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St. Louis native set for more spacewalks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 31, 2010 - Amid news reports Friday that the Obama administration is grounding NASA's plans to return to the moon, astronaut Robert Behnken was talking to reporters about his role aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, scheduled to launch on Super Bowl Sunday.

Behnken, who grew up in St. Ann, said he is focused on the mission at hand, but he did share his broad perspective on the importance of American space exploration.

"I really think it's important for a nation to have great goals that aren't accomplished in one person's lifetime or on the shoulders of a single person, but that we all work together to accomplish them," Behnken said during the phone interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The International Space Station is a great example of that. The space shuttle is a great example of that. The Apollo missions were, also."

Behnken, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who graduated from Pattonville High School and Washington University, is a mission specialist on mission STS-130 that will deliver the Tranquility module and a windowed-cupola to the International Space Station. Behnken will participate in three physically grueling spacewalks - each lasting more than six hours - to attach the Italian-built Tranquility to the space station. The module will expand the workspace on the space station, which will then be nearly 90 percent complete.

While Behnken and the shuttle crew were focusing on the present during a series of media press conferences, NASA was honoring the past and pondering its future.

Friday was NASA's annual day of remembrance to pay tribute to the fallen astronauts of Apollo I, Challenger and Columbia. But there was no avoiding questions about the space agency's plans for the future, following reports that the new budget will not include funding to continue the Constellation moon landing plan initiated by President George W. Bush.

The budget numbers, first reported earlier this week by the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today, have NASA receiving $100 billion, through 2015. The funds would be used to extend the life of the space station to 2020 and to work with commercial companies that would build private spacecraft to taxi astronauts to the space station after the space shuttle program is retired. NASA would, in effect, be out of the spacecraft business.

Behnken, who was a high school student in 1986 when the Challenger shuttle exploded, said that being a part of the space shuttle program is bigger than any individual achievement.

"It is important for nations to lay out ambitious goals -- whether it's an interstate highway system or it's an international space station or whether it's a national park system -- and try to achieve them. There are things that take longer than any one person's effective career, and in some cases, effective lifetime, to accomplish. And great nations do those sorts of things."

This is Behnken's second shuttle mission. He performed three spacewalks during the STS-123 mission in March 2008.

Noting that the shuttle's launch -- at 4:39 a.m. (Eastern Time) on Feb. 7 - is on Super Bowl Sunday, the astronauts were asked by a reporter what teams they'll be rooting for.

"I am hoping my family will be glued to NASA-TV on Super Bowl Sunday," replied mission specialist Nick Patrick.

Here are some more excerpts from the interview with Behnken:

Q. You refer to yourself as being more of a "working class sort of person" than a "university sort of person." Has that helped you prepare for the construction-style work you will be doing during the spacewalks?

Behnken: My dad was a construction worker, and he gave me the opportunity to go out and actually perform a lot of the work that you might see in big construction -- whether it be for buildings or water treatment plants. I was exposed to the Lego building-block approach that you might take for performing construction from the time that I was a young child.

I looked up to my dad because I could always go and see that, "Hey, he built this building or this facility from the ground up." I'd go from seeing it being a dirt spot to being a five-story structure and those opportunities were invaluable as I came to participate in construction of the International Space Station.

Those activities and having the opportunity to do them is something that is sometimes missing from folks if they don't grow up with that sort of experience or find a way, while they're in college as an engineer or a scientist, to have a chance to participate in actually putting their hands on hardware and putting it together and really understanding it -- and to be ready for all the kinds of malfunctions you might run into when you try to put something together for the first time. And they didn't give you all the instructions or there might be a piece missing. Hopefully not [he chuckled] But I want to be ready for all those eventualities.

Q. Do you plan to do anything different on this space flight than your last mission?

Behnken: One of the things that I'm hoping to make the time to do on this flight is to actually take a few more pictures during the spacewalks.

I did have the time during my last mission to look around on a few of the spacewalks but unfortunately those times didn't match up to when I had a camera available to take photos.

Probably one of the most spectacular things that I saw while I was in orbit was sunrises and sunsets through thunderstorms, if you will. Being able to see the clouds illuminated and the rainbow effect and what a 70,000-foot thunderstorm, or a series of them, looks like and all of the depth associated with them.

You just can't capture that any way but seeing it with your own eyes or maybe by taking a still photo. I spent the days on the space shuttle as the mission was winding down on SST-123 trying to find that same sort of opportunity but wasn't able to capture it through the shuttle's windows the same way I remember it through my space helmet.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge in preparing for the three spacewalks you will perform during the mission?

Behnken: The biggest challenge has been schedule challenges: the opportunity to see all the hardware that we'll be asked to interact with during the spacewalks on the ground before we actually launch.

As you might imagine, when that hardware is coming from Italy or coming from Huntsville [Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center] or from all over the world, getting all of those pieces together has been a real challenge. I know the node came from Alenia [Thales Alenia Space] and we had to fly to Turin [Italy] to be able to see it before it was shipped to the Kennedy Space Center. The ammonia lines that there's been so much talk about were finally put through their final paces in Huntsville. I've been there the last couple of weekends. Bringing all those hardware opportunities together has been the most challenging part of the mission.

About  Robert Behnken

PERSONAL: Behnken, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was born in Creve Coeur but grew up in St. Ann. His dad lives in St. Ann; a younger sister and two nephews live in Hazelwood. Behnken is married. He enjoys mountain biking, skiing and backpacking.

EDUCATION: Graduated from Pattonville High School in 1988. Earned bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and physics from Washington University; a master's in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology; a doctorate in mechanical engineering, California Institute of Technology.

EXPERIENCE: Behnken has logged more than 1,000 flight hours in more than 25 different types of aircraft.

Behnken was an Air Force ROTC student at Washington University. After graduate school, he was assigned to active duty at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. His next assignment was training at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. After graduating, he was assigned to the F-22 Combined Test Force (CTF) and remained at Edwards.

Behnken's graduate research was in the area of nonlinear control applied to stabilizing rotating stall and surge in axial flow compressors. The research included nonlinear analysis, real-time software implementation development and hardware construction.

NASA EXPERIENCE: Behnken was selected as a mission specialist by NASA in July 2000. In March 2008, Behnken flew on STS-123 logging more than 378 hours in space, including three space walks.

Source: NASA

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.