Astronaut sees role for Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Alaska's first astronaut, Bill Oefelein, was in Kenai Monday as a guest of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. He spoke to students in Kenai about modern space exploration.

Oefelein said he sees a unique opportunity for Alaskans of their generation.

"You become an explorer living in the state here," he said. "We have great potential up here."

Oefelein listed several Alaska advantages. The state is a great place to test harsh climate conditions or launch polar orbit satellites. It has world-class researchers and some great facilities, such as the Kodiak Launch Facility.

But the spirit of the Alaska people may be even more important.

"To explore space, you have to have a desire to go out and explore the unknown," he said.

"They say the Space Shuttle is like camping in space. Boy, I've camped a lot in the backcountry."

Alaskans' experience with remoteness, self reliance, harsh weather and long-distance telecommunications are all pertinent to reaching into new worlds, he said.

Although he now works in Texas, Oefelein grew up in Anchorage, where his parents still live. His brother has a cabin on the Kenai River.

"I used to fish the Kenai all the time," he said.

Someday, he said, he would like to retire to a cabin by a lake where he can have his own floatplane.

"The thing I miss most living in Houston is the mountains," he said.

But in the meantime, the Final Frontier has drawn him away from the Last Frontier.

Oefelein did not start out to be an astronaut, but was drawn to the work by his love of science and his passion for flying, which began when he was a youngster.

"Before I could drive I was flying airplanes," he said.

He earned an engineering degree and became a Navy aviator. He continued his education, earning a masters in aviation systems and certification as a test pilot. He remains in the Navy with the rank of lieutenant commander, classified as being on active duty and assigned to NASA.

NASA accepted him the first time he applied, which is unusual, he said.

During the detailed interviews, the selection committee asked about his background and what he could contribute.

"I talked almost exclusively about growing up in Alaska," he said.

Oefelein trained as a pilot for the shuttle or the space station. He graduated from astronaut training in 1998.

Since that time he has been working for Mission Control at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston while waiting to be called up for a space mission.

"Somebody in my class will get assigned in the next couple months," he predicted.

In the meantime, he is working as the "cap-com" or capsule communicator, a term left over from the early days of the Gemini missions. He is the communication link directly to the crews in space and relays all messages between the astronauts and ground control. In other words, if a mission now calls Houston to report a problem, he is the one on the other end of the radio link.

"It's part of the business of being an astronaut," he said. "It's not all flying in space."

Oefelein came to Kenai this week to help the Challenger Center launch its new educational outreach venture, called School Bus to Space. (See related story, page B-1.)

He visited Kenai Middle School, answering questions, describing his training and presenting information about recent NASA manned space flight projects.

NASA's current focus is completing the International Space Station, he told students.

He described it as a necessary stepping stone for mankind to prepare for longer space travels. The station will research the effects of prolonged life in space on people and hone skills needed to survive off Earth.

"We are getting more time and experience working out in space," he said. "We are starting to talk about going back to the moon and maybe going to Mars."

Missions to the space station so far have emphasized delivering parts. He described it as basically a big construction project in orbit. But now NASA will be installing equipment to conduct research.

The project has NASA plenty busy. Six missions are planned for 2002. They will deliver 50 tons of supplies to the station, and astronauts plan to conduct a record number of space walks this year.

Oefelein predicted that within 10 years commercial tours to space will be available.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism have not changed NASA's direction, he said.

"The space program is still on track as it was before," he said. "We are still shooting for the stars."

Oefelein has toured Challenger Centers in other states and also attended the grand opening of the Kenai facility in 2000. He said the centers are doing an excellent job.

"It is a great opportunity for kids to see space science in action," he said.

He praised the realism of the center's simulations, noting that the Kenai control room looks a lot like the one where he works. He also praised the emphasis on diverse duties, noting that space exploration relies on many other skilled professionals besides astronauts.

"There are some pretty strong parallels with what they do here and what we do at the Johnson Space Center," he said.

"This is going to be the opportunity of a lifetime for many kids."

Asked about his own opportunities, such as a possible manned Mars trip, he lit up just like the kids do at the Challenger Center.

"I'd do that in a heartbeat," he said.

See related story "Students explore outer space from inside the classroom walls" in the Schools section.

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