Programmer-turned-astronaut to lift off on NASA's Endeavour

Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff to control robots, make 2 spacewalks in 15-day mission

Mission Specialist Gregory Chamitoff settles in aboard the space shuttle Endeavour during the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. One of the six men lifting off onboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour Friday is a computer programmer who built software for spacecraft before becoming an astronaut.

Greg Chamitoff will serve as a mission specialist on Endeavour's final space flight, which is taking supplies, equipment and experiments to the International Space Station. However, before he became an astronaut, Chamitoff was an engineer and a software developer, working for such companies as Atari Computer and IBM before joining NASA where he developed software applications for three years before training to go into space.

The upcoming space flight won't be Chamitoff's first time in space. In 2008, he served as flight engineer and science officer aboard the space station, logging in 183 days in space.

"Having Chamitoff on this shuttle flight is going to pay dividends to NASA and space exploration down the road," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "He's a techie with a deep robotics and engineering background. Robots play a key role in space exploration as our robot landers have shown us so much about Mars in recent years."

Endeavour's 15-day mission will give Chamitoff the chance to combine both worlds - tech and space flight.

According to NASA, the astronaut will operate the space station's robotic arm, and he'll also take part in two spacewalks. On the first one, he'll work with another astronaut to move experiments from a storage bay on the shuttle to where they'll be attached to the space station.

Chamitoff, who developed an autonomous robot for his undergraduate thesis project, also will participate in the mission's fourth and final spacewalk, helping to work on Dextre, the space station's 12-foot-tall robot with a 30-foot wing span.

NASA reported that Chamitoff will help release one of Dextre's arms so the robot will be ready to be put to work.

Before Chamitoff began training to be an astronaut, he spent years studying engineering and computer programming. He studied at California Polytechnic State University, California Institute of Technology and MIT, where he received degrees in electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering and Aeronautics and Astronautics.

While a student at MIT, Chamitoff worked on several NASA projects, performing stability analysis for the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, designing flight control upgrades for the space shuttle's autopilot system, and developing attitude control system software for the space station.

In 1995, Chamitoff joined NASA, working in Mission Operations at the Johnson Space Center. During his tenure, he led the development of software applications used in the space shuttles, along with software focused on spacecraft analysis and maneuver optimization.

One project that he oversaw was the development of a 3D "big screen" display of the space station and space shuttles used by Mission Control.

Chamitoff began his astronaut training in 1998 and has continued to work on space station robotics projects, according to NASA.

"Being able to design robots with a longer life and more functionality is key to justifying future missions to other planets," Olds said. "Future manned space missions also will rely on robots more than before and having Chamitoff in space will give him real-world insight on how to improve that man-machine working relationship."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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