Former astronaut Oefelein leads reindeer run

FLYING: He'll try to keep space between them in rondy race.

February 27, 2009 

Pilot William Oefelein


He's been to outer space. He's survived a media circus.

Now Bill Oefelein, Alaska's first astronaut, is back home and ready to run with the reindeer.

The former space shuttle pilot plans to launch the second-annual Fur Rondy event alongside a herd of local celebrities Sunday in downtown Anchorage.

"My job is to stay ahead of the reindeer. Or at least stay ahead of the slowest person in my group," Oefelein said in a phone interview this week from Southern California, where he said he's working for the National Test Pilot School.

Pitched by KWHL radio hosts Bob Lester and Mark Colavecchio, last year's raucous inaugural Running of the Reindeer ignited new interested in the flagging Rondy celebration.

Nearly 1,000 people participated: Dudes with goatees in coconut-shell bras, a man covered in carrots, people dressed as beer.

Picture Mardi Gras with caribou.

Rondy director Susan Duck expects twice as many runners Sunday, starting with a "celebrity" herd of acting Mayor Matt Claman, championship mushers and any other big names who join between now and the 3:30 p.m. event.

That includes Oefelein, 43, and his business partner and girlfriend, former Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman.

If those names are familiar for more than space travel, it's because the pair made headlines for months after police said a fellow astronaut, Lisa Nowak, drove cross-country to confront Shipman over Oefelein in February of 2007. (Nowak was charged with attempted kidnapping, and is still awaiting trial.)

Late last year Oefelein, who grew up in Anchorage and graduated from West High School, moved back to Alaska, where he and Shipman recently started their own multimedia business.

Here's what he had to say, in a phone interview while traveling Outside earlier this week, about his future plans, commercial space flights, reindeer racing and his Wikipedia page:

Q. What have you been up to the past year or so? What are you doing these days?

A. Well I moved back to Alaska and I started my own business with a business partner, and we're doing -- we call it adventure writing. And it has to do with just picking some projects and writing about them and submitting, ultimately submitting those stories and pictures to various groups, depending on who might be interested.

So we just started it a couple months ago and she (Shipman) got a Web site going for us, We're just trying to get that along.

But you know, since I've spent a lot of my time flying, (I'm) trying to look for flying jobs and all that. ... The economy's pretty tough these days!

Q. You're flying aircraft down there in California?

A. Yeah, I'm, I guess you would call it an independent contractor now, maybe, doing some test pilot work.

Q. When did you move back to Alaska?

A. Last fall ... I think it was some time in October. I retired from the Navy and then moved back home.

Q. Now that you're back home, when you're at Fred Meyer or Carrs or whatever, do people recognize you?

A. Some people have, you know, said, 'Hey, aren't you ... ?' But I'm retired, I'm out of the military. My hair is growing long. Certainly put on a couple of extra pounds. So I don't know, I went to the, what was that beer festival? And nobody stopped me there. But I've been stopped in the store and stuff.

Q. How did you come to be involved in the Running of the Reindeer this year?

A. I've been going to Fur Rondy since I was a kid. My family still lives up there and always has. They told me about this running of the reindeer that they started last year, and it was a big hit and I guess it made some news Outside as well.

So I heard about it, and so I knew I was going to be back up there this year, so I sent a note to one of the organizers, just kind a fun note ... 'I'm pretty fast, I think I can do this.'

Q. Say five to 10 years from now, what do you see yourself doing?

A. I'll have a nice cabin up in Alaska. That's my home, don't plan on leaving there, and you know, who knows, maybe a commercial space deal is coming up.

You know, there's some people that are flying to space commercially, and I actually talked to some of those. So maybe heading back into space in a few years.

But Alaska is always going to be my home and I dream of getting a cabin somewhere out in the Bush and just living a simple life up there at some point.

Q. There's potential maybe to fly commercially to space?

A. Yeah, that's becoming pretty popular, you know. In fact, right where I'm at is where that SpaceShipOne (the first privately funded, manned craft to reach space) went up. I'm at that airfield, you know, they're just down the street.

So there's some people trying to do some solo stuff. There are some people trying to do more orbital hotels in the sky, so I keep following some of that, and of course keep following what's going on at NASA and all that there.

Q. I was just looking at your Wikipedia page ... there's more on there about the Lisa Nowak stuff than your NASA career. Do you feel like that's kind of come to define you at this point?

A. No, I don't think so. Because that stuff is not necessarily accurate. So, you know, I don't think so. I'm not going to talk about any of that, but anything on the Wikipedia as you know, anybody can put on there. If people are going to use that as fact, they've got some problems.

Find Kyle Hopkins online at or call him at 257-4334.

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