SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Donald H. Peterson grew up during World War II in a tiny Mississippi town where flying in space was only a dream stimulated by reading science fiction.
Now, the 49-year-old Winona, Miss., native is about to ride space shuttle Challenger into orbit and is one of two astronauts scheduled to make the first spacewalk from a shuttle.
'Back when I was a kid, there was no space program,' Peterson said in an interview. 'In fact, I was old enough to know about airplanes before there were jet airplanes.
'My earliest interest came from science fiction. I read a lot of things as a kid, but I read some science fiction and got interested. As I got older, I started reading real things.
'I grew up during the second world war and there were a lot of things written in the newspapers and books about airplanes and the great fighter pilots and their exploits. That was exciting stuff,' Peterson said.
Peterson also had a knack for mathematics and, after graduating from Winona High School, he also had a desire for financial help in going to college. So, after a Navy recruiter's talk, he tried for a service academy -- where college was free.
'I didn't really want to be in the Navy, but I decided a service career might be an interesting thing,' Peterson said. 'I managed to get accepted to go to West Point with the idea of going into the Air Force.'
There was no separate Air Force Academy then.
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1955, and joining the Air Force, Peterson earned a master's degree in nuclear engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio in 1962.
He volunteered for Vietnam and the Air Force astronaut program at the same time. He was selected for both the war and the space program, and actually underwent wartime gunnery training before being pulled out for space.
Peterson then went to test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and was one of the third group of astronauts selected for the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program.
When that program was canceled, Peterson came over to the civilian space program.
'Since then, I have worked the rest of my career in the space program ... a place where you can combine flying and engineering to a larger degree than you can most places,' Peterson said.
Peterson retired from the Air Force in 1969 as a colonel after 24 years service. He continues the astronaut corps as a civilian.
He likes to jog, swim, lift weights, fly and do mathematics as a hobby.
Peterson is married to the former Bonnie Love of Coffeeville, Miss., and they have three children.