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Mastracchio moved to Houston in 1987 to join Rockwell International supporting space shuttle missions. He joined NASA in 1990 as an engineer responsible for development and validation of space shuttle flight software. Three years later, he became a NASA flight controller and supported 17 space shuttle missions as the guidance and procedures officer (GPO) in Mission Control during the critical launch and landing phases of the missions.

His perseverance and hard work finally paid off when Mastracchio was selected as an astronaut in 1996 as part of NASA’s 16th astronaut class. “It took me about 14 years of working as an engineer, three college degrees, nine years of astronaut applications, and three interviews to finally get selected,” he says.

During his first space mission on STS-106 aboard Atlantis in 2000, Mastracchio participated in one of the first missions to the International Space Station, helping to prepare it for its first permanent crew. He served as flight engineer during ascent and entry, was the primary robotic arm operator, and was responsible for the transfer of more than 6,000 pounds of supplies from the shuttle to the space station. “When I was on orbit for those two weeks on STS-106, every time you looked out the window at the Earth, you saw something more beautiful than the day before,” Mastracchio says.

Students and young engineers often ask his advice about career paths to pursue — and this may seem surprising. “The best way to become an astronaut is not to try to become an astronaut,” he says. “Try to find something you really enjoy, get really, really good at it and then apply to become an astronaut. And then, you’ll have a chance of being selected. And if you don’t get selected, you’ll still have a great job that you’re enjoying that you’re good at. It’s a tough road, but it’s definitely worth it.” Mastracchio was rewarded for his thorough preparation. Based on his extensive experience as a flight controller in mission control, he was chosen to serve as flight engineer during the ascent and entry phases of the mission.

Hanging By a Tether

Like all shuttle missions, STS-118 is about the future: putting the International Space Station a step closer to completion and gathering experience that will help people return to the moon and go on to Mars.

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-118 mission was the 119th flight in space shuttle history and the 22nd shuttle flight to the International Space Station. The space shuttle, the most complex machine ever built, is the only spacecraft with its robust capacity. The shuttle’s capacity enables humans today to build the world’s largest orbiting laboratory, paving the way to further exploration of the universe.

The STS-118 flight crew trained for more than a year and performed about 100 simulated ascents and entries in the shuttle training simulators at Johnson Space Center. The commander and pilot also made hundreds of practice landings in a modified Gulfstream II business jet called the Shuttle Training Aircraft.

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“It took me about 14 years of working as an engineer, three college degrees, nine years of astronaut applications, and three interviews to finally get selected.”
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Mastracchio served as the lead Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) astronaut and was responsible for leading the spacewalking team during training for the mission. “A spacewalk is a very detailed procedure that is highly choreographed,” he says. He and his crewmates practiced their spacewalks during simulations using the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center near Houston. The lab is a large 202-by-102-by-40-foot swimming pool that allows astronauts to practice underwater in an environment that comes close to the feeling of weightlessness that they will experience in orbit. Mastracchio’s crew did about 40 NBL runs in the 18 months leading up to the mission. “My goal while training for this mission was to not have any surprises,” he says.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.