March 11, 2008

Pattonville Grad is Bound for Space Station

MARYLAND HEIGHTS -- This morning, Pattonville High School will screen a slide show tribute to astronaut Robert Behnken in every classroom.

At the same time, Behnken will likely be in space, his shuttle on course to meet the International Space Station 220 miles above the earth.

Behnken, 37 and a 1988 Pattonville grad, is one of seven astronauts set to launch early this morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a 16-day mission, the longest ever to the station.

NASA said Monday evening that weather reports looked good. The Endeavour was prepared for takeoff.

It is part of a historic flurry of activity. The United States, in partnership with Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada, has roughly 12 shuttle launches left to complete the station. When finished, it will be a testing ground for space living: teaching astronauts to grow their own food and survive on multi-month trips further afield -- to the moon, even Mars.

Behnken, who was preparing for the trip and unavailable to comment, is charged with key steps of the voyage.

He will operate the docking system that will connect the shuttle to the station Wednesday night. He will help unload a section of the new Japanese laboratory. He is scheduled to go out on three of the five space walks -- attaching a new set of Canadian robotic hands to the station's 55-foot-long robotic arm, and testing a new fix-it spackle that could repair damaged shuttle heat shields in orbit.

Behnken's NASA bio says he grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Maryland Heights. After Pattonville High, he got degrees in mechanical engineering and physics from Washington University in St. Louis, and then a master's and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology.

Behnken was an ROTC student at Washington U., joined the Air Force after grad school, and rose to major.

NASA selected him as a mission specialist in 2000. He is now one of just 110 active U.S. astronauts. He has been preparing for this mission since then. He has over 1,000 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft types, according to the NASA biographical information, but this is his first trip to space.

Teachers at Pattonville are excited about the flight. They remember Behnken as breaking stereotypes -- both smart and athletic, popular and kind.

The science department leader, Jo Ellen Leeke, put together the slide show in his honor. The school will show it in every classroom this morning, through closed-circuit TVs.

It features Behnken training for his flight, trying on space suits, and even mugging for the camera as a Pattonville varsity football player. Teachers at the school are proud.

"He's the youngest one on the crew," Leeke said. "To get this far this fast in the astronaut program is just incredible."

Behnken remembered Pattonville, too. He invited his high school English teacher, Judy Mitchell-Miller, to come to Florida to watch the launch.

Jamey Dunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.