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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

NASA Astronaut Stephanie D. Wilson:Faith in Abilities

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stephanie D. Wilson
Williamstown - Prior to a history-making July voyage as the second African-American woman to travel into space, before she was selected as a NASA trainee in 1996, and before she earned a master of science degree from the University of Texas, Dr. Stephanie D. Wilson, 39, was a Pittsfield girl who attended the city's public schools, did her homework, and admired her teachers.

Hanging On Every Word

One homework assignment in particular had a profound impact on Wilson and her future, she said. The assignment was part of a Crosby Junior High School "career week" and the task put Wilson in contact with Williams College Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy Jay M. Pasachoff.

As a junior high school student, Wilson had an avid interest in astronomy. The assignment involved interviewing someone whose career reflected specific student interests; Wilson called Williams College and was directed to Pasachoff.

She'd carefully planned her interview questions and had equipped herself with a tape recorder so that she could accurately transcribe the interview, Wilson said.

But when the interview began, the tape recorder failed to work.

"I was hanging on his every word," Wilson said during a Sept. 13 telephone interview from Pasachoff's Williams College office. "I couldn't tear myself away to take notes. There wasn't one answer that wasn't interesting."

Pasachoff was passionate about his work, Wilson said. He has reached several career pinnacles since his interview with a teen-aged Wilson; he has authored textbooks and in 2003, he was awarded the American Astronomical Society Education Prize. He is well known for his work involving solar eclipses and his research has been sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.

During yesterday's interview, Wilson said she remembered feeling that she wanted her own career to generate the high levels of personal enthusiasm demonstrated by Pasachoff.

That goal appears to have been met; Wilson is clearly delighted to have been among the seven-member Space Shuttle Discovery crew and the 13-day mission that traveled to the International Space Station.

Pasachoff, Naomi Pasachoff, and Williams College students Megan Bruck and Amy Steele were invited to Cape Canaveral by Wilson to watch the shuttle launch, but two weather delays postponed the event to July 4.

Wilson spoke about her space mission during a Sept. 13 7 p.m. presentation at the Williams College Brooks-Roger Auditorium. The event was free and open to the public.

Her travel agenda includes a stop at Harvard University -Wilson graduated from the school in 1988 - and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT].

Her Sept. 12 Pittsfield visit, officially titled Stephanie D. Wilson Day, was very enjoyable, she said.

Teacher Inspirations

When asked if she was excited by the response of the city to her visit, Wilson answered "Absolutely I'm excited. People have been so warm."

City residents have also expressed happiness that the mission was a success and that the crew members returned to Earth safely, she said. She's been happy to share her experiences, she noted.

During a Sept. 12 stop at Taconic High School -Wilson is a member of the school's Class of 1984 - and a Sept. 13 morning visit at the Stearns Elementary School, she was able to see some of her former teachers, Wilson said.

"It was wonderful to see them," Wilson said. "Every one of them had a role in nurturing me along."

The Road to Discovery

The "nurturing" led Wilson to Harvard, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering science. She then spent two years employed at the former Martin Marietta Astronautics Group. She entered the University of Texas in 1990; after earning her master's degree, she was employed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif..

After NASA selected Wilson for astronaut training, she began training at the Johnson Space Center during August 1996. Two years later, she qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist.

While aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, Wilson, along with other crew members, tested new equipment and procedures. She operated the robotic arms on scheduled EVAs and was responsible for a transfer over 28,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

The shuttle commander was Steven Lindsey, an Air Force fighter pilot. German astronaut Thomas Reiter, pilot Mark Kelly, astronauts Michael Fossum and Piers Sellers, and mission specialist Lisa Nowak were aboard the Discovery during the mission.

Wilson said she is eligible to participate in another space flight, but added that since she has been up into space, she's now at the end of a line that hosts about 50 hopeful astronauts.

"I'd like to see them have their opportunity," she said, but emphasized that if she were again selected for a space mission, she would happily agree to go.

Orion

The space shuttle program will end in 2010, mostly because the technologies used to build the shuttles are outdated and some of the parts are no longer manufactured, Wilson said. A new generation of crew exploration vehicles are expected to be introduced by 2014, she said.

The new space vehicles have been named "Orion," and on Aug. 31, the Lockheed Martin Corp. was awarded the contract to build the craft.

"Future astronauts will ride into space in the Orion capsule, similar in design to the Apollo-era command module but larger, and more versatile, and capable of carrying six occupants, twice as many as its' predecessor," according to information posted at a www.nasa.gov Internet web site. "Orion will succeed the space shuttle as NASA's primary vehicle for human space exploration. Orion's first flight with astronauts on board is planned for no later than 2014 to the International Space Station. Its' first flight to the moon is planned for no later than 2020."

And manned trips to Mars are planned to follow moon exploration, Wilson said.

She believes that there are life forms of some kind elsewhere in the vast expanse known as "space," she said. It would not be surprising to discover life that is similar to life on Earth, Wilson said, and added that she does not believe that other life forms would resemble the hostile creatures portrayed in most media depictions.

"I don't believe the life we may find will be war-oriented," she said. "I hope it will be more peaceful."

Faith In Abilities

Wilson offered some guidance for those who may be reaching for stars of their own.

"Have faith in their abilities," she said."Find something they love to do and do it with all their hearts."

Most young people will find that their "communities," including teachers and family members, will be supportive of their dreams, and students should find and use any available resources as they pursue their goals. Avoid self-doubt, she said.

"Above all, have faith in themselves and their abilities," Wilson said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or 802-823-9367.

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