Marylander joins class of elite with right stuff

NASA: Richard `Ricky' Arnold II, who grew up in Bowie and now teaches in Romania, is introduced as an astronaut recruit.

May 07, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

CHANTILLY, Va. -- They don't know when they'll fly, where they'll go, or even how they'll get there.

But that didn't stop a new group of 11 men and women from joining the elite ranks of NASA's astronaut corps. The 2004 class -- which includes one Marylander -- was introduced for the first time to a cheering crowd of schoolchildren at the National Air and Space Museum's cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport yesterday.

Richard "Ricky" Arnold II, a 40-year-old science teacher who grew up in Bowie and teaches seventh grade at an international school in Romania, knows he is joining the space agency during one of the most murky moments in its 66-year history.

With the shuttle fleet grounded after last year's crash of Columbia, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is scrambling to come to grips with President Bush's bold -- and pricey -- new vision for its future. As part of this vision, the president proposes retiring the shuttle and building a new breed of spacecraft, tentatively dubbed a Crew Exploration Vehicle, to carry astronauts beyond Earth's orbit to the moon and to Mars.

But whether the space agency can make this happen is still anybody's guess. If this uncertain future bothered any of NASA's new recruits yesterday, none showed signs of it.

Wearing big smiles and spotless blue flight suits, Arnold and his classmates stood in front of the space shuttle Enterprise, signed autographs for giggling schoolgirls and mugged for family photographs.

Like most of his companions, Arnold said he was fulfilling a childhood dream and could dredge up "no more powerful" memory than watching the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon. After a moment's pause, he added: "That and watching Brooks Robinson playing third base at Memorial Stadium."

Arnold's wife, Eloise, said her husband's dream of going into space has even had a noticeable effect on the couple's entertainment habits. "We've watched The Right Stuff like 80 million times," she said, referring to the classic 1983 film about the Mercury astronauts.

Arnold joins a privileged circle of Marylanders, including Baltimore natives Thomas D. Jones and Robert L. Curbeam Jr., who survived NASA's brutally competitive selection process. The agency, which assembles a new astronaut class typically every one to three years, has 158 active astronauts on its roster. Arnold and his classmates were chosen from 2,882 applicants, officials said.

A father of two girls, Jessica, 6, and Carrie, 8, Arnold has a history of exploration and adventure, family members say. As a child he liked ferreting out fossils and trapping turtles on the golf course across the street from his Bowie home.

After earning an accounting degree and teaching credentials from Frostburg State University and a master's degree in marine biology from the University of Maryland, he briefly taught school in Charles County before applying to a program that allowed him to teach overseas.

Since 1993 he has worked in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and, beginning last year, at the American International School of Bucharest.

Spotting an online reference to NASA's Educator Astronaut program one morning while living in Indonesia, he decided to apply. His class generously wrote him one of his first letters of recommendation.

Then the Columbia disintegrated. Arnold and his wife talked about the risks of space flight, but Arnold said the conversation was short. "It was pretty much unanimous," he said. If picked, he would go.

NASA had intended to announce who had made the 2004 class in February. But then President Bush turned the agency upside down. Time passed and Arnold didn't hear anything. He told friends at his Romanian school it might be a bad sign.

Then Arnold's cell phone rang one day last month. He was on a fishing trip in Key West, Fla., with his father. He heard his wife's voice say: "Call Houston, they're looking for you."

Arnold ended up as one of three teachers in the 2004 astronaut class. He said that under the circumstances, he has no idea when he might fly or what he might do in space. It's possible that someone in his class might be the first to pilot the new Crew Exploration Vehicles.

As someone who describes teaching as his "true calling," Arnold said that no matter what he does as an astronaut, he is convinced that he can use the opportunity to get kids excited about science and space.

Before he left Romania for Houston last week, the 460 students in his current school jammed the auditorium to send him off. Lynn Wells, the school's admissions director, said Arnold told the kids that, given his age, becoming an astronaut wasn't so much about him as it was about them.

"I'm not going to the moon," he said. "You're going to the moon."

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