A 1991 field trip to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston changed Curbeam's career trajectory. There, he met NASA astronaut Kathy Thornton, who briefed the Navy test pilots on her time in space. Curbeam was most intrigued by the amount of technical work done by the astronauts.
"The more she talked, the more convinced I was that I wanted to be like her," he said.
He applied to be an astronaut in 1993 and got the phone call from NASA on Dec. 7, 1994.
Curbeam would go on to log more than 901 hours in space -- including 45 hours on spacewalks -- as part of three space shuttle missions.
But on his first spacewalk, a connector to a hose he was supposed to hook from a cooling system on the International Space Station to the U.S. lab began to leak, spraying toxic ammonia everywhere, including on him. Curbeam described the experience as "moving a hose in a blizzard."
His training from naval aviation kicked in, and he was able to stay calm, communicate with the ground crew, stop the leak and get decontaminated so he could get back to the spacecraft.
"The ability to take a situation that has gone either wrong or has gone badly ... and calmly and coolly address it and succeed in that endeavor to mitigate the risk is real, real important," Curbeam said.
Upon retiring from NASA and the Navy in 2007, Curbeam joined the private sector, fulfilling a longtime goal of entering the business world. After spending 3 1/2 years at risk-management firm Ares Corp., he was approached by Raytheon and became vice president of mission assurance in 2011. Two years ago, he moved to El Segundo, Calif., to join the company's space systems division.
One of the main projects he oversees is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, also known as VIIRS, which is an instrument that monitors global weather patterns and has been launched on two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites. Curbeam also leads the division's civil and international business.
"At the end of the day, it's about building systems that work on time, first time, every time," he said.
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