William Oefelein
William Oefelein

William Oefelein takes his love of exploration to the International Space Station as the pilot of December’s Discovery mission.

Since it went into orbit in 1998, the International Space Station has been running on a temporary electrical system, basically a generator in outer space.

But with the installation of two new electricity-generating solar array panels in September, all of the pieces are in place for the permanent electrical system to take over. That leaves rewiring the entire station to hook it up to the new system.

That will be the task of astronauts on the Space Shuttle Discovery, and included among them is William Oefelein, who received his electrical engineering degree from OSU in 1988 before becoming a pilot in the U.S. Navy and later an astronaut.

Oefelein, called “Billy-O” by his fellow astronauts, will be piloting the spacecraft for the mission during which he and the seven-member crew will reconfigure the electrical system and add a truss segment that will accommodate more solar arrays.

“This will allow us to gain more power in order to do more science,” Oefelein says. “The mission will be full of challenges, but a lot of fun.”

As Discovery’s pilot, Oefelein will undock Discovery from the space station, coordinate the mission’s three spacewalks and use the shuttle’s robotic arm to inspect for any damage. He is making his first flight in space. “I’m really looking forward to wearing a lot of hats,” he says.

Becoming an astronaut wasn’t always a goal. “As a kid, I always liked math and science,” he says. “I never really wanted to become an astronaut; I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore.”

In the Navy, he became a test pilot, and the idea of becoming an astronaut grew on him. He applied and was selected by NASA in June 1998. He had been scheduled to make his first shuttle trip in 2003, but the Columbia disaster during reentry in February of that year put the program on hold. Now shuttles are flying again and Oefelein’s turn has come.

Oefelein is the second OSU alumnus to fly in the shuttle program, following Donald Petit, who was on the space station in 1998 and had to remain there for nearly six months when the program was shut down. Finally he returned safely to Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Ron Adams, dean of engineering at Oregon State, says having two alumni as shuttle astronauts is an honor for the university. “I’m proud to be associated with an engineering program that counts among its ranks such stellar individuals as Bill Oefelein and Don Pettit. Their work inspires young people to pursue careers in engineering, which helps keep America on the cutting edge of innovation.”

NASA site for Discovery mission

NASA interview with William Oefelein

OSU College of Engineering

Don Petit space flight story

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