NASA’s oldest space shuttle, Discovery, is scheduled to lift off for the last time this month [as of press time]. The space agency is ending its 30-year shuttle program and is retiring Discovery and its sister ships, Endeavour and Atlantis. Endeavour is scheduled to be the last shuttle to fly, in February [as of press time]. NASA is shifting its focus to exploration programs aimed at sending astronauts to visit an asteroid and ultimately Mars.
In light of the shuttle program’s end, Rick Mastracchio, an astronaut and IEEE member, says he’s fortunate. He was on board Discovery in April when it brought supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), including food, coolant, equipment for scientific experiments, and new sleeping quarters for the ISS crew.
“It’s difficult to describe what it was like being on board Discovery, even after three trips to space, but it was truly a great feeling,” says Mastracchio, whose other shuttle missions were aboard Atlantis in 2000 and Endeavour in 2007.
During the 15-day Discovery mission in April, Mastracchio performed three space walks with fellow astronaut Clayton Anderson to replace an ammonia tank in the ISS cooling system. To install the new one they brought, the astronauts worked with a robotic arm attached to the station and controlled by astronauts on board Discovery. The arm maneuvered the tank into place, and Mastracchio and Anderson bolted it down. “It was challenging because it required a lot of teamwork,” Mastracchio says.
Mastracchio, who has logged 951 hours in space during his nearly 15 years as an astronaut, says it has been an incredible journey. “I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams that one day I’d actually become an astronaut,” he says. “I feel very lucky.”
NEVER GIVE UP
Mastracchio says he has been fascinated with space since childhood. He excelled at math and science in elementary and high school in Connecticut. When it came time for college, his guidance counselor recommended he study engineering. Mastracchio took her advice and studied electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1982. Four years later, he decided to pursue his childhood dream and applied to become an astronaut.
NASA rejected him but gave him another option. “They took my application out of the astronaut pile and asked whether I wanted to work for them as an engineer,” he says. He took NASA up on its offer and in 1987 joined the Rockwell Shuttle Operations Co., which was working on the shuttle program at the NASA Johnson Space Center, in Houston.
“Working for NASA was a thrill,” he says. “There were always exciting things to work on and very intelligent people to work with. I had lots of opportunities, and even though I wasn’t an astronaut, I was thrilled to be there.”
In 1990 he joined NASA’s flight crew operations unit, which had him developing requirements for space shuttle flight software and procedures for the astronauts.
He says the job was fascinating, but he didn’t give up on his dream of becoming an astronaut. “I continued to apply every year,” he says. “And to improve my chances of being selected, on weekends I learned to fly an airplane.”
He also beefed up his education. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., and another master’s in physical science from the University of Houston–Clear Lake.
Mastracchio moved up the ranks to an ascent and entry guidance and procedures officer in mission control. In that position, he led the shuttle crew through flight procedures and navigation activities.
After nine years of applying to become an astronaut, Mastracchio finally was selected in 1996 as a candidate, and he immediately began the grueling training process.
“Being chosen was the best feeling,” he says. “The competition is very fierce, and you need a lot of luck, no matter how talented you are, because you’re competing against so many other talented people.”
He spent the next few years learning the ins and outs of space travel. “I was basically training all week long,” he recalls. “I learned about the ISS, which was just starting to come together at that time, and spent lots of time flying a small jet that NASA uses for training, as well as many classroom hours learning about robotics and various shuttle operating systems.”
INTO THE AIR
Mastracchio’s years of hard work paid off on 8 September 2000, when he blasted off on board Atlantis. After all the training and preparation, he was still blown away by the experience.
“It’s very difficult—especially for an engineer—to put into words what going into space for the first time is like,” he says. “It was an incredible rush being launched and feeling zero gravity. And then there are those views you get of Earth.
“There are amazing things that you experience, one after the other, from liftoff until you land," he continues." "The whole experience just shakes you and pushes you to do your best in whatever your mission is.”
During that 2000 trip, the astronauts delivered supplies to prepare the ISS for the arrival of its first permanent crew. On Mastracchio’s next mission, aboard Endeavour in 2007, he helped attach parts to the ISS, including a truss segment that forms the station’s backbone. During both missions he performed several space walks.
“You can think about doing a space walk in a few ways,” he says. “One is that it’s scary being out there and stressful that you’re dealing with billion-dollar hardware. But I just think of it as doing my job. Executing my mission is the most rewarding feeling in the world.”
Although the future of NASA’s manned missions is uncertain, Mastracchio says he is hopeful the space program will thrive. “I’m confident that whatever our nation’s leaders decide NASA should do, it will be successful,” he says.
In the meantime, he is working hard to get back into space. “My plan is to go on board a Russian shuttle for a long-term mission, such as staying on the ISS for six months,” he says. “I’ve spent the last few years learning to speak Russian. I’m ready.”