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An Engineer's Journey From Sketching Planes to Walking in Space

Robert Curbeam participates in a spacewalk. Curbeam performed seven spacewalks during his NASA career, including four on a single mission. (Photo credit: NASA)

Engineers are the lifeblood of our company. As part of National Engineers Week, we are sharing some of their stories to help inspire the next generation of innovators and technologists. When Robert Curbeam was a kid, he spent hours designing airplanes and rockets: sketching out the fins, coloring in the flames and pondering the sweep of each hand-drawn wing.

But actually flying into space? Well, that dream came later.

"I loved science," Curbeam said. "I never thought that I would be the person climbing in someone else's design to go up and do the things that I did."

Now, decades later, Curbeam has gone far beyond designing flying machines. He's flown F-14s in the Navy, participated in three space shuttle missions as a NASA astronaut, walked in space seven times and now enforces quality control of Patriot missiles and other high-flying Raytheon products.

NASA and Walking in Space

A native of Baltimore, Md., Curbeam had realized his childhood goal of becoming an aeronautical engineer and was flying F-14s when he met Kathy Thornton, an astronaut who had just done a spacewalk.

Curbeam got caught up in her enthusiasm and decided to apply to NASA. He was selected in December 1994.

Over the next 12 years Curbeam would fly on the Atlantis and Discovery shuttles, write NASA's first standard procedures for spacewalks and set the record for the most spacewalks in a single mission, four.

In all Curbeam has spent a total of 37 days, 14 hours, 33 minutes and 23 seconds in space. He retired from the U.S. Navy with 23 years of service and has flown 25 different aircraft.

Curbeam was the headline speaker at a recent gathering of Raytheon's Twitter followers.

"What was your first thought when you stepped out of the shuttle and looked back on the earth?" one tweetup participant asked Curbeam.

It was usually later, while catching a breather, that the majestic view of the Earth really hit him, Curbeam said.

"If you don't leave this earth a conservationist, you will come back as one," Curbeam said. "It is that beautiful."

Assuring Mission Success at Raytheon

Curbeam joined Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems in 2011 as vice president for mission assurance and quality. The division makes the Patriot missile, the JLENS surveillance system, the Space Fence system for tracking orbital debris and other products for the military.

"I've been in that seat where you assume hardware is going to work and if it doesn't you're in danger," Curbeam said. "Mission assurance is all about our products working for the end user the first time, on time, every time. There are brave men and women putting themselves in harm's way who are using our products and expecting them to work without fail."

Curbeam's transition to Raytheon was seamless, he said. During his military career he was an expert in two Raytheon products, the Hawk and Patriot missiles.

"I felt I could come right in and feel at home, and I do," he said.

Curbeam is a frequent speaker at schools, where he tries to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Honored for Career Achievements

The Black Engineers of the Year (BEYA) Conference recently honored Curbeam with a career achievement award.

Integrated Defense Systems President Tom Kennedy praised Curbeam's "hands-on leadership philosophy" in his nomination letter for the award.

"He works personally with his teams to empower them to set and reach their own goals, inspiring pro-active behavior to prevent problems rather than just meeting documented requirements," Kennedy wrote.

Curbeam graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor's degree in Aerospace Engineering. He has advanced degrees in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Curbeam graduated from the Navy Test Pilot School and the Navy Fighter Weapons School, the famous TOPGUN. He is a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and the Association of Old Crows.

Published: 11/18/2014

Last Updated: 09/16/2015

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