Bob Behnken is helping NASA usher in a new era.
The astronaut, who grew up in St. Ann, has nearly 40 hours walking in the vacuum of space. Now he is part of the crew that will conduct the first human test flights for the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.
The vessel is a joint venture with entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Corporation. Behnken recently discussed the mission, the impact of his St. Louis-area education and his time spent high above the Earth with St. Louis Public Radio's Wayne Pratt:
Plans call for the vessel to serve as a kind of space taxi, shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Behnken is part of a two-member crew that will test the spacecraft. If all goes well, it will be cleared for a four-member crew to make trips to the space station. The test process involves making sure the spacecraft can successfully launch out of Florida and dock with the station through what Behnken describes as a series of safe maneuvers.
"Fundamentally, we want to make sure that when we fire little thrusters, for example, on our ship, that that doesn't in some way damage the space station."
"The space shuttle was a really big rocket," according to Behnken. He said the solid rocket boosters that propelled those shuttles into orbit created a lot of vibration. This experience will be different, he said.
"The Dragon spacecraft we expect to be a very smooth ride."
Behnken added that the new vehicle should be safer. It needs less explosive propellant to get into orbit.
"That's another aspect that I'm really looking forward to. The safety improvements that come with a rocket being a little bit smaller."
Many astronauts get the bug to go into orbit when they are children. Behnken's journey is a little different. He didn’t start seriously thinking about the space program until college. He was an ROTC student at Washington University and chose astronaut for his first active-duty assignment.
"I had kind of done it in a joking fashion," he said.
The Air Force responded by saying more work was needed before he could be considered. Behnken formally applied for the astronaut program a few years later as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology and was selected by NASA in 2000.
Since then, he's been part of two space shuttle flights and conducted six spacewalks, totalling nearly 40 hours.
Behnken went to Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, where he took university calculus and a couple years of physics and chemistry.
"Those were topics that interested me," he said. "I wasn't trying to be an astronaut when I took those classes, but they certainly set me up for success years later."
That foundation is one of the reasons why Behnken is a strong supporter of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — or STEM — education. He thinks such a background helps prepare people to make good, logical decisions in many different areas that could be considered "much more mundane than a guidance problem to get to the International Space Station."
"I don't think there is anything that can prepare you for that moment," he said about viewing the planet from outside a spaceship.
But he also said it took a while to truly take it all in. He was concerned initially about completing missions and not letting down the thousands of support people at NASA.
"It was probably my third or fourth spacewalk before I was really able to appreciate that awe and wonder," he said. "Just watching the earth and the thunderstorms and the sunrises and the sunset and the multiple cloud layers at the same time and really take that in and appreciate it."
An exact date is not set for Behnken’s first test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon. But NASA says that mission should be this coming April. Behnken says that could change, depending on all the work leading up to launch.
Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter: @WayneRadio