Come this fall, Robert Satcher will be among the stars.
The 43-year-old orthopedic doctor, however, isn’t going to Hollywood – he’s headed for outer space. Satcher will make his first space flight in November to the international space station. He’s currently among four black astronauts with NASA. Satcher, a former resident of Oak Park, has been training since joining NASA in 2004, moving that year to Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, to become an astronaut. It’s an interest he’s had since 1972, when he watched a manned shuttle launch on TV. But the desire grew over time, said the married father of two.
“I was pretty young. Everybody was paying attention to it at the time,” he said. “I was one of many kids who noticed it and my interest gradually increased over the years. I saw it more as a process instead of just waking up one day and saying, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.'”
Satcher, a native of Virginia, was on the medical faculty at Northwestern University’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery when NASA called. He applied in 2001. A year later, NASA called him in for an initial interview in Houston. What followed was a series of medical and psychiatric tests, and a background check by the FBI. Sometimes he’d get calls from friends saying federal agents were asking about him. Part of the process, Satcher recalled, involved interviewing in a room with about 20 people – former and current astronauts, doctors and NASA’s management staff. He spent a week in Houston. Satcher came back to Oak Park and resumed his academic career.
“I largely forgot about it,” he said. “I figured that even if I didn’t get selected, I at least had the most thorough medical exam ever.”
But by ’04 NASA contacted him. He talked it over with his family, including his wife, D’Juanna, a pediatrician, and agreed to join.
“Going into space is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I never expected to get in.”
Satcher will be among six crew members for the scheduled flight in November. They’re expected to stay on station for 11 days. Satcher will be one of three mission specialists on board, in addition to military personnel. The crew will be taking up supplies to the nearly complete space station, which is scheduled to be fully operational next year. Satcher’s flight will be the last construction mission. Four other missions are scheduled before his on Nov. 12, though that date could change, he said. As for future shuttle missions after the space station is complete, that decision rests with the new administration, Satcher said.
He noted that NASA has never had an astronaut with an orthopedic background travel in space. His training has been intense. He’s flown in supersonic jets, learning how to complete a task traveling at high speeds, and worked with robotics.
Satcher lived in Oak Park for four years, moving to the village in 2000 from Florida. They thought it would be a good place to raise their family, and Satcher liked being close to Chicago without actually living in the city. He’s not sure what his next mission will be after November, but there’s a chance he could be in line to work for several months onboard the station. He’s hopeful his first flight won’t be his last.
“For me, this is a dream come true.”