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Shannon  Walker preps for six-month stint at International Space Station

Shannon Walker_lgBY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News Staff

When Shannon Walker's boyfriend, Andy Thomas, went to the Russian space station Mir for 130 days in 1998, ham radio and the occasional e-mail were the only means of communication between the astronaut couple.

When Rice alumna Walker '87 will blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in June for a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Thomas, now her husband, will be able to check on her anytime he likes simply by turning on NASA TV.

"He can look in and see what I'm up to every day if he wants," she said, laughing, during a press gathering with three of the six members of Expedition 24 at Johnson Space Center this week.

Walker is a flight engineer on the crew that will launch in two groups from Kazakhstan this year. The first trio departs April 2; Walker will join astronaut Doug Wheelock and cosmonaut and pilot Fyodor Yurchikhin aboard a second Soyuz capsule June 16.

She'll be part of a mission of firsts and finales.

Walker won't be the first Rice alum in orbit when she makes her initial flight, but she will be the first triple Owl, having earned her bachelor's, master's and doctorate in space science at the university.

She's also the first Houston-born astronaut. A graduate of Westbury High School, she became fascinated with space travel as a child and never wavered from her goal of going there someday.

Walker will be on a crew that achieves the record for the longest continuous manned presence in space, a mark previously held by Mir, which was occupied for just under 10 years. She will also be present when the first commercial spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, will rendezvous (but not dock) with the station. The Dragon is NASA's choice to lift cargo to the ISS after the shuttle program ends; it will also be capable of carrying crews into orbit, though no such missions have been set.

She also anticipates being at the ISS for the final visit by a space shuttle. The long-lived NASA program ends with the launch of Discovery, the last of four remaining flights, scheduled for Sept. 16. Payloads delivered by the final shuttle visits will also complete construction of the ISS, which began in 1998 – just a few months after Thomas returned to Earth from Mir. Wheelock noted Expedition 24 will see the transition of ISS to full utilization as a science lab and said the crew has discussed ways to celebrate the end of the shuttle era.

Walker will be the co-pilot on Soyuz. Her duties onboard the ISS will include operation of the robotic arm, a specialty since early in her association with NASA. She's been heavily involved in solving ISS problems from the ground during her years at mission control in Houston and at the Russian control center.

"I know so much on the engineering side and not so much on the operations side," she said. "It's like, 'How do I turn this on?' But I can tell you all the problems that (a component has) had.

"I know how the control centers work. I know how to problem-solve. I know who's involved in working on the problems and can make a decision, so it is a big comfort factor. I have absolute confidence in the people in the ground, having known them for so many years."

Walker will take part in materials science experiments and in ongoing work to understand how the body reacts in space. "But the one I'm particularly excited about that does somewhat relate to my training (at Rice) is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer," due to launch with the shuttle Endeavor in late July. The particle physics module will "study the secrets of the universe by looking at cosmic rays and trying to understand information about antimatter and dark matter. That one's going to be neat for me to see onboard," she said.

Walker plans to fly a plaque for Rice that will become part of the new Brockman Hall for Physics when construction is complete next year. She'll also fly a watch owned by Amelia Earhart on behalf of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots of which Earhart was the first president. "To me it represents how far women have come in the field of aviation and how far we can go," she said.

Walker places high value on what she brought to NASA from Rice. "Obviously, Rice is a top-notch engineering and science school, so the education there, just the general broad-based education I got in the sciences, has clearly helped me get to where I need to be, because this is what NASA's all about – science and engineering," she said.

Walker said she and her husband, residents of Seabrook, Texas, try to avoid talking shop at home, but he has offered hints on the practicalities of living in space. "So much of our training focuses on the systems and how to operate the station, and not just the day-to-day life -- how to slow down and really enjoy the experience," she said. "He wants to make sure I enjoy it and not just focus on work the whole time, as I am wont to do."

Her crewmate Wheelock, who will make his second visit to the ISS, knows Walker is in for something special. "The magic I felt when I first got to space on the space shuttle two years ago … was life-changing for me," he said. "I know the sacrifices she's made, so I cannot wait to see her experience that.

"I can't wait to see the look in her eyes."