CAPE CANAVERAL — Two science teachers who have spent the past five years under NASA's tutelage are about to graduate with high-flying honors.
The space shuttle flight Wednesday night of Joseph Acaba, 41, and Richard Arnold II, 45, will mark the first time two one-time teachers have rocketed into space together. And during the two-week construction mission to the international space station, both will attempt multiple space walks — the most dangerous job in orbit.
The flight on shuttle Discovery was delayed a month because of concerns about hydrogen gas valves in the engine compartment. After extra tests, NASA deemed the spacecraft safe to fly.
Discovery's astronauts arrived at the launching site Sunday afternoon and thanked everyone who helped resolve the valve issue. The countdown clocks began ticking four hours later.
The teachers and their five crewmates — the usual assortment of military pilots and rocket scientists — will deliver and install a final set of solar wings for the space station. With just over a year remaining until the orbiting complex is completed, the framework holding the solar wings is the last major American-made building block left to fly.
Besides setting up the new wings, the astronauts will deliver a spare urine processor for the space station's balky water recycling system, tackle some maintenance work and drop off astronaut Koichi Wakata.
Discovery's other astronauts are Cmdr. Lee Archambault, Dominic "Tony" Antonelli, Steven Swanson and John Phillips.
NASA didn't pair the two space rookies because they were teachers. Each had skills that were deemed essential for this flight. Both were part of NASA's first educator-astronaut group chosen in 2004.
For Jane Ashman, principal at Central Florida's Dunnellon Middle School, where Acaba taught math and science for four years, the teachers' presence on the flight sends a powerful message to students.
"You can achieve your dream, whatever it is," Ashman said.