We were fortunate recently to host our second visit from NASA in little more than a year. In June 2011 we facilitated a speaking tour of schools in Christchurch, Hamilton, and Auckland by the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery. This year we had a dynamic young astronaut – Stephanie Wilson — at the New Zealand International Science Festival and squired her to speaking engagements elsewhere around the country.

Born in Massachusetts, Ms. Wilson earned her undergraduate degree in engineering from Harvard University as well as a masters degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas. She worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California before qualifying as an astronaut. Since then she has spent a total of 42 days in space on three separate missions, traveling more than 17.5 million miles (28 million km) while in orbit.

Ms. Wilson is a dynamic, engaging speaker with interesting thoughts about the future of space travel and the life of a space traveler. During a break one day, we had a chance to ask Ms. Wilson a few questions:

*   *   *

NASA Astronaut Stephanie Wilson prepares for Water Survival Training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory

NASA Astronaut Stephanie Wilson.

DH:  Stephanie, thank you for visiting New Zealand. It’s an honor to have one of NASA’s finest with us again.

SW:  I am having a wonderful time. I appreciate getting the invitation.

DH:  Was it always your childhood dream to become an astronaut?

SW:  Yes, in fact, it was. When I was 13, I spoke to an astronomer as part of a school assignment to interview an adult with an interesting career. As he talked about the incredible discoveries he worked on and the exploration of the unknown, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that, too.

DH:  Congratulations on achieving such a challenging goal. I can’t imagine what it was like when you opened the envelope from NASA with the “yes” in it.

SW:  Thank you. Obviously I was super excited. When I entered in 1996 there were more than 2,500 applicants, and our class consisted of only 35 new trainees, so I felt extremely fortunate. And I still feel the same way. People often ask me what the worst part of the job is, and I have to say that I love what I do. There isn’t really a downside.

DH:  So there’s no downside, but what’s the hardest part of the job?

SW:  I’d say time management. We are constantly doing simulations, improving on the robotics, providing engineering support, carrying out the prep work for launches, and analyzing results for the scientific experiments, all while balancing our training regimen and doing public appearances. But the busy, varied schedule is also what makes the job so much fun.

Posing for a photo as a procedures handbook floats freely nearby in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station.

In the Space Station, with a procedures handbook and other docs floating freely.

DH:  I’ve always imagined that the weightlessness would be a big challenge. What’s it like to live and work in zero gravity?

SW:  On one hand, it’s quite normal. We still go through a normal day-to-day routine including meals, exercise, sleep, and chores (such as laundry, cleaning, etc.). But there are also challenges that one wouldn’t even think of. If things aren’t tied down, they tend to float away, which makes picking up after yourself a lot more difficult!

And regarding work, as engineers we do a lot of drilling and cutting. The challenge in space is that metal scraps and particles don’t fall to the ground where we can sweep them up. Instead, to prevent the particles from floating in the air around us where they might irritate our eyes or we might inhale them, we essentially do this work with our tools inside zip lock bags to collect the scraps. That’s not as easy as it might sound.

Those kind of challenges are just part of the job. And it’s hard to beat the view.

Stephanie poses in the Cupola of the International Space Station with a view of Earth right below.

In the cupola of the Space Station, with the Earth far below.

DH:  In all three of your missions you traveled to the International Space Station. What functions did you perform on those missions?

SW:  As an engineer, I contribute to a lot of the maintenance and performance tests at the ISS. For example, on one of our missions, we tested new equipment and procedures that increased the safety of space shuttles, repaired a rail car on the Space Station, and tested the operation of the robotic arm which is used for a number of repair functions on the outside of the Space Station.

We also transferred tens of thousands of pounds of supplies and equipment to the ISS. Much of this equipment is used for important scientific research that can only be carried out at zero gravity.

Stephanie Wilson poses with two colleagues in their Extra-vehicular Mobility Units during her third mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

With two colleagues during her third mission to the Space Station.

DH:  Although clearly not a practitioner myself, I have a passion for science. Would you describe a few examples of the kinds of experiments you are referring to?

SW:  There are many types of research at the ISS including experiments on plant growth, cancer treatment, impacts on human physiology, new designs for metal alloys for use on Earth and for further space exploration, X-ray monitoring, and understanding the physical characteristics of fluids in a zero-gravity environment.

There is plenty of information available about the scientific research conducted on the ISS and during shuttle flights. Anyone who is interested can start by looking at NASA’s website or YouTube.

DH: Sorry, but I have to ask. Have you ever gotten space-sick? I’ve heard it’s rough.

SW: Some of my colleagues did, and it’s an uncomfortable experience for sure. But luckily for me, I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe I owe it to spending lots of time with my father on a fishing boat. Sea-sickness and space-sickness seem to have a lot in common.

DH:  If I remember correctly, you first lifted off more than six years ago, becoming the 2nd African-American woman and the 41st woman overall to fly in space. Space flight by women is clearly not a new thing in 2012, but I would imagine there are still challenges. Have you faced any particular barriers or challenges being a woman astronaut?

SW:  Honestly, I feel pretty lucky. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space (in 1983), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space (in 1992), and many other women pioneers in space travel. Also, I’ve had some wonderful co-workers, both men and women, who have been extremely supportive of me and many of my fellow female astronauts.

The most challenging barrier right now is that there still aren’t as many women as men who study math and science. But there are efforts to change that. That’s why it was great to come to New Zealand where I’ve seen interest in science among children – both boys and girls – at the Science Festival in Dunedin as well as at the Auckland Museum. I also met a wonderful, dynamic group of young women currently studying in University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty.

Hearing everyone’s enthusiasm and questions gives me confidence that more and more women will pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, and hopefully that exposure to science and scientists will lead many more women to became astronauts in the future.

Stephanie chatted with a group of 20 young women within University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty about life in States, being a woman working in the sciences, and her aspirations in the future.

With young women from the University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty.

DH:  I’d enjoy hearing your views of the future of space travel. Specifically, do you think we’ll make it to Mars? Big dreams are sometimes casualties to overly narrow or ill-informed cost-benefit analyses, which concerns me.

SW:  Yes, I do think we will make it to Mars. In fact, just a few days ago, NASA unveiled the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) which is designed to travel far outside the Earth’s orbit. Of course, that is many years away, but it’s an exciting project that many of my colleagues are currently working on.

I do think the benefits are worth the costs, and I am optimistic that people will understand that. Expanding the reaches of our space program is kind of like extending the capabilities of both a car and its driver.

When you first get in a car, you may drive to the end of the driveway. Then to the end of the street. Then, you may go to the other side of town, or even to the other side of the country. Each time, you are advancing your own capabilities to drive the vehicle, while the car must be built to go further and further. And just as importantly, you need to make sure that you can also come back home safe and sound.

In the process we learn about our surroundings and how we function in different environments, bringing us new knowledge that can be applied in the future. In the process we also develop new technologies, conduct experiments that couldn’t or wouldn’t be conducted otherwise, create the foundation for new industries, and produce products, devices, and cures of great value.

DH:  Would you sign up for a mission to Mars? It takes about two years just to get from here to there, doesn’t it?

SW:  Yes, I would … but not one-way. [Laughter.] As incredible as it would be to land on another planet, it would be just as rewarding to share my experience with everyone back here afterwards. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that equally exciting experience.

DH:  I certainly understand your enthusiasm. Starting with Jules Verne when I was 7 or 8 years old and continuing through SpaceX just a few weeks ago, I have always wanted to hitch a ride in that direction myself.

Stephanie, thank you again for coming to New Zealand, for spending so much time with young people, and for taking time to talk. It has been a great honor and pleasure to have you in the country and, at times, way up above it. Let me know in advance when you are next scheduled to fly over us, and we’ll all wave.

SW:  [Laughter.] I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. I hope to be invited back again.

Stephanie gives examples of some of the research carried out on the International Space Station to a packed audience at the Auckland Museum – July 7 – photo credit – Krzysztof Pfeiffer

Talking about space research at the Auckland Museum.

 *   *   *

In addition to her work in space, Ms. Wilson serves on one of Harvard University’s two governing bodies, The Honorable and Reverend Board of Overseers. I’ll be talking about Harvard education in my next post in a few days, so stay tuned.