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Path to the Stars

Specialist Alvin Drew Jr. holds a camera in space.

As a kid, retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. used to accompany his father to the observation deck at Friendship International Airport to watch planes take off.

Already, he knew he wanted to fly planes.

"It was like seeing a dinosaur for the first time," he said. "As a kid, I had never seen anything like that before. I was in awe. My imagination just took off. "

When he was in the first grade, Drew's teacher gathered the class together to watch the Apollo 7 rocket launch on TV. She explained to the children that they were watching history and would always remember that moment.

"I was like, 'Where is (the rocket) going?' I was curious as to where it went–what was beyond the sky," Drew said.

From that moment on, he had his sights set on the stars. However, reality began to set in when he became a teenager and his dreams didn't seem so easily obtainable.

"People have aspirations of climbing (Mount) Everest, but not everyone knows the steps on how to get there," he said. "I would run across people who had good intentions, but they would tell me that (society) would never let a black man do that."

When the time came for Drew to decide what he wanted to do after high school, he decided that he either wanted to fly planes or design them. His father told him that he could do both. At 17, Drew enrolled at the Air Force Academy where he majored in astronautical engineering and physics.

At the Academy, mentors helped Drew identify the exact steps he needed to take to achieve his goals.

"The biggest thing I learned is that no one cared that I was black or about my religion," he said. "It's about your character and competency. 'Can I trust you to fight along the side of me?' 'Can I trust you to be there and do your job when things go bad?'"

Upon graduation from the Academy, Drew's first Air Force assignment was as a combat rescue helicopter pilot. He eventually transitioned into special operations, flying 60 combat missions in operations over Panama, the Persian Gulf and northern Iraq.

In 1992, he returned to flight training. He obtained a rating in jet aircraft in 1993 and became a test pilot at the Naval Test Pilot School the next year. He subsequently worked as a project test pilot, commanded two flight test organizations and served on the Air Force's Air Combat Command staff.

In 2000, NASA selected Drew to become a mission specialist.

After completing two years of training and evaluation, he was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Station Operations Branch. He served in technical assignments until he took a sabbatical to the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., attending a master's degree program at the Air War College.

"The biggest advantage of being an astronaut that came from the Air Force is aviation," he said. "The training is an extension of aviation. They are essentially the same tasks that it would take to operate a helicopter or jets."

In 2007, Drew finally made it to space on the STS-118 Space Shuttle Endeavour mission to the International Space Station.

Despite experiencing a sense of wonder at being in space, Drew said there is also a strong sense of mission because the crew has a very specific timeline for completing the tasks at hand. The gravity of the entire operation is more spectacular than looking at a sunset from space..

"When people work together and accomplish a mission, it's like watching a triple play in baseball."

When the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final trip into space in March of 2011, Drew was the only African American onboard and became the 200th person to perform a spacewalk. However, accomplishments are not about numbers for him.

"I'm not trying to make some big social leap," he said.

Drew said his career wasn't to attempt to become a novelty act. He added that the two people he looked up to the most, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., were adamant not to be defined by the color of their skin.

"I am proud of who I am and my heritage, but those things become irrelevant when you're in the cockpit."

Surprisingly, Drew's greatest accomplishment throughout his career didn't take place in space. It was during a combat mission in Panama where he helped extract a team of six soldiers and was thanked by them.

"To know that I helped six people go home to their families was the best feeling," he said.

Drew believes that people are held back by their fear of failure. If he could go back and give his 17-year-old self advice at the time he was a cadet at the Academy, he would say, "Have faith in your conviction. Be bold!"

It looks like a young Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. may have followed the advice from his future self.

(Editor's note: Drew currently works as the NASA Liaison to Air Force Space Command, NORAD/US Northern Command and US Strategic Command.)

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