Saturday, March 26, 2011

Space shuttle veteran eyes her space station future

Charles Atkeison, daughter Emily and Stephanie Wilson at Tellus.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson is no stranger to working in space, and after three space shuttle flights she looks forward to the day when she will make a fourth visit as a resident aboard the International Space Station.

She has flown aboard the space shuttle Discovery on three flights beginning in 2006 in support of construction and resupply of earth's orbital outpost in space.

On Friday, Ms. Wilson brought the home movies from her most recent flight last April on NASA's 131st space shuttle mission to share with an audience at the Tellus Science Center in northwest Georgia.

Ms. Wilson, a graduate from Harvard University and holds two engineering degrees, spoke about her aerospace career and just what it feels like to launch aboard a space shuttle.

"That eight and one-half minute ride goes by very quickly," Ms. Wilson explained. "It's definitely an exciting ride. After three times, I'm still not tired of it. If I had the chance to ride again I would."

Her third lift-off left a present for launch spectators in the form of colorful ribbons of exhaust which hung in the predawn skies over the Kennedy Space Center from the exhaust the shuttle's twin boosters created as the sun rose minutes after lift-off.

The astronaut-engineer discussed the accomplishments on each of her flights, including the delivery of an ammonia tank for cooling the electronics of the space station, and the delivery of a supply module full of water, fuel and experiments for the station's crew of six.

"It's been a great career, a great life time to see the space station grow," the Massachusetts native told this aerospace reporter on Friday.

Wilson's interest in astronomy began as a young girl looking up into the night sky of her Boston backyard, "I always wondered what was out in the universe. (Asking) wouldn't it be wonderful to visit some place in the solar system or the universe."

Graduating from Harvard, she became an engineer on the Titan IV rocket. Ms. Wilson later received a degree as an aerospace engineer from the University of Texas, continuing her growth in space related fields.

"I wanted to work some how in the space industry, whether it be working with missions, working with launch vehicles, working with robotic space craft," the 43-year old shared of her thoughts in the early-1990's. "I was very fortunate to do that."

She was hired by NASA as an engineer on the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, ensuring it was properly pointed the right way as it soared around the large gaseous planet.

As the final two space shuttle flights prepare for their launches this year, Wilson looked fondly ahead, "We're getting ready to retire the shuttle, so it's bittersweet for a lot of us to see that era end."

"We're looking forward to a new era," Ms. Wilson continued, "where we will be able to go outside of low earth orbit and experience bigger and better things."

NASA's only female African-American astronaut to have made multiple journeys into earth orbit, Stephanie Wilson's work at NASA has not yet concluded as she strives for one last flight.

As she paused and reflected on her past for a moment, she glanced up with a smile saying, "I hope to have a longer (flight) that will last about six months."

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