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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Getting to know the crew of STS-96


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May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 4:12 p.m. EDT (2012 GMT)

In this story:

Rick Husband -- family man and singer

Ellen Ochoa -- new mom and flutist



EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the second in a four-part series profiling the crew members of shuttle mission STS-96, scheduled to take off Thursday. The remaining installments will appear on Tuesday and Wednesday.

HOUSTON (CNN) -- I've read a lot of official NASA astronaut biographies, and Rick Husband's stands out for a very important reason.

No, he hasn't flown higher or faster or better than any of his type-A colleagues, but he is the only person I've met wearing that royal blue flight suit who listed "spending time with his family" as a personal interest.

I was impressed, and I told him so when I met him. "I really do enjoy spending time with my wife and my kids," came the response. "I have a daughter Laura who's eight and a half and a son Matthew who's three and a half. And they're just the joys of my life."

Rick has spent a lot of time in his daughter's classroom doing demonstrations and talking about what it's like to be an astronaut. (How would you like to follow an astronaut on career day at your kid's school?)

"It's great to see all the excitement that they have about space and exploring," says Rick. Maybe he sees a little something of himself as he looks into those curious, enthusiastic eyes.

"I wanted to be an astronaut since I was about four years old and so that's the thing that I tried to pursue as I've gone through my life," says Rick, now a 41-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel and shuttle pilot.

Hailing from Amarillo, Texas, he achieved his goal via Texas Tech (BS in mechanical engineering) and California State University-Fresno (MS in ME) and then onto the Air Force. He flew F-4s and F-15s and earned his test pilot wings over California's high desert.

So how does a family man reconcile his love for wife and children with the risk he will take on his first shuttle ride? "Well I think about the risks some," says Rick. "It's something that crosses your mind every once in a while, but not something that you dwell on."

Also on Rick's list of personal interests: singing. For some reason he wasn't inclined to give me an impromptu a cappella concert as our camera rolled. But he is flying with a very musical crew. Julie Payette and Ellen Ochoa are also accomplished musicians.

So might we hear some kind of concert from space during the mission?

"We'll kind of have to see if we don't just do something on the spot while we're up there, you know," says Rick. Suffice to say it is not in the timeline.

Ellen Ochoa -- new mom and flutist

What an amazing year Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa is having. A year ago Monday, she was delivering her first child -- a boy she and her husband named Wilson. Unfortunately, she could not be with him for his first birthday -- as she was settling in to the astronaut quarters at the Cape in anticipation of Thursday's launch.


How did she juggle the demands of motherhood and mission training? It wasn't easy. But Ellen has a deceptively simple approach: "I just spent as much time as with him as I could when we were not training."

If you include her time in quarantine (a week before the flight), she and Wilson will be separated for nearly three weeks. It's a long time for a 1-year-old (not to mention the mother of a 1-year-old), so Ellen made a little video for him: "it's of me doing things with him that my husband can show him every night while I'm gone. And that way he'll get a chance to see me every day even though I won't be there in person." Beats Teletubbies.

Ellen studied physics in her undergrad years at San Diego State -- and then earned masters and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford. (This can be such a humbling beat for your intrepid, albeit academically underachieving, correspondent.)

She became interested in optical detection systems that find small, subtle objects in larger images. She earned a patent (to which Stanford holds rights) for a novel way to find visual needles in haystacks no matter where the needles are or which way they are pointing.

How did that lead to the astronaut corps? Well, optics alone are not enough for Dr. Ochoa. She is interested in a lot of fields and finds doing research in space "very appealing."

Ellen is a classical flutist, and on her first flight (STS- 56 in 1993) brought her instrument along for the ride. During some free time, she grabbed it and some sheet music. "You can hold the music up and you don't even need a music stand," she says with a laugh.

So what did she play? Well after satisfying the Marine Corps colonel commanding the mission (Ken Cameron) with a flute rendition of "The Marine Corps Hymn," she floated toward a window and let Vivaldi and Mozart pass through her flute as the blue planet passed beneath her. "It's a very fond memory," says Ellen. "It was just very peaceful."

Still, she won't be bringing her instrument along this time. "In reality there's so little time to do anything like that." Too bad.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN Interactive.

City in Space

Downlinks archive

Shuttle astronauts set for very busy mission
May 13, 1999
Shuttle returns from first space station assembly mission
December 15, 1998

NASA Human Spaceflight
United Space Alliance
Kennedy Space Center
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