Astronaut Ken Reightler has had to wait four long years for his first ride aboard the space shuttle, but NASA is unexpectedly making up for it.
The 40-year-old Navy commander -- only the second Maryland native admitted to the elite astronaut corps -- will fly two months sooner than originally scheduled, on Sept. 19 aboard the shuttle Discovery.
"The normal course of events is delay," said Commander Reightler, who was born at the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Southern Maryland and has family in Catonsville and on the Eastern Shore. "Believe me, I'm not complaining."
He has been assigned as pilot on the STS-48 flight in September, a five-day mission to deploy a science satellite -- the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite -- and to extensively photograph the Earth.
Discovery's orbital altitude of 345 miles will be the second-highest ever achieved by a space shuttle, after the 380 miles with the same shuttle during the Hubble Space Telescope mission last April.
Shuttles normally orbit about 160 miles above the Earth.
"The view from that altitude is pretty dramatic," said Commander Reightler. "We're going to take along as many cameras and as much film as we can to document it."
Flying in space will fulfill a childhood dream for the U.S. Naval Academy graduate, a test pilot who was on his third tour of duty at Patuxent River -- his father had been stationed there before retirement from a long Navy career -- when chosen as an astronaut in 1987.
The first Maryland astronaut is Marsha S. Ivins, a Baltimore native who entered the NASA program in 1984. She flew on a 10-day mission in January 1990, the longest shuttle flight to date.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Samuel Durrance, a Lutherville resident who flew on the nine-day Astro mission in December, is a native of south Florida.
Commander Reightler has trained hard at astronaut headquarters at Johnson Space Center in Houston since his selection. "We don't just stand in line waiting for our launch," he said. "This is a busy, committed job. It takes an incredible number of people to launch a shuttle."
Among his responsibilities was serving as the astronaut weather coordinator for 11 shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, from the post-Challenger resumption of flight in September 1988 through Discovery's most recent launch, in October 1990.
But he's now in full-time training for his responsibilities as pilot and one of two crew members who will operate the shuttle's 50-foot robot arm to deploy the UARS satellite.
The pilot on a shuttle mission functions primarily as a co-pilot to the commander -- Navy Capt. John Creighton on the STS-48 flight -- but also controls an abundance of critical orbiter systems from his right-hand cockpit seat.
And "the biggest thrill of my life, my main claim to fame," Commander Reightler joked, "is to lower the landing gear."
Home for the astronaut and his family since 1987 has been a waterfront community near Johnson Space Center. His wife, Maureen, is a registered nurse now studying for a master's degree in clinical psychology. The couple has two daughters, Katie, 12, and Emily, 7.
"Houston certainly doesn't match the beauty of the Eastern Shore," said Commander Reightler. He fondly recalls summers as a youth spent on Tilghman Island, where his mother's family lived. His parents now reside in Virginia Beach, Va.
But he's happy to be part of the tight-knit astronaut community, a group he describes as "not as vanilla or stamped out of the same cookie cutter as they're often portrayed. This is an incredibly diverse group, and I enjoy going flying with them."