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KNOXVILLE — As a boy growing up in Alaska, Bill Oefelein’s sense of adventure was more about exploring the woods than exploring the stars. After a time, though, he was drawn to the skies. He learned to fly bush planes at a young age and eventually became a Navy test pilot.

NASA pilot and UTSI grad Bill Oefelein
NASA pilot and UTSI grad Bill Oefelein
It was the desire to face greater challenges as a pilot that made Oefelein, an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, seek to fly a vehicle unlike any other: the Space Shuttle.

Oefelein, 41, who earned his master’s in Aviation Systems at the UT Space Institute, will get his chance to explore the final frontier as the pilot of the Space Shuttle Discovery, set to lift off Saturday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission, STS-116, centers around making a major addition to the International Space Station, as well as exchanging a crew member on the station.

“I never really, as a kid, wanted to become an astronaut; I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore,” said Oefelein in a NASA interview. “A lot of folks who do that test pilot work also went on to fly space shuttles. I started talking to a bunch of those folks, and at that point, it just seemed natural for me to go to the next phase and try to fly space shuttles.”

This is the first trip to space for Oefelein, who graduated in 1998. He will direct three spacewalks that take place during the mission. During the first, two astronauts will add a large truss to the outside of the space station that will be used to support a new array of solar panels to be delivered on a future mission. The truss, known as P5, is a critical element for the station’s completion.

“[Adding the truss] allows us to get more solar arrays out there,” said Oefelein. “More solar arrays, more power, more electricity to the space station so we can do more in the space station itself.”

UT Associate Vice President Donald Daniel, who serves as chief operating officer for UTSI, said that Oefelein’s flight was a point of pride for UTSI, which counts eight alumni among the NASA astronaut corps.

“We are obviously very proud of Bill Oefelein and the numerous astronaut graduates of UTSI,” said Daniel. “They have contributed significantly to our nation’s accomplishments in space exploration and also to its technical base. These pioneers have earned the respect and admiration of millions in the United States and around the world, and we wish Bill and his colleagues God speed, a highly successful mission and a safe return.”

During the other two spacewalks astronauts will update and reconfigure the electrical systems on the space station to accommodate solar panels that were added on a previous trip. The process, which will require turning off the power to certain elements of the station as the systems are reconfigured, is complex but necessary, according to Oefelein.

Oefelein describes his position in the shuttle during the spacewalks as a “nest” where he’ll communicate with the spacewalking astronauts and oversee their activities in partnership with mission control in Houston. The staff on the ground will monitor the status of the both the shuttle and the station as the spacewalks take place. During the spacewalks, Oefelein will be wearing four or five different watches, each set to monitor various timeframes that are critical to the mission.

Toward the end of the mission, Oefelein will undock the shuttle from the station and pilot the shuttle around it to allow his fellow astronauts to photograph the station with its new addition and evaluate its condition after the work that they performed.

The mission is scheduled to last 12 days. Oefelein will be writing a blog throughout the course of the mission answering questions from students in his home state and providing updates and insight from the shuttle. The blog is located at

Jay Mayfield, UT Media Relations (865-974-9409)