After returning to earth, Astronaut Stephanie Wilson S.B. ’88, visited Harvard to discuss her career and experiences at NASA.
She was a crew member of STS-120, a shuttle flight responsible for mounting U.S. Node 2 to the International Space Station.
Wilson, who earned a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas and held positions at the former Martin Marietta Group and the Jet Propulsion Lab, currently works in the Astronaut Office Shuttle Operations Branch at the Johnson Space Center.
Budding space aces should take a look at NASA’s quick guide, “How Do You Become an Astronaut?”
We have to ask. When did you decide to become an astronaut?
I decided at 13. I’m originally from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a small town without a lot of city lights. I’d look up at night in my backyard and see all the stars.
Who inspired you or helped you along the way?
For a high school assignment, I went to Williams College and interviewed an astronomy professor, Dr. Jay M. Pasachoff [A.B. ’63, A.M. ’65, Ph.D. ’69], who happened to be from Harvard. He taught me all about astronomy and about what he had a chance to do: travel around the world and view the heavens.
How are engineering problems different in zero-g versus on earth?
Gravity is the thing you have to design in or out. With the shuttle, the engines are used to boost us into orbit once we’re about 50 miles up. So they have to work in both environments. You have to think of a way to cool the fuel so you don’t starve the engine.
There are challenges you might not imagine, like eating. You must have food that doesn’t float out of a container or leave crumbs in the air. On the shuttle, you’re in a small, cluttered space with no storage.
Did being an African American woman shape your experiences?
Not really. Here’s what I found interesting and unexpected: A lot of the equipment we’re given is issued from the military—meaning that it’s all made for a particular size. Not because I’m a woman, but because I’m a small person, the standard equipment doesn’t fit me, and it costs a lot of money to modify it.
What’s it like being an astronaut working on earth with the rest of us? Do you long to go into space?
Yeah, it’s all about space! In February 2003 we would have started our specific mission training, but all the flights were delayed after the Columbia accident.
I did have a chance to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab on some robotic spacecraft. Simply seeing software and hardware you designed actually go into interplanetary space and do the things they’re supposed to do is really rewarding.
Are people different in some way when they come back from space?
I think people are changed. The astronauts I’ve known well have phenomenal things to say even about the littlest things, like how vivid the colors are in space or how their sense of taste was different. I think that, just like on earth, opportunity and knowledge change people.
Do you ever think about the dangers of space? It’s not like you can put on a life jacket or swim to shore if something goes wrong.
I don’t—not a lot. I was riding the shuttle bus to Courier House when the Challenger accident happened. I remember being in denial and thinking, “No, this couldn’t happen.” But it didn’t deter me at all. It’s unfortunate, but out of tragedy new and good things will be developed for the future. The same with Columbia.
All we can do is execute all the training we have received, work with the Mission Control team, and hope we catch a problem should it occur. If not, it was meant to be. We can use what we’ve learned for our eventual trip back to the Moon and on to Mars.
Speaking of Mars, should we go?
Yes. If we don’t, we might limit our destiny.