Annapolis man hits finals in race for space He hopes he passed test to become an astronaut

February 05, 1996|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Before his father died of cancer a decade ago, Paul W. Richards pledged that within 10 years he would become an astronaut.

Last week, Mr. Richards took his final steps toward making good on his promise. The 31-year-old Annapolis resident completed a final battery of medical and psychological tests at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and was found qualified to become an astronaut.

Now he must wait until mid-April, when officials will select about 20 applicants who will be eligible for space flight in August 1997.

"I'm a little nervous," said Mr. Richards, a senior extravehicular-activity tool development engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. "But I'll endure almost anything to become part of the crew."

Mr. Richards is one of 2,500 men and women who have applied to become astronauts. He was among 123 who were invited to Houston to answer more than 2,500 written questions and undergo exhaustive mental drills, such as a claustrophobia test in which applicants are zipped into a 3-foot-diameter plastic bubble and left in the dark.

It is not known how many of the 123 candidates passed the final series of tests.

For Mr. Richards, the dream of becoming an astronaut began when he was a child in Dunmore, Pa.

"The first time I can remember seeing an astronaut was when I was in kindergarten watching the Apollo launches," Mr. Richards recalled. "At that point I wanted to be an astronaut. Then again, at that point, I also wanted to be a spy like James Bond."

When he enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Mr. Richards heard that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was accepting applications from engineers and scientists who wanted to become astronauts. As a result, he decided to study mechanical engineering.

In his senior year, his father, James J. Richards, was diagnosed with cancer and became gravely ill. Paul Richards left school for part of that fall semester to be with his father during his final days.

"I told him that within two years I'd be working for NASA, within five years I'd have my master's degree and within 10 years I'd be an astronaut," Mr. Richards said. "It was sort of a promise I made to him."

After he graduated from Drexel with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Mr. Richards got a job at Goddard. In 1991, he earned his master's degree from the University of Maryland. And on Jan. 26, he was told he was qualified to be an astronaut.

For now, Mr. Richards is making final revisions in a pistol grip tool, a more advanced version of a power drill and screwdriver that is linked to a computer. The tool can record a mechanical problem and store the information.

"I've been trying to get back to my normal routine, but it's difficult. With my friends and family asking me how I did, it's hard to get my mind off of it," he said, referring to his astronaut testing.

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