THE STARS HER DESTINATION: AN INTERVIEW WITH ASTRONAUT DR. SHANNON WALKER
On a balmy day in June, 1983, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Launch Complex 39 in Titusville, Florida. While launches had become a regular event since the advent of the shuttle program, the Challenger was unique this day in that carried on board not just human beings but the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of young women. Among the crew was Sally Ride, a thirty-two-year old physicist and the first American woman to go into space. For a country that had long stifled women in the sciences, it was a watershed moment whose implications are still felt to this day: For the first time, any American girl with an interest in the space program had a role model, a pioneer to look to as someone who had gone before.
One of those girls was eighteen-year-old Shannon Walker. A resident of Houston, Texas, Walker would be among the first generation of women to graduate from high school with the knowledge that a role in the space program was within her reach. Though not inspired by Ride directly (“It wasn’t Sally Ride in particular, it was the space shuttle in general,” she admits), Walker pursued a career at NASA, earning a BA in Physics from Rice University that led to her becoming a robotics flight controller at Johnson Space Center in 1987. Walker would go on to distinguish herself as a flight controller through the remainder of the decade, taking a three year leave of absence in 1990 to pursue first an MS and then a PhD in Space Physics from Rice. Her list of achievements upon returning to NASA is an article in and of itself, and if I knew I could hold your undivided attention for the time it would take to recount them, I’d gladly do that here. What I’m ultimately here to talk about, though, is the fact that, on a June day in 2010, almost twenty-seven-years to the day of Sally Ride’s space flight, Dr. Shannon Walker made her own pilgrimage beyond the reach of man, riding to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz-FG.
Though the popular affinity for space travel which gripped the nation at the height of the Cold War is largely gone outside the realm of popular culture, the space program is neither less glamorous nor less intriguing than it was when Sally Ride made her flight. Indeed, beyond the veil of sideshow politics, war, and terrorism, Dr. Walker is part of a new generation of astronauts whose advancements are bringing mankind ever closer to the cusp of a fantastic new space age. The dawn of the new millennium had witnessed an era of unprecedented international cooperation and scientific advancement, bringing humanity closer than at any point in history to understanding the wonders of the universe and traveling to worlds beyond our own. Thankfully, recent events have helped to begin slowly easing the popular consciousness back towards thoughts of space: The recent film The Martian premiered to commercial and critical success, while Scott Kelly has become one of the first celebrity astronauts in recent memory with his record-setting tenure about the ISS.
As one of those individuals whose love of space has never waned according to popular opinion, it was something of a dream come true when recently, a day before the thirty-third anniversary of Sally Ride’s flight, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Dr. Walker in our hometown of Houston, TX. It’s my hope that by publishing her interview here, alongside film reviews and movie-star Q and As, that I can help to properly re-elevate NASA and its’ employees to the celebrity status they so richly deserve, and properly reignite a national passion for the space program that Dr. Walker and I hold so dear.
PF: I guess I’ll go ahead and start with the obvious: Have you always wanted to be involved with the space program?
SW: Ever since I was a little kid. Absolutely. I was four years old when we walked on the moon for the first time, and my parents took me out in the back yard and pointed at the moon and said, “We’ve got people there,” or, whatever they said. And that’s when my interest in the human spaceflight program got started.
PF: You graduated the year that Sally Ride went into space. A lot of people saw Sally Ride’s spaceflight as this defining moment when gender barriers were finally broken down in the sciences…
SW: Yes, absolutely…
PF: …and it was seen as sort of the moment that barriers were broken down in the space program specifically. Is sexism something that women in the sciences face, or is it more of an egalitarian atmosphere?
SW: I would say our office is egalitarian. I would say that we probably don’t have the gender ratio that we would like: Right now I think it’s, roughly 30% of the office are women, 70% male, give or take a person or two. But, that’s not because we’re actively not seeking to hire women, or we’ve got men trying to keep women out. It’s not like that at all. It’s just the fact that we hire people so rarely that it takes time to change the gender balance that we’ve historically had. So in terms of work assignments and training and anything else that’s involved with being an astronaut, everybody does the same jobs, everybody is trained for the same things. Everybody has the same expectations. We’re really not faced with any societal or gender issues within our office.
PF: Oh, that’s wonderful.
SW: Oh, yeah, it’s really great.
PF: You did work in school regarding the interaction of solar winds with the atmosphere of Venus. Was there anything about that in particular that intrigued you?
SW: You know, that’s a good question… some of it just had to do with, that was the research being done at the university where I was going to school. But, planetary science has always been an interest of mine as well. So the scientist side of me wanted to understand our planet better, and that seemed like a good area of research to be in.
PF: How does the study of solar winds and the atmosphere of Venus help us understand Earth better?
SW: Whenever you know more about different planets, you can make comparisons and contrasts to our own planet. And there’s some very big differences between Venus and the Earth in terms of intrinsic magnetic fields. Our planet has an intrinsic magnetic field, Venus’ is not significant. What’s more important is that Venus is much like Mars in that sense. Because we had a lot of data from that, from the Pioneer data probe, we could make predictions about what we would see on Mars once we started sending more probes to Mars. So it was generic science expanding our knowledge of the universe, which always will help us as we pursue our endeavors to go live on other planets.
PF: Personally, do you think you and I will see a Mars landing in our lifetime?
SW: (laughs) That is the sixty-four-thousand-million dollar question, isn’t it? (laughs) I certainly hope so! We probably need improved technical capability, but, it can be done. The question is, will we have the political will not just in our country, but in all the countries in the world that we’ll need to come together to undertake such a mission? It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be a very long term investment. And, as they say, a lot of planets have to line up for that to happen.
PF: Do you think something could happen in the socio-political climate that would reinvigorate the popular imagination’s interest in space, the way it was during the Cold War?
SW: I don’t. I don’t think we’ll necessarily see that again. In the Cold War, we had a definite—I won’t say enemy, but, we had a country that we wanted to best. And in today’s political climate, the only potential country would be China, if they start sending people to the Moon. But I don’t think that’s going to have enough of a political impact to spur on our Congress. I think it’s just going to have to be the general public having the desire, and making that desire known to our political leaders.
PF: On a more domestic scale, is there anything you can see happening in the United States that would have a significant positive impact on the space program?
SW: I think what’s having a positive impact, aside from movies like The Martian, are the successes the commercial companies are having. I think SpaceX, the accomplishments they’ve had, have had quite a positive effect, and have brought back to the forefront of people’s thinking our space program. That’s always good. A lot of times, when we were in the routine of flying people on the shuttle, and flying people to the Space Station, the media wasn’t necessarily interested. So therefore the word wasn’t getting out to the general public that we had all of this great stuff happening. Right now SpaceX is doing wonderful things. They’re getting a lot of press. We’ve got Orbital ATK doing a lot of great things. We’ve got Jeff Bezos and his company, Sierra Nevada, flying his rockets. We’ve got Virgin Galactic. So there’s all these companies and people out there doing stuff, as well as the Mars rovers, and the pictures coming back from Jupiter, and the pictures coming back from Pluto. And all these things are coming together at this time, and putting NASA, and all the work NASA has been doing for years, and what we are doing now, in the forefront.
PF: Going back, things have dramatically changed since the days of the Cold War—you even worked for a year with Russia’s space program…
SW: Yes. It’s really interesting. I get the question a lot because certainly in today’s political climate, our two countries are not the best of friends. It’s really interesting to me, not just with the Russians, but working with all of our international partners, when you get down on the engineer and scientist level, everyone is the same the world over. Everyone is very dedicated to their job, everybody is passionate about their space program as well as our combined space programs. So in terms of working with the Russians on the day-to-day, engineer-to-engineer type interactions, everything is fine. It’s once you start getting higher up in management, when bigger decisions have to be made… I don’t want to say there are issues, but there are different issues that have to be worked through in such an international partnership. And then, once you get up to the politicians, then you start hearing all of the extreme rhetoric. Day to day, we worked very well together, and we were of the same mind in terms of what our mission goals are. So we actually are a big family. It’s really nice.
PF: You started out working on robotics for the international space station before becoming an astronaut. How did you make that transition?
SW: So, becoming an astronaut was something I always wanted to do since I was a kid. And I just kept applying until I was selected. So I went through the selection process and went to the final stages five times over a period of fourteen years or so before I was selected. So all my years I spent working at JSC (Johnson Space Center), I just kept adding to my, I don’t know, personal resume as it were. Working with robotics let me have some exposure to working with my international partners. I actually had one year where I stopped doing robotics stuff and worked with the Russians doing avionics integration. I lived in Moscow for a year. That was certainly not something I was very familiar with but it gave me a lot of experience working with the Russians, and, again, another side of working with the international partners. I think everything, all that experience, built up to me being attractive to being selected. And then once I was selected having that experience made the job a lot easier for me than for someone who maybe didn’t have that experience.
PF: What was it like actually getting to fulfill that childhood dream? Not just the emotional experience but also the practicality of, “Hey, I’m in outer space?”
SW: (gasps) Oh! Oh, it was such an awesome time! I mean, it was—you’re right. The emotional experience... it was satisfying to be able to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I mean it just—it… it…. I mean, I realize it’s really rare that people get to fulfill those dreams the way I got to fulfill my dream. And then, living and working on the space station, I felt that I had found my niche in life. I enjoyed every minute of it. Even when some of the work was tedious. I was really happy to be up there. I never got bored. I could’ve gone home, I could’ve stayed longer. Whatever NASA needed me to do I was fine with it. It was just… it was, top to bottom, a great experience in space. It was a lot of fun.
PF: What’re you doing with the space program now?
SW: I’m still an active astronaut! And between flight assignments, we're given assignments within the office to help NASA’s mission along. Some of our astronauts work with our commercial crew providers, some are working with the people at NASA who’re building the new rockets and spacecraft. Recently my assignment was sort of being in management. I was a person who was in charge of all the crews in training, all of the crews training for a space flight, the crews on orbit. So I dealt with the day-to-day operations and training of the space station. Recently, as we periodically do, we shuffled managers around in the office, so I’m no longer a manager. I’ve been focusing sort of on re-upping my generic astronaut skills. We are always expected to maintain a certain level of competence on various activities: The spacewalking, the robotics skills, flying jets and so. Since my schedule as a manager prevented as much regular training as we would’ve liked, I’ve sort of delved into refreshing some of my training, and then we’ll take it from there and see what assignments the office has for me.
PF: Where do you see the Orion program going in the next couple of years?
SW: Oh, the next couple of years! Well, I think they’ll continue to make progress on their spacecraft. They’ve got the plan of how they’re putting everything together and the launches they’re going to make and the missions they’re going to have… so I don’t see any significant showstoppers for that, unless… (sighs) The risk with a new administration coming in is, they want to make significant change. So it sort of remains to be seen how the November elections turnout, who is up, if they choose to make a lot of changes in NASA. Assuming they don’t, Orion is humming right along and we’ll have it performing its’ missions in due course.
PF: You mentioned The Martian. Are you a fan at all of science fiction, speculative fiction…?
SW: (laughs) Yeah, you know, it definitely has its’ place. Some of it is a little too unrealistic. I thought The Martian was a really good book. I thought the movie… was fine. It was well acted. Some of the changes they made from the book to the movie I didn’t necessarily appreciate. But the difficulty adapting a book to a movie is that so much of the development that happens in the book gets left out of the movie. But the movie was great, and if people only ever see the movie, that’s fine. But I would definitely recommend people read the book, because it was a very entertaining book and very well done from a science perspective.
PF: OK, last question. I have to ask: Star Trek or Star Wars?
SW: (laughs) Both? Can I be both? I have to choose sides? (laughs) No, I’m a fan of both of them.