A pair of teachers, a rookie space pilot and Japan's first endurance spaceflyer form only part of the tight-knit astronaut crew poised to blast off Wednesday night aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery.
Commanding Discovery's spaceflight is veteran NASA astronaut Lee Archambault, who will lead a crew of seven on a two-week trek to install new solar arrays at the International Space Station. The mission is set to launch tomorrow night from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 9:20 p.m. EDT (0120 March 12 GMT).
"They've all proven themselves to have been outstanding astronauts," Archambault said of his crew in a recent interview. "I'm anxious to see how they perform in orbit."
Archambault and his crew were slated to launch Feb. 12, but NASA delayed their spaceflight nearly a month due to fuel valve concerns with their shuttle. After weeks of tests and analysis, and a bit of extra training, Discovery and its crew are once more poised for launch.
Here's a brief look at Discovery's seven-man crew:
Archambault, 48, is making his second spaceflight aboard Discovery, though the mission is his first stint as commander. He served as pilot of the shuttle Atlantis during its STS-117 flight in 2007, which also delivered a pair of U.S. solar arrays, and now sees himself as a conductor of sorts to orchestrate his Discovery crewmates into a well-oiled spaceflying machine.
"As far as my responsibility goes, my first responsibility is overall safety for the crew and two, mission success," Archambault has said. A colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Archambault flew combat missions in the Gulf War and served as a test pilot before being selected to join NASA's astronaut corps in 1998.
He grew up in Bellwood, Ill., near Chicago, which also happened to be the hometown of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan - the last man to walk on the moon. Archambault fondly remembers attending a parade in Cernan's honor as a 6-year-old, but his goal to become an astronaut crystallized later in life while in the military.
Archambault has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. He and wife Kelly have two daughters, ages 11 and 17, and a 15-year-old son.
Shuttle pilot Dominic Anthony "Tony" Antonelli is making his first trip into orbit aboard Discovery after years dreaming of reaching space.
"I've wanted to do this for as long as I can remember wanting to do anything," said Antonelli, 41.
Antonelli is a commander in the U.S. Navy and test pilot with some 273 aircraft carrier landings under his belt. He joined NASA's spaceflying ranks in 2000 and holds a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics.
During Discovery's flight, Antonelli will double up as the lead shuttle robotic arm operator. An avid snowboarder and NASCAR fan, he'll be toting a green flag for the Andretti Green Racing IndyCar team in his space luggage and hopes to serve as an official starter in an IndyCar race after his flight.
Antonelli grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., and is married to wife Janeen with two sons, ages 4 and 7.
Joseph Acaba, a geologist and math teacher, is making his flight spaceflight as one of the two educator astronauts to launch spaceward aboard Discovery. He'll serve as Mission Specialist 1 during Discovery's flight and perform two of the four planned spacewalks.
"I'm looking forward to the whole experience," Acaba, 41, said in a recent interview. "To be put on top of a rocket ship and blast off, I don't know if anyone at this point can tell you what they think it will be like."
Acaba grew up in Anaheim, Calif., and served as a hydrogeologist in Los Angeles before joining the Peace Corps to spend two years promoting environmental education in the Dominican Republic. He also coordinated a mangrove revegetation project in Florida, has served as a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps, and taught math and science to middle and high school students in Florida before joining NASA in 2004.
An avid science fiction fan, Acaba confesses that his childhood reading passion had a big impact on shaping his path toward space.
"It impacted me a lot, and it really opened my imagination to all those things that were possible," Acaba said. "I think we're living in what was science fiction not too long ago."
Leading the four spacewalks planned for Discovery's 14-day mission is Steve Swanson, a veteran astronaut who last flew to space alongside his commander Archambault on 2007's STS-117 mission. Once again, he's helping to deliver new station solar arrays.
"I don't think it's ever going to be old hat," Swanson said. "Just because you've done it once doesn't mean you're an expert at it."
The 48-year-old Swanson will perform three of the Discovery crew's four planned spacewalks and serve as the shuttle's flight engineer and Mission Specialist 2. He's hoping that despite the spaceflight's busy schedule, he'll get some time to switch off Discovery's cabin lights and gaze out at the Earth and deep space.
Swanson has had a lifelong penchant for exploration. He grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and has a doctorate in computer science.
"Growing up, I loved to explore and go for hikes, not even follow a trail," he said in a NASA interview. "Just off and go, finally get to the top of a mountain somewhere."
Swanson joined NASA as a flight simulation engineer in 1987 and was selected to be an astronaut in 1998. He and wife Mary have two sons, ages 13 and 23, and a 19-year-old daughter.
First-time spaceflyer Richard "Ricky" Arnold II is the second teacher-turned-astronaut on Discovery's crew, though for him working in far-flung locales is nothing new.
The former middle and high school teacher has taught students in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Romania, as well as served a stint aboard an oceanographic vessel as a marine biologist before joining NASA's astronaut corps in 2004.
"There were two things I was really interested in when I was a kid," Arnold, 45, said in an interview. "There were Apollo astronauts and then every Sunday evening there was the undersea world of Jacque Cousteau."
Arnold has a master's degree in marine, estuarine and environmental science. He joined NASA's spaceflying ranks after 15 years teaching math and science and will perform three of the four spacewalks ahead as Mission Specialist 3 aboard Discovery.
Arnold grew up in Bowie, Md. He and wife Eloise have two daughters, ages 11 and 13.
The definitive veteran
Astronaut John Phillips is by all accounts the grizzled veteran of Discovery's crew, with more time in space under his belt than all of his crewmates put together. As the shuttle's Mission Specialist 4, Phillips will serve as the main space station robotic arm operator.
Phillips, 57, lived aboard the International Space Station for six months in 2005 after a short visit during a 2001 shuttle flight. He is returning to the orbiting laboratory for the third time aboard Discovery and is eager to see how it looks with new solar arrays and international laboratories from Europe and Japan.
"I have a little nostalgia to see those places that were my home for six months," he said. "But I also think it's going to be really cool to see the nice, new, bright shiny modules that I've never seen."
Phillips said exploration has been in his veins since his youth and he vividly recalls the launches of Sputnik and Explorer 1 that ushered in the Space Age. Later, the first human spaceflight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched in 1961 just before Phillips's 10th birthday, he added.
"Trying to be an explorer is what I signed up to do and what I've wanted to do all my life," said Phillips, who is a former Navy aviator and joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1996. "It's the best job I've ever had and as long as they let me fly, I'm going to do it."
Phillips has a doctorate in geophysics and space physics and grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz. He and wife Laura have a daughter, 18, and son, 20.
Japan's endurance spaceflyer
Veteran Japanese spaceflyer Koichi Wakata rounds out Discovery's crew and plans to usher his homeland into the realm of long-duration spaceflight.
Wakata, 45, is Japan's first long-duration astronaut and will replace NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus as a flight engineer for the station's current three-person Expedition 18 crew. He is making his third spaceflight and represents the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency as Discovery's Mission Specialist 5.
"This is another big leap year for Japan to start living on the space station for long times," said Wakata, who will oversee Japan's two-room Kibo laboratory and Europe's Columbus module while aboard the space station.
An avid flyer, Wakata is a former Japan Airlines pilot with a doctorate in aerospace engineering. He joined Japan's astronaut corps in 1992 and later trained at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. He and wife Stefanie have one son, age 10.
Discovery's mission adds some symmetry to Wakata's spaceflight career. He first flew aboard a NASA shuttle in 1996 and on his last shuttle flight in 2000 he helped deliver the very first piece of the space station's backbone-like main truss. Now, he'll help install the final piece of that truss to complete a girder structure that will stretch the length of an American football field.
"This is amazing what we have done so far," Wakata said. "It's amazing to see the growth of the space station."
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