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Star graphicBill Oefelein's STS-116 Mission BlogStar graphic

Astronaut Bill Oefelein takes time to answer questions from Alaskan students and provide his thoughts about his training and STS-116 space shuttle mission.

Dec. 19, 2006 -- We just undocked from the International Space Station. We had a great stay aboard. We completed four spacewalks, the last of which was an unplanned one to retract a finicky solar array. It couldn't have been done without a lot of teamwork from all involved. It has been very busy up to now. I am hoping over the next two days to get a little more time to look out the window.

Last night, I had my first look at Anchorage! It was a night pass, and as we came up the Aleutians, I could start to make out Kodiak, then Homer, Kenai, Soldotna, and Seward. Above them all from the angle I was looking was a big bunch of lights that was Anchorage. Just to the north of that I could even make out Wasilla. So, there I was, on Discovery's flight deck with the cabin dim, looking out at seven cities in Alaska at the same time. It was one of the neatest sights I've seen so far. There's something special about seeing your home from the air and something I found even better about seeing it from space. I hope to have another few passes so that I may be able to take some pictures.

I'm running out of time right now for e-mail, so let me get to some of your questions:

Questions from Kaleidoscope School for Arts and Sciences in Kenai, AK, grade 3/4:

  Travis - What is the most important part of your job, Bill? The most important part of my job is to keep the orbiter in tip top shape. As the pilot, I help to maintain all the systems onboard. I have many additional jobs as well.
  Driskoll - What is your favorite freeze dried space meal? I've enjoyed many. In fact, I haven't had a bad one yet. One I didn't think I would enjoy too much, but have, is the oatmeal. I guess that's because it's like the instant oatmeal I take when I go camping.
  Morgan - Does it make you feel weird when you blast off? The launch was more fun than I imagined. You shake a lot when the solid rocket boosters ignite. Then you get pressed into your seat pretty hard as you accelerate up to the speed you need to stay in orbit.
  Moriah - How many miles will you go on this mission? Don't know for sure. Probably millions. Maybe you could do the math: We are going 17,500 miles per hour. We will be up here for about 13 days total. Knowing there are 24 hours in a day, you could probably solve that problem - or ask your teacher to show you.
  John, young visitor to the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska - How many miles away from Earth is the Space Shuttle Discovery? We are in an orbit that is about 180 nautical miles above Earth.

To all my friends - I hope you are having a great holiday season. We sure are up here.

All my best- Billy O

Dec. 16, 2006 -- Hi. First Blog from Space. As you may be able to imagine, we have been pretty busy. I don't have a lot of spare time, but let me share a few thoughts and try to answer some of your questions.

First, the launch was 10 times more exciting than I thought!! The sights and sounds and sensations were, literally, out of this world!

Space is fun! I quickly adapted to the zero gravity and have had no problems eating or sleeping. It's fun to eat "upside down" and sleep on the ceiling.

The sights are incredible. Whenever I can, I try to take a peek out the window. There is always something to see. We've seen thunderstorms, city lights, the Northern Lights, rivers, jungles, deserts, oceans, and so much more. It is quite an experience.

Mainly, though, we have been very busy re-wiring the space station, adding a new piece of hardware to the ISS truss, and transferring a lot of gear. The days are long, but we have a great crew and we work well together.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to answer all of your questions, but let me answer a few:

Questions from Dillingham Elementary 5th Graders:

  Christopher: Do astronauts use any robots to help them in space? Yes. We have two robotic arms up here. I have operated the one on Discovery.
  Sean: How do you get air to the ISS? We bring the air up on the Space Shuttle or Russian Progress re-supply ships.
  Kenny : Do you have to be in the military to be an astronaut? No. In fact, most astronauts are not military.

What happens if the astronauts get sick on the ISS? We have medicines and equipment, much like a paramedic, to take care of sicknesses and injuries.

How do they take a shower if they are going to be up on the ISS for so long? We can't take showers. We take sponge baths with a wash cloth, a towel, soap and water. We just have to make sure our soap doesn't float away.

How can we identify the ISS in the night sky from earth? The ISS will look like a bright star, quickly going across the sky. However, Alaska is far enough north that the ISS will not fly directly over it. Even with that, we are high enough that when we get close to Alaska, we can sneak peeks at the very southern part of the state.
  Conner: How does zero gravity affect your body during long missions? It makes you lose bone density and muscle mass unless you exercise a lot.

What happens if there is a leak in the ISS? We have procedures to take care of most emergencies we may come across and have received a lot of training and practiced many times in the event an emergency may arise.

Thanks for the great questions. I hope to have time later in the mission to write again. In the mean time, study hard and enjoy your upcoming Christmas break. And enjoy the snow for me. I don't get as much as I like these days.

Your friend -

Dec. 8, 2006 -- Here we are, one day after our scrub, but more importantly, one night before our next attempt. From those that were at the launch attempt last night, I hear the anticipation was captivating. There was so much energy in the air that you could feel it. We were inside the shuttle, ready to go. Roman (Mark Polansky) and I were busy getting the systems on line for the launch. I felt good about the weather prospects, but it wasn't meant to be. As much as I would've liked to go, I still enjoyed the moment.

It was dark outside as we approached the shuttle last night. The only thing one could see was this big majestic spacecraft illuminated against a moonless sky. It was an incredible sight. As we stepped out of the van, you could see the shuttle venting. You could hear it creaking and moaning. It was as if it was alive and longing to leave the bounds of the launch pad. I'm certainly not a poet, but I sure felt some serious inspiration last night. We spent a minute in the grasp of the moment, then proceeded up to the 195-foot level where you enter the ship. I took some time to just soak in where we were and what we were going to attempt.

The brightly lit shuttle waited for us on the pad. We took our turns, getting called to the white room, where we put on our parachute harnesses, then entered the orbiter. After strap in, we checked our communication and then waited. Every so often, we were called to perform some task to get the shuttle ready to fly, flipping switches with great care. We entered and came out of several pre-planned launch holds, all the while wondering if the weather would break just enough so we could depart. Our last hold was at T-5 minutes, where we stayed until our launch window closed. Five minutes from space. Much closer than I've been in the five years I've trained for this flight. I had a very brief moment of disappointment, then had to get busy safing all the systems we brought on line for a flight that wasn't to happen. As I left the orbiter nearly an hour and a half later, I paused at the same spot I had prior to entering. Christer came and stood by me. We both just looked. The moment was too special for us to concentrate on what wasn't. We, instead, focused on what was. We had the incredible experience of almost launching into space. We thought we would savor that for a while.

Now, it's another day. Tomorrow, we hope to have the privilege of repeating that experience. Of course, we hope to take it further. Coming out of that T-5 minute hold for a spectacular night liftoff. I am looking forward to that. We are ready to go. We have prepared long and hard. I will be taking all of my family and friends with me. I look forward to sharing that experience.

Please keep in mind all the men and women involved in our human spaceflight program who got us this far. None of this is possible without them.

All my best as we prepare for another try tomorrow.

Dec. 6, 2006 -- Hi all. This is the night before launch. We are gearing up for what should be quite a show tomorrow, weather permitting. We are more than ready and all of our friends and family are here to share in the experience. Hopefully, the next note will be from orbit. Let me quickly answer some questions and get back to the prep work required.
  Jamie and Daniel: Did you ever think you were not good enough to be an astronaut? I never really thought about it. I just wanted to fly airplanes, and I always thought I was good enough to do that.
  Logan: If you played sports in high school, what did you play? I played football in high school. I enjoyed it very, very much, and it continues to be my favorite sport.
  Sienna: Did you have any animals growing up? What were they, and what were their names? My family always had dogs. Mostly, Great Danes, but we had some "mutts" – mixes of different breeds. I loved every one of them. I most recently had some Boxers as pets. They are great dogs. Friendly, and they are very family oriented.
  Jaden: What was your favorite and most embarrassing experience at NASA? Hard to say. Each day is a great day, and each training session offers the chance to excel or not. I just strive to do my best.
  Bailey: What got you interested in being an astronaut? About 10 years ago when I was doing test pilot work for the Navy. I found out all space shuttle pilots were former test pilots, so I thought I would give that a try.
  Brittany: Did you find the training to be an astronaut really hard? Not really. Probably the hardest training I did in my Navy career was studying to become a Test Pilot. There was a lot of math and science required, in addition to the precise flying and report writing we had to do. Second was when I went through TOPGUN. That was some of the most intense, yet fun, flying I have ever had the privilege of doing.

To all my friends in Alaska, and elsewhere, thanks for your support and interest in this mission. Remember, this is OUR space program. We can all be proud of that. It belongs to all of us and will be what we choose to make it. I will do my part to make it successful.

Off for final preparations for tomorrow’s launch.

Dec. 3, 2006 -- Just arrived at Kennedy Space Center today. We are very busy and it's really starting to hit home that we are about to embark on a great adventure. So many people have worked so long and so hard to get this mission to this point. I feel very privileged to be a part of it.

I wish to share this experience through periodic postings, however, I am not quite sure how much time the mission workload will allow toward this desire. I will do my best to pass on what's happening as it does, but regardless of the writings, I am proud to know my friends and family from the Great State of Alaska, as well as elsewhere, will be watching and cheering me on. I will do my best to make you proud.

Let me take a moment to answer some questions:

  What inspired you to want to become an astronaut? I didn't grow up always wanting to be an astronaut. I grew up wanting to fly airplanes. As I progressed through my Navy Test Pilot career, I saw an opportunity to take this flying to a different level - that of flying the space shuttle. So the inspiration came from the continuous challenge to become a better pilot.
  Who are the most influential people in your life? It would have to be my mom and dad. They have always been there - through good times and bad.
  Is there an age limit to being an astronaut? How old were you when you became an astronaut? I'm not sure what the maximum or minimum age limits to being an astronaut may be. Consider checking the NASA Web site. More important is the experience level from previous jobs that help to become an astronaut, and the ability and opportunity to perform the tasks necessary for spaceflight that determine how long you may stay around. In my case, I was selected for astronaut training when I was 33 years old.
  What was the most difficult part of your astronaut training? How long did your training take? There are various parts of astronaut training that are challenging, but none I would really classify as difficult. Hard work and a positive attitude will carry you far and will bring those things that may seem difficult or impossible closer to becoming a reality.
  Is the vomit comet really that bad? No. It's a ton of fun. But you need to take it easy at the beginning. The people that get sick are typically the ones who don't adapt slowly and try to do too many things too quickly. This actually is true for spaceflight where we say "when you first get up there, slower is faster."

It's hard to believe, after nearly 5 years of training for this particular mission, I will get to apply that principle myself in a few days.

Your friend-
Billy O