Reaching for stars, dream is realized

December 29, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,

It's not like Terry Virts knew, as a kid growing up in Baltimore and Columbia, that he would one day become an astronaut and rocket off into space.

"I realized how unlikely it was," he says.

But he sure liked the idea. Spaceflight fascinated him since kindergarten, when he first picked up a book about the Apollo moon landings. So "in the back of my mind, I always did the things I needed to do to keep doors open."

This month, NASA assigned the 41-year-old Air Force colonel to pilot the space shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station. The 11-day mission, scheduled for next December, will be Virts' first spaceflight in his nearly 10 years with the astronaut corps.

"It's been a long time waiting to [realize] a lifelong goal," he says. "We're very excited."

With some luck, he says, this shuttle flight will lead to another, and perhaps to a six-month tour aboard the space station - and maybe, one day, a trip beyond.

"I'd love to go to the moon," he says, uttering a wish that, in his case, might actually come true. NASA's flight plans call for a lunar landing by 2020.

"I'll be 52, younger than a lot of folks who fly on the shuttle now," Virts says. "Most astronauts would say that would be the ultimate thing, to set foot on another planet."

Virts is the latest in a growing list of Baltimore-born astronauts to step into space, a list that includes Thomas D. Jones, Robert L. Curbeam and Marsha S. Ivins, who flew together aboard the shuttle Atlantis in February 2001.

Virts was born at St. Agnes Hospital on Dec. 1, 1967. His family lived in the southwestern section of the city but later moved to Columbia. There he became best friends with Mark E. Wilding, now a math and science supervisor for Calvert County schools. Bikes, BB guns and two-on-two street football were staples.

"When we were little kids, I distinctly remember playing touch football, and when an airplane would fly over, Terry would look up and identify the kind of airplane it was," Wilding says.

Todd Pittman, now a physics professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was a year behind Virts at Oakland Mills High School. He remembers him as "one of the guys, but pretty obviously a lot smarter than the rest of us."

Virts describes Oakland Mills as a great school "for keeping kids focused on their future." He excelled in math, taking two years of calculus. He confesses to less-than-stellar grades in French and English.

"Madame [Paula] Micka remembers me probably for being the bad French speaker in her class. I never got A's in French ... not in English, either."

It was at Oakland Mills that Virts met his future wife, Stacy Hill of Columbia, whom he married after graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1989. They have two children and now live in the Houston area.

Virts chose to attend the academy "because I wanted to fly and be in the Air Force." But he was keeping open the doors to space, majoring first in aeronautical engineering, and later in math.

He spent part of his senior year in southern France on an exchange program with the French Air Force Academy. He took his course work in applied mathematics entirely in French and gained fluency. "You can tell I'm an American, for sure," he says of his accent. "But when I'm in France, I just speak French." Madame Micka would be proud.

After graduating, Virts entered flight school, training in the F-16. He was assigned to a fighter squadron at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. Later duty took him to Korea, Germany and Iraq, where he flew 45 combat missions in the 1990s, patrolling the "no-fly zones" imposed on Saddam Hussein's military after the first Gulf War.

He returned to enter Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was a test pilot when he was accepted by NASA to the astronaut corps.

With two large classes of astronauts ahead of his, Virts figured he'd wait at least five years to get a shuttle flight. But the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003 "slowed things down by three or four years," he says. He spent the time training, testing shuttle electronics and supporting space station and shuttle crews.

Formal training for his mission begins in January, but Virts is already busy practicing shuttle landing approaches aboard a Gulfstream business jet modified to handle like the shuttle.

End eavour will be delivering a new station module for crew quarters, plus a seven-window cupola to be used as a control center for the station's robotic arms. "It will probably be [the astronauts'] favorite part of the space station, because of the view you'll have with seven windows," he says.

His tasks on the mission will include the "care and feeding" of the shuttle, coordinating the spacewalks and operating the shuttle's robotic arms.

Virts would someday like to be part of a six-month tour on the space station, which might be the hardest assignment NASA offers, he says. With two to three years of training, much of it in Russia or other countries, "it's pretty much signing up to miss a couple of years of your kids' [lives]. But it's a chance to live in outer space for six months, too."

For now, he says, "I'm happy to have this one flight."

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