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Shuttle astronaut with Huntington Station roots enters aviation Hall of Fame

Space Shuttle NASA astronaut and Huntington Station native

Space Shuttle NASA astronaut and Huntington Station native James D. Wetherbee kneels near his plaque as he and three others are inducted in the Long Island Air & Space Hall of Fame at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City on Monday, May 5, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

Former NASA astronaut Jim Wetherbee, who grew up in Huntington Station, felt the pressure as he piloted the space shuttle Atlantis -- the size of a 737 airliner -- to gently dock on Russia's Mir space station.

Both were moving at 25 times the speed of sound. There was little room for error. In addition, the Mir was Russia's "pride and joy" and the shuttle was the "pride of American technology," Wetherbee said. "I cannot make a mistake. Both countries are watching," he said yesterday, describing what ran through his mind as he gingerly docked the massive shuttle at the station.

The 1997 mission was successful, much like the other flights he commanded between the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 2003 Columbia explosion. He is the only American to have commanded five missions.

Monday, Wetherbee, was among four honorees entered into the Long Island Air & Space Hall of Fame at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

"I feel so privileged to have been able to fly six times for our nation . . . I feel it's my duty to try to inspire the next generation," said Wetherbee, of Katy, Texas, in his acceptance speech. "Till the day I die, I'm going to be trying to tell the stories and share the experiences."

In a 20-year career, he said, he accomplished goals he used to daydream about as a boy.

Museum executive director Andrew Parton said 16 people have been inducted into the Hall over the past five years. Each time, the honorees have included a NASA astronaut with Long Island connections.

"These people did great things in science, technology, aviation and aerospace," Parton said.

This year's other inductees are E. Clinton Towl; Leon 'Jake' Swirbul and William T. Schwendler -- three men who played a role in starting the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in 1929.

Parton said the Hall of Fame helps the museum in its mission to tell the stories behind the achievements and inspire school children because "they are people to relate to, not just an aircraft."

Wetherbee, 61, decided he wanted to be an astronaut growing up in Huntington Station.

The day of John Glenn's space flight in 1962, Wetherbee sat in his fifth-grade class at St. Hugh of Lincoln Elementary with a 9-volt radio he'd sneaked into the room. His teacher caught him with it tethered to his ear but instead of punishing him, she put a map on the wall and made him track the flight's orbit with pins.

"At 10 years old, I knew . . . that's what I was going to do," Wetherbee said. "So, I had to listen to the flight on the radio in the class because that was my future profession."

He earned an aerospace engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame and became a Navy aviator and test pilot.

In 1984, he joined NASA and in 1990 piloted his first mission on the space shuttle Columbia. Thirteen years later, the shuttle exploded on a separate mission.

Wetherbee has flown twice to the Mir and the International Space Station. He piloted his last mission on Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2002.

As a child, he said, he "imagined flying a little space ship, connecting to an outpost in space and then living and working on that outpost."

In 1998, when Glenn returned to space, Wetherbee, then the NASA director of flight crew operations, delivered a news conference to the media about Glenn's mission -- tracking him once again.

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