Drew, Alvin, Jr.

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Alvin Drew Jr.


Pilot, astronaut

Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. was one of seventeen chosen to train with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2000 and, seven years later, was one of seven astronauts selected for the 119th space shuttle flight. This first visit to space for Drew, in August of 2007, was the culmination of a childhood dream and a lifelong training regime that took Drew through the ranks of the U.S. Air Force to become a decorated pilot. Drew is a mission specialist with NASA's Astronaut Corps, which is responsible for operating the program's three space shuttles and participation in the International Space Station.

Drew was born in Washington, DC, in 1962, the son of Muriel and Benjamin Drew Sr., and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood with his extended family. Known by his middle name, Alvin, Drew attended elementary school in Washington, DC, where he first developed an interest in space flight. In later interviews he remembers an influential day, when he was six years old and the grade school principal interrupted class to allow the students to watch the Apollo 7 space launch. Watching Apollo 7 and later Apollo 11, Drew dreamed of traveling to space. As he told Tavis Smiley in a 2004 television interview, "From that point, it stopped being just a drudge going through school. I was preparing myself to go to space." Drew's parents and maternal grandmother encouraged his dreams, purchasing him toy rockets and helping him to follow the space program on television.

Drew had found a goal strong enough to inspire him to give his full attention to his schooling, and he developed a fondness for math and science. He attended Gonzaga High School in Washington, DC, and was a National Merit Scholar, going on to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he earned double bachelor's degrees in physics and engineering. In a July 2006 interview with Ed Gordon for National Public Radio (NPR), Drew said that going from Washington, DC, to Colorado Springs was like "going to another planet," as Drew was one of few African-American students in his program. Drew felt, however, that meeting people with different opinions and backgrounds was beneficial, helping him to grow as a person.

Embarked on a Military Career

In 1984 Drew received his commission from the U.S. Air Force, with the rank of second lieutenant, and in 1985, after completing training in helicopter piloting and rescue operations, he received his wings. Until 1987 Drew worked with the Air Force's Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Program, piloting the HH-3E helicopter on rescue missions. In 1986 he was promoted to first lieutenant, and in 1987 he was transferred to the MH-60G helicopter as a combat pilot in the 55th Special Operations Squadron.

As a member of the 55th squadron, Drew flew more than ninety combat missions during Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and Provide Comfort during the first Gulf War. Drew was decorated for his performance as a combat pilot winning, among other accolades, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Aerial Achievement Medal, and a promotion to captain in 1988.

After the Gulf War, Drew continued his training in the Air Force and in 1993 was accepted into the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland, where he was trained to operate experimental aircraft. After a year of training Drew returned to the Air Force, where he spent the next three years with the Air Force Flight Test Center. While he was working as a test pilot, Drew also returned to school, taking classes in aerospace science from Embry-Riddle Aerospace University, first as a correspondence student and then at the university's Daytona Beach, Florida, campus. Drew received his master's degree in aeronautical science in 1995. In 1998 Drew was promoted to the rank of major and joined the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. He worked with the air rescue group and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1999 Drew felt that his resume was as competitive as it was ever going to be, and he submitted his application to NASA.

Became an Astronaut

Drew was among only a select few chosen by NASA to become the class of 2000's trainee astronauts. He relocated to Houston, Texas, where he participated in two years of intensive training, which he described to Kojo Nnamdi of radio station WAMU 88.7 in 2006 as "Outward Bound on steroids."

Drew recalls having to come face to face with the danger of space exploration during initiation. Particularly memorable was a speech given by veteran astronaut John Young, who had been with the program since the 1960s and made six trips into space. According to an article by Jeffrey Little in the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine, Young told the recruits that a single shuttle mission is as dangerous as flying sixty combat missions. Drew remembers the moment as sobering but also recalls that he was not deterred, believing that space flight was well worth the risk. Drew later told Smiley, "I think anybody who isn't at least a little bit worried about space flight, especially if you're going up on that rocket, doesn't quite understand what's going on. There's danger involved."

At a Glance …

Born Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. on November 5, 1962, in Washington, DC; son of Muriel and Benjamin Drew. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1984-2006; became colonel. Education: U.S. Air Force Academy, BS, physics and astronautical engineering, 1984; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, MS, aeronautical science, 1995; U.S. Air Force Air University, MS, strategic studies in political science, 2006.

Career: U.S. Air Force, HH-3E pilot, 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing, 1985-87, MH-60G flight examiner pilot, 55th Special Operations Squadron, 1987-92, project test pilot, Combined Test Force Commander and Assistant Deputy Operations Group Commander, 1994-97, acting combat rescue area team chief, 1998-2000, commander, Detachment 1, 46, Operations Group, 2000; National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), mission specialist in training, 2000-02, mission specialist and astronaut, Johnson Space Center, 2002—.

Memberships: Society of Experimental Test Pilots; American Helicopter Society.

Awards: Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Medal; Aerial Achievement Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters; Air Force Commendation Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters; Air Force Outstanding Unit Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters; Combat Readiness Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters; National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Southwest Asia Service Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters.

Addresses: Office—c/o National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, 1601 NASA Parkway, Houston, Texas 77058.

Drew completed his training as a NASA mission specialist in 2002. Though he hoped to be chosen for a space flight, funding for NASA decreased in the 1980s and 1990s and space flights had become a rare endeavor. Drew realized that he might never be accepted to a mission but found satisfaction working as a member of NASA's ground crew. As he stated to NPR's Gordon, "Everybody from the administrator down to the people who are cleaning the floors are putting a rocket into space every day, and so when you get to see one go, it's a culmination of everything that you've been working on."

Having spent most of his life pursuing his career, Drew never married, and in 2004 he was selected by People magazine as one of the top fifty eligible bachelors in the nation. In interviews Drew said it was an honor but that he was still concentrated on his work. Drew took a hiatus from NASA in 2005 to attend the U.S. Air Force Air University, where he studied strategic studies and political science and graduated in 2006 with a second master's degree. In May of 2006 he was promoted to colonel and returned to NASA.

Chosen for Space Mission

In 2007 Drew was selected to replace another astronaut on the 2007 Endeavour space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. According to Drew, his selection came as a complete shock. "That was the first time in my life I was speechless," he told John Schwartz writing in the New York Times. As an alternate choice, Drew was notified less than four months before launch date and endured a frenzied schedule to catch up with the other members of the team. Drew, as quoted by Schwartz, said that he played the role of "the chief asker of dumb questions in the crew," but his input also helped to lead the team in new directions. In addition to refreshing his technical knowledge, Drew also had to learn how to complete the day-to-day activities of living in space.

In his preflight interview with NASA, Drew said, "It's a busy mission and I just want to make sure that the parts I'm doing, I'm getting done correctly." As a mission specialist, Drew had already spent considerable time working on parts of the International Space Station, and he believed that the space station was one of the critical projects undertaken at NASA. "If we're going to go out to Mars or even beyond Mars to the outer reaches of the solar system, they're going to require large complex space structures," Drew said in the NASA interview, "You've got to start some place…. This is one of the … milestones, so we won't have much to show for it in 20 years, other than just the knowledge that we gained from building it."

The Endeavour crew was forced to abbreviate the mission due to hurricanes in the Gulf Coast but completed all of their mission objectives, including four "spacewalks" and the installation of the S5 truss structure onto the International Space Station. In one of the mission highlights, educator and astronaut Barbara Morgan, Drew, and two other colleagues performed the first educational presentation from space to students in Idaho via television broadcast. Drew and colleagues demonstrated movement in zero gravity and answered questions posed by students. Though the session was light in content, it was an overdue goal for NASA: The first attempt to send a teacher into space ended in tragedy when teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates died in the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.

Drew's duties about the shuttle were more in a "supporting role," helping to perform basic tasks that enabled other mission specialists to effectively focus on their tasks. "It's not a very glamorous role," Drew said in his NASA interview, "but it's something I'm absolutely very happy to be doing." Despite what Drew described in his post-landing interview with Nnamdi as a grueling schedule, he and his crewmates were allowed time to enjoy the scenery in space, which he found to be a profound experience. "It's one of those things where the aftertaste is just as good as the original experience," he said to Nnamdi. "Seeing the curvature of the earth and just this thin sheet of atmosphere around it, protecting all life from this hostile environment" was awe inspiring for Drew; he summarized the experience as fostering an "overwhelming sense of insignificance."

As one of few African Americans to successfully enter the Astronaut Corps and to participate in a manned space flight, Drew was sometimes seen as an icon in his community. In his NPR interview with Gordon, he said that, as an African American in a predominantly white field, "If you shine, you shine more brightly … but if you stumble, you stumble more publicly…. You lose any sense of anonymity." Drew hoped that his example would serve to inspire African-American children to pursue their dreams, and he donated his time to visit public schools, especially in his hometown of Washington, DC. Drew hoped that children would say of him, as he told Nnamdi, "He was a knucklehead running around the streets of DC at my age, and look where he is. I can get there from here."



New York Times, August 7, 2007; August 9, 2007; August 15, 2007.

Washington Post, August 9, 2007. p. 1.


"Embry-Riddle Alumnus and Astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew Inspires Students, Educators from the Space Shuttle Endeavour," Aircraft Maintenance Technology, August 8, 2007, http://www.amtonline.com/article/article.jsp?id=4333&siteSection=1 (accessed February 20, 2008).

Little, Geoffrey, "Spaceman," Air & Space, September 1, 2005, http://www.airspacemag.com/spaceexploration/spaceman.html (accessed February 20, 2008).

"NASA Astronaut Alvin Drew Was Born to Fly," NASA, February 17, 2005, http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2005/feb/HQ_05050_drew.html (accessed February 20, 2008).

"Preflight Interview: Alvin Drew Jr.," NASA, July 11, 2007, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/sts118/interview_drew_jr.html (accessed February 20, 2008).


"Astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew, Jr.," Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.7FM, October 1, 2007, http://wamu.org/programs/kn/07/10/01.php (accessed February 20, 2008).

"Benjamin Alvin Drew," Tavis Smiley Show, PBS, October 01, 2004, http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200410/20041001.html# (accessed February 20, 2008).

"One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program," News and Notes, NPR, July 6, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5537872 (accessed February 20, 2008).

—Micah L. Issitt