As a kid growing up in Bowie, Richard Arnold's heroes included Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau and the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon.
He realized quickly that he did not have the makings of a major league ball player. So he set his sights instead on science.
And now, after teaching in middle and high schools for 15 years, Arnold, 45, is preparing to follow the astronauts into space. He and another former science teacher will be on board the shuttle Discovery tonight, ready for a scheduled 9:20 p.m. launch on a mission to the International Space Station.
On the fourth day after launch, Arnold and Mission Specialist Steve Swanson will step into space to attach a fourth and final pair of 240-foot solar panels to the station. He's eager for the adventure.
"The feedback I get from other crew members ... is that when you first come out of the hatch, it's pretty spectacular, and maybe a little disorienting. Then you grab the first handrail, and it's like you're right back in the pool, and you know where everything is and ... you kind of get focused," he told a NASA interviewer.
Arnold lives in Houston with his wife and two daughters. His parents live in Berlin. He earned his bachelor's degree at Frostburg State University in 1985, and then caught the teaching bug while working as an oceanography technician at the U.S. Naval Academy.
He completed his teacher certification work at Frostburg in 1988 and took his first job teaching science at a middle school in Charles County. Librarian Sharon Hanley recalled him as an enthusiastic teacher who never wore socks. "The kids were crazy about him because he was cool, and he was young. He also coached football and soccer and had the ecology club."
After a summer trip to the Galapagos Islands, he brought what he'd learned back to the classroom, Hanley said. He considered the job difficult but rewarding.
"I don't know that I really started getting proficient at it until I'd been teaching for quite some time," he said, according to a transcript of his NASA interview. "But you get to go in every day and mentor kids, and work with kids ... and you start seeing them realize a lot of their dreams."
While at the Charles County school, Arnold took Bill Dennison's wetlands ecology course at the University of Maryland's environmental laboratory in Cambridge.
On a summer trip to the Bermuda Biological Station, Dennison recalled, Arnold kept his cool when a group of students and instructors were caught by a storm while scuba diving. They took refuge on a small island, but the abandoned building where they took shelter was struck by lightning.
Later, Arnold spent a semester at sea with 34 other people packed onto a 100-foot research vessel.
When Arnold later applied to NASA, he used Dennison as a reference. "NASA asked in a bunch of different ways if I would be willing to trust this person with my life, or if I would be willing to be cooped up in a small place with this person. And I could genuinely answer yes, positively, to both of those questions."
After earning his master's degree from College Park, Arnold packed up his family and took a series of teaching jobs at schools in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Romania.
He was accepted into the astronaut corps in 2004, and completed his training two years later.