- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

MARSHFIELD, Wis. (AP) - Linda Roehrborn decided she wanted to be an astronaut on Jan. 28, 1986.

The Marshfield native was in seventh grade at the time, and she and her classmates were watching the space shuttle Challenger take off. Seventy-three seconds into its flight, the space craft disintegrated while Roehrborn, her classmates and the whole world watched, killing all seven members of the crew.

“I know it sounds kind of morbid,” Roehrborn said in a phone call last week from her home in Cocoa, Fla., where she’s beginning a new job as an educator for NASA. “But I just thought they (the Challenger’s seven-member crew) were so brave. … And I thought they were the greatest people to follow their dreams and their passion, and I wanted to be like them.”

Becoming an astronaut is not a simple or easy task, and Roehrborn understood the challenges she faced in making that dream come true. So she found a pathway that allowed her to keep space as a possible destination while also pursuing other passions. She studied. She joined the Air Force, and rose to the rank of captain. She became a biologist and an oceanographer. But even as she took steps toward becoming an astronaut, the goal seemed to be moving away from her.

Until now. At age 43, she’s on an unorthodox track into space. Roehrborn has been chosen as one of 14 candidates for a private citizen scientist-astronaut training program that is one of the world’s first commercial spaceflight research programs called the PHEnOM Project, which is an acronym for Physiological, Health, and Environmental Observations in Microgravity. If all goes as anticipated, she’ll complete the training by early 2018. Graduation will include a suborbital flight on a private spacecraft.

“I did kind of think the door was closed. There were 16,000 applicants for NASA (in the last astronaut selection program). So I did not think I was ever going to see this type of thing.” Roehrborn said.

Entering the private-sector space race gives Roehrborn a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new and exciting industry, she said. “I feel like a pioneer.”

The private project offers a wider group of people, when compared to NASA, to experience space flight, said Jamie Guined, the PHEnOM Project’s principal investigator.

“It is through programs such as the PHEnOM Project that everyday people have the opportunities to contribute in a significant and meaningful way to the collective body of knowledge and understanding of the human exploration of space,” Guined said.

Roehrborn began the journey as a young child. She is the daughter of Erv and Rae Roehrborn, the owners of Roehborn’s Berry Patch, a popular strawberry farm located west of Marshfield. She gained her yearning for exploration and the natural world exploring the nooks and crannies of the family farm, and her family nurtured her brand of adventurous curiosity.

“I would have to say my family’s farm is one of my biggest influences,” Roehrborn said. “My family has always supported me, and even though I’ve moved away, that’s the place I always want to go back to.”

Roehrborn attended Marshfield High School, running cross country and participating in band. She also did a stint at NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., as a teenager. By the time she graduated from high school in 1991, “everyone knew I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said.

She just didn’t quite now how. Roehrborn studied for two years at University of Wisconsin-Marshfield/Wood County, but she lacked clear direction. She joined the Air Force in 1993, and spent four years on active duty. She transferred to the Air National Guard so she could go back to college, and enrolled in Arizona State University to study biology. She earned her degree in 2003. During that time, she became enamored with the ocean, and then went on to earn a masters degree in oceanography from Texas A&M;, earning the degree in 2006.

“It kind of merged the Air Force and my love of the ocean, microscopic plans and animals in the ocean and also extreme environments,” Roehrborn said. “I’ve loved the ocean and loved outer space. I didn’t know how to incorporate the two together, but they are actually very similar. For example, it’s much easier to practice weightlessness in the ocean.”

As Roehrborn continued her career in the Air Force, she’s an air battle manager who is certified as a drone pilot, she also became an environmental educator and researcher for the Galveston Bay Foundation in Texas. Just a couple of weeks ago, however, Roehrborn moved to Cocoa, and began a new job as an educator with NASA. To facilitate that move, she transferred to the Air Force Reserve.

The chance to go to space comes through the SeaSpace Exploration and Research Society, an organization devoted to support man’s study of the sea and space. The organization admitted Roehrborn into PHEnOM. PHEnOM aims to work with private entities such as Space X, the rocket building company founded by Elon Musk, and Boeing, the aeronautical manufacturing and research giant.

PHEnOM is an educational program, and Roehrborn pays tuition to participate. But she said it will place her in the front row for future private space exploration opportunities. It’s allowed her to dream big. She says she’d love to walk on the moon and do research there.

“I’m going to be learning and training with some great people, including retired astronauts,” Roehrborn said. “Some of the classes will focus on HAM radio, human physiology in space. We’ll be working with a company on designing space suits. … I’m going to learn all this amazing stuff, and meet all these amazing people. It’s just going to be something I’ve been dreaming about a really long time.”

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Information from: News-Herald Media, http://www.marshfieldnewsherald.com

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