Discovery’s seven astronauts are among the most culturally diverse of any space shuttle crew. There are two African-Americans, an astronaut of Indian descent, the soon-to-be first Swede in space, a British-born mission specialist, an Alaskan and a Jersey Boy.
It’s also the greenest crew in eight years when it comes to spaceflight experience: Five astronauts have never flown in a space shuttle before. The last time a shuttle mission had five rookies was a Columbia crew that flew in April 1998.
But commander Mark Polansky said each has been training as an astronaut anywhere from eight to 12 years.
“Even though they’ve not flown (in space) before, they have been here eight years, training or working on missions in various degrees,” Polansky said of the five. “I don’t consider them rookies.”
Three members of the current crew — pilot William Oefelein and spacewalkers Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang — started training in 2002 with another commander. Then came the Columbia tragedy in 2003 and the decision to end the shuttle program by 2010.
The original commander, who had made four space trips already, was asked to step aside to give others a chance. The other crew members were added in late 2004 and early 2005.
Here is a more detailed look at each astronaut:
Mark Polansky, commander
Hometown: Born in Paterson, N.J., but considers Edison his hometown.
Family: Married, a daughter.
Nicknamed “Roman” for movie director Roman Polanski, Polansky is making only his second trip to space. He previously was the pilot of Atlantis when it delivered the Destiny lab to the space station in 2001. His current Discovery crewmate, Robert Curbeam, also was on that flight.
Polansky has a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronomical engineering and a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue University. After earning his wings in 1980, he spent the next dozen years as an Air Force trainer and test pilot. He joined NASA in 1992 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot and joined the astronaut corps in 1996.
Polansky wasn’t the mission’s original commander and inherited the crew’s original three astronauts.
“You always sort of worry when you break a crew up a little bit how you’re going to reconstitute them,” Polansky said. He told the crew, “All the assignments that everybody had in the past, we’re throwing them out the window and we’re starting from scratch.”
Called “Billy-O” by his fellow astronauts, Oefelein began his aviation career as a teenager flying floatplanes in Alaska.
“One of the best ways to explore the state ... was by air,” Oefelein said. “I started flying floatplanes up there and explored — whether I was just trying to find a new fishing hole or camping spot.”
He studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University and later earned a master’s degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. He received a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy in 1988 and was designated a naval aviator two years later. He made several overseas deployments, attended Navy Fighter Weapons (Topgun) School and then became a test pilot instructor before he was selected to be an astronaut in 1998.
As Discovery’s pilot, Oefelein will undock Discovery from the space station, coordinate the mission’s three spacewalks and use the shuttle’s robotic arm to inspect for any damage. He is making his first flight in space.
“I’m really looking forward to wearing a lot of hats,” he said.
Curbeam will spacewalk three times to rewire the space lab and help guide a new space station addition into place as it is being attached by robotic arm. During his rewiring tasks, he’s hoping to avoid a scare that popped up in a similar spacewalk during his last mission aboard Atlantis in 2001.
During that spacewalk, a leaking connector sprayed ammonia into space and contaminated his spacesuit. He was ordered to stay in the sunlight until the ammonia on his suit was baked off before he was allowed back inside the space station.
“We’ve taken some steps and made it as good as can be within the current design,” Curbeam said of the ammonia lines. “Hopefully, we’ll never have that problem again.”
Curbeam, who is called “Beamer” by his fellow astronauts, earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and later got a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. He attended Navy Fighter Weapons (Topgun) School and Test Pilot School before becoming an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
He was chosen to be an astronaut in 1994 and flew his first shuttle mission aboard Discovery in 1997. His two previous spaceflights make him the most experienced of the crew.
Higginbotham had worked as an engineer at the Kennedy Space Center for several years when her boss urged her to apply to be an astronaut. She laughed about it and didn’t. When he asked her about it months later, she was sheepish. Worried about the next time he would ask, she gave up and finally applied. She was selected on her second try.
Higginbotham was part of the 1996 astronaut class that included current crewmates Polansky and Christer Fuglesang. It also included three Columbia astronauts.
During nine years at the Kennedy Space Center, she participated in 53 shuttle launches and worked her way up to lead project engineer on the shuttle Columbia.
“After I left the Cape ... I had separation anxiety in that every day I had stepped foot on the shuttle, and worked on it and checked out the wiring, and all that kind of stuff,” she said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and later earned master’s degrees in management and space systems from Florida Institute of Technology.
On her first mission in space, Higginbotham will be the primary operator of the space station’s robotic arm.
Patrick will be the primary operator of Discovery’s robotic arm. He will use it to look for any damage to the space shuttle and to move a new, 2-ton addition from the shuttle to the space station. He also will be in charge of Discovery’s video and computer networks and help move cargo between the shuttle and the space lab.
He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering from the University of Cambridge and later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interests were in telerobotics and aviation psychology.
He learned to fly as a member of the Royal Air Force’s Cambridge University Air Squadron, and he worked as a flight instructor outside Boston while at MIT. After finishing his doctorate, he worked at Boeing’s Commercial Airplane Group in Seattle. He holds three patents in telerobotics, display design and aircraft alerting systems.
Patrick joined the astronaut corps in 1998.
Once Discovery reaches 62 miles above Earth, Fuglesang will become the first Swede in space, a title he has been working toward since 1992 when he joined the European Space Agency. Along with Germany’s Thomas Reiter, he was selected for a joint mission between Europe and Russia in 1995 but ended up being part of the back-up crew.
“I realize there is a lot of interest in Sweden and I’m happy about that,” he said.
Fuglesang received a master’s degree in engineering physics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He earned a doctorate in experimental particle physics from the University of Stockholm and later became a docent in particle physics at the university.
He joined the astronaut corps in 1996 and then went on to train on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, earning a certificate that would allow him to command a Soyuz during a return trip to Earth.
During Discovery’s mission, he will conduct the first two spacewalks with Curbeam.
A former Swedish national Frisbee champion, Fuglesang plans to bring a Frisbee up to space. During a live satellite link-up with children on Earth, he’ll try to set the record for maximum time aloft. Of course, he’ll get an assist from zero gravity.
Williams is going up to the space station aboard Discovery, but she’s not coming down.
At least not for another six months as she takes German astronaut Thomas Reiter’s place as part of the three-person crew at the space lab.
“I’ve always wanted to fly a long-duration mission,” said Williams, whose flight is attracting interest in India because her father was born there. “A long-duration spaceflight will supply answers ... to what happens to the human body, how materials work in space.”
Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in physical science at the U.S. Naval Academy and later got a master’s in engineering management at the Florida Institute of Technology. She became a diving officer after getting her commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy and later became a naval aviator. She received helicopter combat training, went to Naval Test Pilot School and then became an instructor at the school.
During a visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston while in pilot school, a lecture by astronaut John Young piqued her interest in joining the astronaut corps. She was selected in 1998.
Besides helping operate the space station’s robotic arm, Williams will take the third spacewalk along with Curbeam to rewire the space lab.