From Pattonville to the stars
St. Ann native is one nine astronauts who will be participating in flight tests for new American-made, commercial spacecraft to fly missions to the International Space Station
By Charlotte Beard
On Aug. 3, NASA released news of nine astronauts who will be participating in flight tests for American-made, commercial spacecraft. One of those nine astronauts is Pattonville High School’s 1988 alumni, Colonel Robert Behnke. Behnke, who has a doctorate in engineering from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), joined the astronaut corps in 2000 and flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour twice for missions during which he performed six spacewalks totaling more than 37 hours.
Before receiving his doctorate degree, Behnke received his bachelor of science degree in physics and bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering both from Washington University in 1992. His master of science in mechanical engineering was received from Caltech in 1993.
When asked if he knew in high school that he wanted to be an astronaut, Behnke responded, “I was really focused on a way to pay for college and went through the Air Force ROTC program. The astronaut piece became a little bit more of an option after I was graduating from ROTC when I was finishing up at Washington University. When I looked at the Air Force job positions there was one out there for astronaut.”
The St. Ann native explained that there is a “dream sheet” that is given to those who finish the program to complete and select a position they desire, starting with their first choice. He picked astronaut but officials in the Air Force smiled at him advising that he aim lower for his first choice of a position.
“’Cause you’re not going to get that one yet,” Behnke laughed. “You kind of waste your choices if you pick something like astronaut for your first choice on your job sheet. So, I took that to heart and picked an engineering job. But a couple years later I applied for the test pilot school. At the test pilot school everyone was applying to be an astronaut.”
Behnke shared more about the endeavor that will return astronaut launches to U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011.
“For the last three years I have been working with two companies that have contracts with NASA to build new spacecrafts to shepherd people back and forth to the [International] Space Station. We do have U.S. astronauts in space continually right now. They rotate out about every six months and use the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do that. NASA put together some contracts several years back to try finding an alternate way, so we didn’t rely on that Russian spacecraft to get into space,” he said.
That is when some American companies got involved.
“So, I’ve been working with the two providers, SpaceX and Boeing, for about three years. Now it’s coming the time where both of those companies are mature enough that we will be able to start flushing out the test mission that will demonstrate that we have that capability. So, I’ll be on one of those missions that demonstrate that we can get to the space station, swap out crews and bring that vehicle back. We will do that over just a couple week periods. So, it will be a short mission and then the following mission will pick up that role of replacing the Soyuz spacecraft,” he said.
Behnke explained that the team of astronauts working on the move from Soyuz usage were recently split into two respective groups for SpaceX and Boeing. Currently, Behnke is working with the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. They are scheduled to launch in 2019.
“My biggest hope is that we can start launching again in Florida,” stated Behnke. “And it will become a regular thing like it was with the space shuttles. I got to do a couple of those missions. After those missions I was able to go back to talk to people, whether it was in St. Louis or elsewhere around the country. Folks really were interested in the space program that was here in the U.S. and not a program launching out of Kazakhstan. It was very different when you spoke to school kids about their futures. If you were going to work on a rocket it was a lot more of a possibility for them if it was in Florida versus if it was in Kazakhstan. After the mission we will have gone to the Space Station, come back safely, landed off the coast of Florida and I’ll be able to share that mission with a lot of folks so that they can be as excited as I am about the space program.”
Behnke encourages students to not let opportunities pass them by while they are in school.
“When I went to Pattonville High School they had a good science program and they had a good math program. I was able to take chemistry, physics and calculus. At the end of my time in high school, that really did set me up to be successful at Washington University, at Caltech, in the Air Force and at NASA.”
Behnke went on to share the impact of his schooling at Pattonville.
“Throughout my years there were projects that made math and science not just book learning where you would open up the book and do problem exercises. We did things. We built geodesic domes. We tried to apply all the math that we were learning. I had a wonderful teacher, even as far back as grade school, that was interested in us doing science activities and then talking about them from a perspective of not only understanding but being able to help other people understand. Across the board I had a great experience at Pattonville with the opportunities for learning math and science and [being able to] explain in addition to understanding it.”
For more information about Col. Behnke or his current mission visit: https://www.nasa.gov/astronauts/biographies/robert-l-behnken or https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-assigns-crews-to-first-test-flights-missions-on-commercial-spacecraft.
CUTLINE: Submitted photos Colonel Robert Behnke, Pattonville High School Class of 1988 joined the astronaut corps at NASA in 2000 and flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour twice for missions during which he performed six spacewalks totaling more than 37 hours.