot, Oefelein will also serve as a coordinator or sorts for the STS-116 mission's three spacewalkers during their ISS assembly work. He also served in the Advanced Vehicles Branch of NASA's Astronaut Office, as well as the CAPCOM--or spacecraft communicator--branch, during the eight years as an astronaut, throughout which time his family made many sacrifices.
"They were pretty happy," Oefelein said as he recalled telling his family of his STS-116 assignment. "It was good news."
Oefelein said he is looking forward toward his first spaceflight and applying the lessons he learned while growing up in Alaska.
"There's a lot of engineering that can come out of working in adverse conditions, and that's a lot like building a space station," Oefelein said. "The things you can learn out of how to build something in space, that's a skill that you can now take with you to the Moon and to Mars."
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