By Cronin, Mike
Late next year, Emsworth's Mike Fincke could become America's all- time leader for most time spent in space.
It just depends on the length of Sewickley Academy graduate's first space-shuttle mission.
The astronaut is third with 366 days in orbit, said Kylie Clem, a NASA spokeswoman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The record is 377, held by Peggy Whitson.
"I've already done so many things," Fincke said, simultaneously considering his next mission and reflecting on his previous ones, during an interview last month with his father, Ed, 67, and mother, Alma, 68, sitting beside him in his childhood home.
The Air Force colonel, 42, has served two six-month expeditions aboard the International Space Station, getting there and back on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Three trips to space, a possible U.S. record for time in orbit and potentially commanding a mission to the moon make an impressive resume for a man who failed fighter-pilot school, the traditional route to becoming an astronaut.
"Not all astronauts are like that," Matt Abbott, NASA's spaceflight training chief at Johnson Space Center, said about Fincke's affability and adaptability.
Abbott was the space agency's flight director for Expedition Nine, Fincke's first mission aboard the space station, which lasted from April to October 2004.
Fincke's spacesuit malfunctioned during the first spacewalk, Abbott said. That complication shortened the excursion from five or six hours to 14 minutes. Ultimately, Fincke wore a Russian spacesuit that wasn't designed to perform the tasks he had to do.
"We spent the first three months constantly changing plans and priorities," Abbott said. "Mike never complained."
'The right stuff'
Fincke embodies the changed concept of "the right stuff" it takes to be an astronaut today, said Greg Chamitoff, 47, referring to Tom Wolfe's 1979 chronicle of the physical and mental toughness of early NASA astronauts.
Chamitoff lived and worked with Fincke on the space station for about a month in the fall of 2008.
"I don't know how long he can hold his breath or spin in a chair before getting sick, but he can fly around the world in 90 minutes communicating fluently in Russian or Japanese -- not everyone can do that," wrote Chamitoff in an e-mail from Johnson Space Center mission control, where he worked during the Discovery mission that ended with a successful landing Sept. 11.
Chamitoff has known Fincke for 10 years. The two will team again on next year's shuttle mission.
"Every morning, when we saw each other for the first time on the station, Mike would look at me with an exaggerated smile and say, 'Guess what, dude, we're in space!' " Chamitoff said. "I would answer something like 'Can you believe it?' or 'How cool is that?' We would follow that with a ritual fist-to-fist punch (or) handshake, and the day was off to a great start."
Getting assigned to a shuttle mission by NASA officials last month surprised Fincke.
"I knew it was theoretically possible," Fincke said. "The chances were against it."
After all, NASA could have selected plenty of other astronauts to give them more experience in space -- particularly because the space agency plans to ground the shuttle fleet in 2010.
Only six shuttle missions remain, and Fincke will fly on the second-to-last shuttle mission, scheduled to launch in July, Clem said.
NASA officials don't provide reasons for roster selections, said NASA's John Olson, who is based in Washington. Olson heads the space agency's plan to return to the moon and ultimately reach Mars.
But Olson acknowledged that if the United States makes it back to the moon in the next two decades, Fincke would be young enough to be in the crew -- and possibly command the mission.
"That's something that motivates me each and every day," Fincke said. …