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He was 5 1/2 when he asked his father whether it was a better career move to become a pilot or an astronaut. “I didn’t want to give up either of them,” he recalled. The elder Drew, a drug counselor, advised his son to become a pilot since most astronauts, at least back then, were pilots.

The plan worked. The Washington, D.C.-raised Drew went from flying helicopters in the Army to flying on the space shuttle.

“I was smitten with that whole idea of just being at treetop level at night in a formation of helicopters with guns,” Drew, 48, said. “That was clearly not the straight-line path to being an astronaut. But it seemed like a very cool idea at the time.”

Drew _ a retired Air Force colonel _ flew 60 combat missions over Panama in 1989, and the Persian Gulf and Iraq in the early 1990s. He became an astronaut in 2000.

On this shuttle mission, his second, he will add another skill to his repertoire when he performs a pair of spacewalks.

“What a great program, and I got to be a part of it,” he said.

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Dr. Michael Barratt never thought he’d ride on the space shuttle before the program ended. So he tossed his shuttle training notes into the recycling bin before leaving for Russia in 2009 to hitch a ride on a Soyuz rocket to the space station.

What a mistake. He was exercising at the space station when he learned he’d be returning to orbit. He’ll help operate the station’s robot arm.

“It was a huge honor to be asked to fly shuttle, and knowing that the program was coming to an end and how precious those seats were, that just raised the bar a lot,” he said.

The 51-year-old physician joined NASA in 1991 to work on medical systems for NASA’s original space station Freedom project. He became a flight surgeon in 1992 and assisted with the shuttle-Mir program out of Russia. He later moved to the space station program, serving as lead crew surgeon for the first crew to inhabit the orbiting lab. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 2000. He flew to and from the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, spending six months in orbit.

He and wife Michelle have five children ranging in age into the 20s. He grew up in Camas, Wash.

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Nicole Stott learned via e-mail _ while circling the planet _ that she was getting one more shuttle ride.

She was just three weeks into her three-month stay at the space station in 2009 when her bosses informed her that she’d been assigned to Discovery’s last flight. She immediately called husband Christopher, even though it was 2 in the morning for him.

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