Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Three To Be Enshrined In Astronaut Hall Of Fame

A plasma physicist now working on advanced rocket propulsion technology, the U.S. military's highest-ranking spaceman and a former NASA Chief Astronaut will be inducted this May into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Franklin Chang-Diaz, Kevin Chilton and Charlie Precourt will join the likes of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride in the hall of fame, which is located just outside the main gate to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The addition of the three will bring to 82 the number of astronauts so enshrined. They tallied the most votes on ballots submitted by a committee of 80 astronaut inductees, retired NASA and contractor officials, historians and journalists.

Chang-Diaz is the co-holder of the U.S. record for the greatest number of missions flown. Both he and Jerry Ross flew seven shuttle missions. Chang-Diaz first flew in space on a crew that included current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando. He flew on four of NASA's five shuttle orbiters, helped deploy the Galileo spacecraft on its mission to Jupiter, twice tested the Italian Tethered Satellite System and worked on both the Russian Mir space station and the International Space Station.

Born in Costa Rica, Chang-Diaz became the first naturalized U.S. citizen to be selected to the astronaut corp when he joined the Class of 1980. An accomplished plasma physicist with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he left NASA in 2005 and founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company, where he is continuing work on an advanced electrical propulsion system that theoretically could cut the travel time to Mars to 39 days. Travel time to Mars with conventional chemical rockets would be at least six months.

Chilton piloted Endeavour on its inaugural mission, a dramatic May 1992 flight to rescue a stranded Intelsat communications satellite.

He also piloted Endeavour on the Space Radar Laboratory mission in 1994 and commanded the third shuttle mission to the Mir space station.

Chilton served as a deputy program manager for operations in the International Space Station office at Johnson Space Center before he left NASA in 1998.

He went on to become the commander of Air Force Space Command and Air Force Strategic Command and retired as a four-star general in February 2011 -- the highest military rank ever held by a U.S. astronaut.

Precourt served as NASA's Chief Astronaut during the first four years of International Space Station assembly, a time period that stretched from October 1998 through November 2002. Prior to that, he was director of NASA operations at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City outside Moscow.

A veteran of four shuttle flights, Precourt served as a mission specialist on a German Spacelab mission in 1993. He was aboard Columbia during a launch-pad abort in March of that year. The shuttle's three main engines ignited and then shut down three seconds prior to a planned liftoff. Shuttle computers detected a potential problem with purge pressure readings in the oxidizer preburner of Engine No. 2. All three engines subsequently were replaced at the launch pad and Columbia finally launched in late April 1993.

Precourt also piloted Atlantis on the historic first shuttle docking at the Mir space station, and he commanded two other shuttle missions to the Russian outpost. He left NASA in 2005 and now is vice president and general manager of launch systems for ATK, the company that manufactured shuttle solid rocket boosters.

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