Science & Tech

DEAS welcomes Harvard astronaut back to Earth

4 min read

Spacewoman Stephanie Wilson ’88 shares colorful details of life in the sky

International Space Station designers thought of everything concerning astronaut comfort while sleeping.

There are sleeping bags, straps to hold astronauts against the wall, and, according to NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, there’s even a strap to hold their heads to the pillow against the weightlessness of space.

Wilson, who graduated from Harvard in 1988, returned to campus on Sept. 14 to share her space experiences in an hour-long talk that mixed the technical accomplishments of her space shuttle flight and colorful details of life in space.

Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti gave Wilson a heartfelt welcome back to Harvard and “back to her home planet” before her talk at the Maxwell Dworkin building before a stranding-room-only crowd.

Wilson, who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering sciences from Harvard, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s July 4 flight to the International Space Station. The 13-day flight was the second since the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the atmosphere on its return to Earth.

Wilson served as a mission specialist on the seven-person crew, which tested techniques for space shuttle inspection and repair, conducted three space walks, ferried supplies to the International Space Station, and replaced a critical cable on a small external railcar on the space station. They also left one crewmember, Thomas Reiter from the European Space Agency, behind to expand the space station’s crew to three for the first time since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

The mission, which returned to Earth on July 17, was successful, squeezing in an optional third space walk that tested a repair putty designed to fill cracks in the critically important coating on the shuttle’s nose cone and wing leading edges – which experience the highest re-entry heat.

Wilson, on a two-week postmission tour, showed a short video on the mission, giving viewers a look at the narrow, equipment-packed insides of the space station and the shuttle. Her work on the mission involved operating the shuttle’s robotic arm to move supplies from the shuttle to the space station. She also used the arm, with a boom extension attached, to examine the underside of the shuttle for damage from liftoff and operated it during a space walk to simulate repairs to the shuttle.

“It was a packed, a filled mission; it was very busy,” Wilson said.

Wilson described the liftoff as having a lot of vibration with “an amazing amount of acceleration.”

She narrated the video, describing the different aspects of the mission, drawing laughs at some of the astronauts’ clowning around in zero gravity: doing somersaults and snatching floating blobs of water out of the air with their mouths.

Judging from the audience’s questions after the presentation, those who attended were more interested in what life in space is like than in the mission’s technical details.

Wilson answered questions about astronauts’ diet – plenty to eat, but no home cooking; about sleep – they got about six hours a night; and about returning to Earth’s gravity – she felt about three times her normal weight and kept tripping on the top stair because she didn’t lift her leg high enough.

She also answered questions about how she became an astronaut. Wilson said she wanted to go into space since she was a kid stargazing in her parents’ backyard in Pittsfield, Mass. After graduating from Harvard, she earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas.

While Wilson was eager to go into space, she said her main goal was just to work in the aerospace industry. She did that for several years, on the Titan IV rocket for contractor Martin Marietta Aeronautics Group and on the Galileo spacecraft for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was hired by NASA in 1996 and began training, gaining assignment as a mission specialist after two years.

With the space shuttle facing retirement and with Wilson heading to the back of the line of astronauts waiting to go into space, Wilson said July’s mission may prove to have been her one shot to travel to space.

“This may be my only chance, but I’m glad I got the chance,” Wilson said.