Alaskan to pilot December space shuttle mission

Astronaut prepares to fly Discovery in 11-day assignment

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2006

ANCHORAGE - An old photograph taken by his parents shows 8-year-old Bill Oefelein and his brother standing next to a NASA jet at an air show.

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Who knew the photo would be prophetic?

More than three decades later, the former Alaskan is preparing to pilot NASA's next space shuttle mission. The Discovery is scheduled to launch Dec. 7 for an 11-day assignment to the international space station. It will be the first space flight for Oefelein, 41, who has spent much of his life in aviation, including flying floatplanes as a teenager in Anchorage.

"I'm looking forward to it. I've been training a long time," he said Friday in a brief phone interview from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Plans call for the Discovery to drop off flight engineer Suni Williams for her six-month stay at the space station and return with German Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who arrived there in July. Astronauts also plan to rewire the electrical system on the orbiting outpost.

Being part of a mission 220 miles from Earth is "just a neat, great part" of Oefelein's career, he said.

"I love my time flying," he said. "This is another fortunate oppor- tunity I've been blessed with."

Oefelein's aviation roots took hold during his youth in Anchorage, where his family moved in 1975 when his father was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Earning a private pilot's license with a floatplane rating, Oefelein often flew his father to favorite fishing spots in Southcentral Alaska. Both still talk about casting for trout as they perched on plane floats in the middle of a remote lake.

Oefelein said Alaska fostered his interest in flying.

"For me, it's hard to understand how you can be out there and not want to fly," he said. "It's prime country to explore."

Later Oefelein became a Naval aviator, then a test pilot. According to a NASA bio, he has logged more than 3,000 hours in 50 types of aircraft.

And that's not counting all those hours Oefelein and his brother, Randy Jr., spent flying model planes with their father, or attending air shows, including one at Beale Air Force in Northern California. That's where that boyhood photo was taken of Oefelein and his brother, who also went on to work in aviation. Now 42, he is a pilot with Alaska Airlines, but is on leave during a tour in Afghanistan with the Alaska Air National Guard.

Bill Oefelein, who currently lives in Houston, doesn't remember posing in front of the NASA jet. In fact, being an astronaut didn't occur to him until about 10 years ago after test-pilot training. Then it dawned on him that many astronauts had histories similar to his.

"I thought being an astronaut is something someone else would do," he said.

So he applied to work for NASA and began an arduous screening process. In June 1998, he learned he had been accepted for the space agency and quickly shared the news with his parents, Randy and Billye Oefelein, who still live in Anchorage.

"I thought, 'We're in the Last Frontier; now he's going to the Final Frontier,'" Randy Oefelein Sr., a retired Air Force master sergeant, said Friday at his home.

Both he and his wife plan to attend the launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The couple said their son told them his other mission duties will be to help operate a robotic arm on the Discovery for jobs outside the station and choreograph space walk efforts by other astronauts.

And yes, they're nagged by the inherent danger in their son's line of work, such as the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 that killed seven astronauts. But they take comfort in safety improvements since achieved by NASA, a confidence echoed by their son.

"I'll always feel a little bit of fear. It's a mom thing," Billye Oefelein said. "But I'm proud of him. He's worked so hard for this."

After the mission, there will be other challenges to tackle for a man who also enjoys snowboarding and hiking. Among the goals on Bill Oefelein's list: Climbing Alaska's Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak.

"I would like to attempt that some day," he said.

"Before I get too old."



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