OBSERVER | From expedition to exhibition: The Life of an Astronaut Who Became an Artist (June 2016)
Reportage by Robin Seemangal:
"New York native Nicole Stott has spent over 100 days in space while leading a celebrated career that saw her fly as a mission specialist on two space shuttle flights and serve as flight engineer on two expedition crews aboard the International Space Station. Today, Nicole has been retired from NASA for over a year and recently opened an exhibit at the Sayle Gallery on the Isle of Man where she displayed original art inspired by her experience as a decorated astronaut. Her journey as an accomplished artist began during her journey as an astronaut when she became the first crew member to paint a piece of art in space.
The Observer spoke in-depth with Nicole Stott about the road to becoming an astronaut, how her experience living in space impacted her life, and how art can be an integral part in understanding science.
When you started your career as an engineer at Pratt & Whitney, did you have any dreams of eventually working for NASA?
Actually, I did. Out of college, I had applied to NASA at their Kennedy Space Center. After I applied, I had gotten a letter saying that they were on a hiring freeze. NASA said they were interested but explained that they couldn’t do anything right now and said they would let me know if the freeze ever lifts. So I had to get a job.
Pratt & Whitney was a wonderful place to work. I was really excited about going there with all the projects they were working on. I was really thankful for being brought on there and it was while I was working there, that NASA contacted me again after the hiring freeze was over. I had a great time at Pratt & Whitney and It was interesting because I discovered what I was doing there really wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. It’s probably the most engineering-like job I’ve ever had. I was doing structural analysis on engine components and things like that. I think I discovered that I was more of a hands-on person rather than an engineering analysis person. It was a good opportunity.
After NASA’s hiring freeze was lifted at Kennedy Space Center, what was your role there?
Flow director for space shuttle Endeavour. What that really meant is that I was a NASA manager that helped facilitate all of the work with the contractors actually doing the work and getting the shuttle from landing to launch again. Getting through all the different facilities and back out to the launch pad to fly another mission.
What was your reaction to being accepted to the astronaut program?
Pride perhaps. I don’t think I ever would have done that on my own had I not had the encouragement of a couple of people I worked with there. People I consider to be mentors. I had started talking to them a little bit and they just encouraged me to pick up the pen—which you had to do back then and fill out the application and apply. I’m very thankful to them for having done that.
Did you see the astronaut program as inaccessible to someone like yourself?
Absolutely. My entire life I did. I have vivid memories of watching the moon landing and the first people walking on the moon and thinking “wow that’s really cool!” It never really crossed my mind that anything like that could be real to me. Thankfully, I had a dad who loved flying and built an airplane. So as a family, we were out at the airport a lot and I think flying was in my blood. I knew that I wanted to do something that had to do with flying. I Definitely wanted my pilot’s license but ultimately, with school, I wanted to know how things fly. I didn’t think I wanted to be an airline pilot for a living. I wanted to fly for fun. For a job, I wanted to know how things fly and how I do I help things fly. That was a great way to get into Kennedy Space Center.
It wasn’t until I was there working for maybe 8 or 9 years into the 10 years I was with NASA at KSC that I began thinking more about it as I saw the astronauts coming in and getting ready to fly. I was thinking more about it but also questioning it a little bit. But still, I think until I got that encouragement from somebody else to fill out the application, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be someone that they would select and bring in. Then I did. I applied that first time and I did do an interview. I remember when I went out for the interview in Houston, it’s like a week-long thing and you’re with 20 other people that are getting interviewed that week. You’re going through all these different medical tests and then you have the formal interview with the selection committee which is about an hour long.
I did not get selected that first time. It was really truly not a surprise to me. But they offered me a job at Johnson Space Center working on their shuttle training aircraft as a flight engineer. I remember feeling very fortunate that they even gave me any feedback at all because that usually doesn’t happen. Usually if you interview and don’t get selected they would say “Thanks, try again next time.”
They said, “hey, we’d like you to come to Johnson space center. We’d like you to fly the shuttle training aircraft as a flight engineer for us and get some operation experience,” and the thing I remember laughing about in my head was “wow, I’ve been working for 10 years in space shuttle operations!” you know? What did they mean by “operations experience?”
So of course, I accepted the job and got out there and I loved it. It was like every job I’ve had in the shuttle program, the next one was always better. I started flying on this airplane and flying on the T-38 as well. For a person that loves flying, how could it get any better? It became very clear to me within 10 minutes of being there that this is what they mean by “operations.” The operations work I was doing at Kennedy Space Center was from a project management standpoint—getting vehicles ready to fly. They mean “operations” as a crew working in a complex vehicle. How do you work as a team in something like the shuttle training aircraft or the T-38? How do you safely get off the ground and back on the ground again? I loved it. It was the perfect thing for me in preparing me for when I got selected 2 years later for the astronaut program. Even then, even after them bringing me on and doing that, I honestly think that pride was my reaction.
I mean, holy moly! That second time I interviewed, there were probably more really impressive people that they could have picked. I mean, they could have picked any one of those people and had a great new astronaut in their program and they picked me. How in the world did that happen? I pinched myself everyday. What act of god went down to allow me to be selected.
Having flown multiple times on the space shuttle, can you tell me what makes the vehicle so special?
When the space shuttle was being developed, there was an initial concept for it—it was going to carry astronauts and cargo in some way to low-Earth orbit to do work in low-Earth orbit. Either satellite deployment or space station development or science in the shuttle itself—in the laboratories we had in there. But as the program was growing and developing, before we even flew STS-1, it went through all these government programs and different cycles of “we need the shuttle to do this thing too!” “We need it to do that thing too!” It was becoming this vehicle that they wanted to be the solution for everything.
Most times, when you do that to a program, you pretty much kill it because there’s normally not one vehicle that can do all those things for you. You know, it might fly people there but the cargo side is not going to be so good or it might be a cargo vehicle but the way it takes care of people on board is not going to be great.
What I love is that the space shuttle stuck it out. The way it was developed and flown made it do all those things beautifully. It was capable of taking very large and very small payloads to space, doing science inside the laboratory, and facilitating the very complex build of very small pieces of equipment to big pieces like our wonderful space station. It was quite honestly a very comfortable flight to and from space for the crew. And a very comfortable place to live while you’re in space.
The fact that it is able to do all of that so beautifully the way it did, was a real testament to the people who built it, the people who maintained it, and the people who flew it. I think it will be a really long time before we see anything like that again.
What do you think of the shuttle-inspired Dream chaser spacecraft being built by Sierra Nevada?
I am so thankful that Sierra Nevada is pushing ahead the way they are. I really hope that they pull it off with the Dream chaser. I mean, it’s not the space shuttle but it is the closest thing that we’ll get for a long time. We should not discount it. There’s a maturity to the design. There’s kind of a human side to it too—the idea of flying to space and then comfortably landing on a runway is a very appealing thing to people. It’s appealing not only because of the comfort but because it a safe way to do it. Dropping on water or dropping on land in the dessert is not a comfortable way to come home. You just survived a spaceflight, you just survived a very dynamic re-entry into our atmosphere, and now we’re going to take you from that situation and plop you down in the water. Why are we doing that?
Late Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell and space shuttle astronaut Ron Garan have both spoken extensively about their life-altering experience of seeing the Earth from space. Mitchell seemed to recall it as a spiritual experience while Garan took a more pragmatic approach—calling for unity to solve the world’s problems. Did seeing the Earth from space leave with you a change in perspective?
I was definitely impacted. I think that some aspects of what both those people experienced, I experienced as well. Ron and I are really good friends so we’ve talked about this a lot. I think for him, it was a very practical. How do you take that experience and apply it in a very practical way—which became The Orbital Perspective. There’s definitely the practical and spiritual aspects that go along with it for me.
There was that feeling of awe that you get when you look out the window at Earth. It’s definitely one of those things you can’t prepare yourself for. I looked at photos and videos and I talked to some colleagues before I flew to try and get their impression. I think in my mind, I thought I’d be prepared for it. I don’t think you can prepare yourself. As human beings, we have to put ourselves in these places and see it with our own eyes. The impact is very different from seeing it in a movie or pictures. I think it becomes part of you in some way.
I think the biggest thing for me became the word awe. Totally thought the use of that word was appropriate. When I talk about what I saw and what I experienced floating around the station, awe is the word that goes with it. It’s the right word to describe that experience. Because of that, I started to get a greater sense of significance as well. I mean that from the standpoint of how we all fit into the bigger picture.
Edgar Mitchell and some of the other folks who were blessed enough to see the entire planet, have mentioned that we or the Earth are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe and it always bothered me. I wanted to believe that what they really meant was that they were humbled or in awe of what they saw. After flying to space, I thought that’s what they really meant. Yes, our planet may be small in the grand universe of things, but look at how perfectly placed it is and how it takes care of us. I think Ron and Edgar—if he was still around—would argue that would imply that there’s a reciprocal responsibility for us to take care of it and each other.
Since retiring from NASA last year, you have began a new career as an artist. What connects the two?
To me, the bigger thing is this connection between science and art. You can extend that to space and art or medicine and art. I think what it comes down to is ways to creatively solve problems and ways to creatively communicate what you are doing. From a science standpoint, we have forever used art to communicate the message behind the science. For example, coloring the images from the Hubble Telescope because the raw data would just not make sense to our brain. You have to turn something into a picture to allow us as human beings to be able to process it. I think for kids especially, if we can engage as much of their brain into learning, they will be a lot more successful, a lot more creative and a lot more open to ideas that aren’t necessarily their own.