Although he forged an unfortunate place in popular culture and gained intense media attention in early 2007 as part of a bizarre “love triangle,” former shuttle astronaut Bill Oefelein—who turns 50 today (Sunday, 29 March)—also became the first Alaskan ever to embark on a space voyage and the first person to write a blog whilst in orbit. Nicknamed “Billy O,” he served as pilot aboard Discovery during STS-116 in December 2006 and, following his departure from NASA in May of the following year, he founded AdventureWrite, a freelance photography and writing company, which he has described as “a venue to chronicle life’s adventurous journey and share that journey with others.” From his birth in Virginia, through his upbringing in Alaska, to flying the shuttle, Oefelein has lived, and continues to live, a life of adventure and exploration.
He was born William Anthony Oefelein in Ft. Belvoir, Va., on 29 March 1965, the son of Randall and Billye Oefelein, although his formative years were spent in Anchorage, in south-central Alaska. His family always owned dogs, including Great Danes, a few mutts, and in later life Oefelein had some Boxers as pets. “They’re great dogs,” he told a questioner in his blog, which he wrote whilst on-orbit in December 2006. “Friendly, and they are very family-oriented.” In his youth, Oefelein was drawn to the outdoors. “I always liked exploring,” he told a NASA interviewer. “I was in the Scouts and did a lot of camping and hiking. As I got older, given the vastness of the state and the lack of roads and all, it became apparent to me the best way to get out and do some of the exploring was by flying airplanes.” As a result, Oefelein learned to fly and soloed at the age of 14. He later earned his pilot’s license, together with a float-plane rating, and was able to begin his journey of exploration across Alaska. After completing high school in Anchorage in 1983, he studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University and graduated in 1988. He was the first member of his family to attend college. Whilst there, he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon—known by its creed of “The True Gentleman”—fraternity.
By this stage in his life, he was drawn to military service, primarily to satisfy his love of aviation and exploration, and received his commission as an ensign in the Navy from Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla. Oefelein entered flight training in 1989 and was designated a naval aviator in September 1990. He reported to Marine Fighter/Attack Training Squadron 101 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., for initial F/A-18 Hornet training, after which he was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 146 at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., where he participated in overseas deployments to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch. In 1993, whilst aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, he sailed past India, a country he would visit two decades later, in 2013. During this period, Oefelein also attended the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School—the famed “Top Gun”—and was assigned as the squadron’s Air-to-Air Weapons and Tactics Officer.
“As I was flying for the Navy, I was always interested in engineering,” he explained. “I decided to apply for the Test Pilot Program. 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.” Having said this, it was exploration—rather than space exploration—which inspired Oefelein as a child, and, by his own admission, he grew up with no yearning to become an astronaut. “I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore,” he said. “I always liked math and science.” These factors together made him realize that he possessed the technical qualities to apply to NASA. He was selected for Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., and attended the course from January-December 1995, after which he was assigned to Strike Aircraft Test Squadron as an F/A-18 Project Officer and Test Pilot.
Years later, when questioned about the difficulties associated with astronaut training, Oefelein was philosophical. “In truth, some of the things I did in the Navy were more challenging,” he explained, “such as graduating from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and landing on an aircraft carrier at night in bad weather.”
Just over a year after graduation, in February 1997, Oefelein returned to Pax River as an instructor, flying the F/A-18, T-2 Buckeye and U-6 Beaver aircraft. He later transferred to Carrier Air Wing 8 at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., where he served as the Strike Operations Officer, before being selected as one of eight shuttle pilot candidates by NASA in June 1998. His class was the 17th group of astronauts selected since the “Mercury Seven” and, in keeping with a general tradition, settled on the nickname “Penguins.” It would appear that the class—which boasted among its number the final shuttle commander and the world’s most experienced female spacewalker—was originally dubbed “The Dodos,” after the extinct flightless bird, on account of the fact that Group 16 (the “Sardines”) was so large in number that their successors would remain flightless for a long time. However, it is believed that Group 17 wreaked their revenge by changing their nickname to Penguins, who are also flightless, but are known to eat sardines. …
In the year of his selection as an astronaut, Oefelein earned a master’s degree in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee Space Institute. He embarked upon two years of dedicated shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) training and later served in the Astronaut Office Advanced Vehicles Branch and worked as a Capcom for shuttle missions STS-109 and STS-110. It was in February 2002, whilst working on final preparations for STS-109—the fourth Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing mission—that Oefelein was summoned to the office of Chief Astronaut Charlie Precourt and notified of his assignment as Pilot on STS-116. “They said something about STS-116 and talked for another 30 minutes,” he remembered. “I caught about five or six words of that. I was pretty excited and went home and told my family. Maybe the hardest part about that is not sharing it with the rest of my family, beyond just my immediate family.”
Originally targeted for launch in May 2003, aboard Shuttle Atlantis, he would be joined by Commander Terry Wilcutt and Mission Specialists Bob Curbeam and Sweden’s Christer Fuglesang, for an 11-day flight which would deliver logistics and supplies to the ISS in a Spacehab single module and execute four EVAs to install the P-5 spacer segment onto the station’s steadily growing truss structure. Additionally, STS-116 would exchange the outgoing Expedition 7 crew for the incoming Expedition 8 crew.
With over 3,000 hours of flying time in 50 different aircraft and more than 200 carrier-assisted landings, Oefelein was actually one of the least experienced shuttle pilots among the Sardines, most of whom exceeded 5,000 hours. It is therefore admirable and a testament to his work ethic that, together with fellow Sardine Chris Ferguson—who was named as Pilot of STS-115 at the same time—Oefelein jointly became the first member of Group 17 to draw a flight assignment. However, shuttle program delays throughout the summer of 2002 caused STS-116 to slip and by the time of the Columbia disaster on 1 February 2003 the launch had been scheduled for no earlier than 24 July.
The tragic loss of Columbia and her crew led to the suspension of shuttle flight operations for more than two years, and it was not until July 2005 that the fleet returned to space. By that point, STS-116 had been realigned as a six-member crew, plus one Shuttle Rotating Expedition Crewmember (ShREC), with Wilcutt replaced in command by Mark Polansky. Oefelein, Curbeam, and Fuglesang retained their positions and were joined by two other Mission Specialists, Joan Higginbotham, and Nick Patrick, as well as exchanging Germany’s Thomas Reiter for U.S. astronaut Suni Williams on Expedition 14.
In its original, pre-Columbia incarnation and its eventual form, STS-116 was always significant in that Oefelein would become the first Alaskan to venture into space. In one of his newsletters, dated 1 March 2003, Sweden’s Christer Fuglesang described the original design for the crew patch. “Details used show the northern participation in the crew, the Swedish flag and the American flag,” he wrote. “The stars and the North Star are taken from the Alaska State Flag.” With the resumption of shuttle operations, STS-116 found itself rescheduled for launch in late 2006 and Discovery rocketed into orbit at 8:47 p.m. EST on 9 December. During the mission, which ran for almost 13 days, Oefelein became the first astronaut to write a blog whilst on-orbit.
In his first blog, on 16 December, he noted the excitement of the launch. “The sights and sounds and sensations,” he wrote, “were literally out of this world!” Oefelein found that he adapted to the microgravity environment with few difficulties and enjoyed the peculiarity of being able to sleep whilst anchored to the ceiling of the shuttle’s middeck and eat his meals when “upside down.” In terms of the freeze-dried foods, he thought that he would dislike the instant oatmeal, but it turned out to be acceptable, “because it’s like the instant oatmeal I take when I go camping.” However, the innate explorer was always drawn to the window and the view of the splendor of Earth. “The sights are incredible,” he wrote. “Whenever I can, I try to take a peek out the window. There is always something to see. We’ve seen thunderstorms, city lights, the Northern Lights, rivers, jungles, deserts, oceans and so much more. It is quite an experience.”
Late on 18 December, shortly after Discovery undocked from the ISS to begin her journey back home, Oefelein was rewarded with his first view of his hometown, Anchorage, from space. “It was a night pass, and as we came up the Aleutians, I could start to make out Kodiak, then Homer, Kenai, Soldotna and Seward,” he noted in one of his last blog entries. “Above them all from the angle I was looking was a big bunch of lights that was Anchorage. Just to the north of that, I could even make out Wasilla. So there I was on Discovery’s flight deck, with the cabin dim, looking out at seven cities in Alaska at the same time. There’s something special about seeing your home from the air and something I found even better about seeing it from space.”
Discovery returned to Earth on 22 December 2006, touching down at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 5:32 p.m. EST, to wrap up a mission of 12 days, 20 hours, and 44 minutes and a total of 203 orbits of the Home Planet. It is a pity that Oefelein’s sterling work on STS-116—arguably one of the most complex shuttle missions in history, boasting four EVAs and an extensive rewiring of the entire ISS—should have been overshadowed by events just a few weeks later. It is also sadly prophetic that one child’s innocent question on his STS-116 Blog asked him about his favorite and most embarrassing experience at NASA. “Hard to say,” was Oefelein’s reply. “Each day is a great day and each training session offers the chance to excel or not. I just strive to do my best.”
On 5 February 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested in Orlando, Fla., after assaulting Oefelein’s girlfriend, Colleen Shipman, and details of a notorious “love triangle” entered the public arena. Within a month, Nowak became the first astronaut to be formally dismissed from NASA, and, in May, Oefelein’s tenure with the space agency was also terminated and he returned to active service with the Navy. He subsequently retired from the military in the fall of 2008 and returned to Alaska to found AdventureWrite, a company dedicated to freelance adventure writing and photography, with Shipman, whom he married in 2010. “It began as a venue to chronicle life’s adventurous journey and share that journey with others,” Oefelein explained in an interview. “It has grown from there. It now includes one of the U.S.’s only free writing contests for kids, as well as a writing tutorial. Over 50 educators in the U.S. currently use our tutorial and writing contest as part of their curriculum.”
AdventureWrite certainly harks back to Oefelein’s lifelong fascination with exploration. “It is important that young people dream,” he said. “This is what makes an explorer and adventurer. It is also important to clearly convey thoughts and experiences. The kids’ writing contest helps motivate kids to write and to hone their writing skills. It provides an opportunity to dream and share that dream with others.” He added that traits of his own “adventurous” personality had led him to develop the necessary skills—including adaptability, teamwork, and a well-rounded background—to become an astronaut. Added to those factors is the awareness that the risk is worthy of the reward. “Flying into space involves great risks,” he told the Times of India in 2013. “But without risks, one cannot achieve great things.”