NASA astronaut Shannon Walker had a bit of a rough start to her day Tuesday. Shortly after she took off from Johnson Space Center in Texas on her way to help hand out some well-deserved awards at NASA's Langley Research Center, a bird struck the engine of her T-38.
Scary stuff. But Walker barely missed a beat.
She landed her crippled plane, filled out some paperwork and hopped in another jet, arriving at NASA Langley in time to hand out several Silver Snoopy and Space Flight Awareness awards. She also talked to the honorees and their families about her experiences traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) for six months in 2010 as part of Expedition 25.
To the award winners (see full list and photo below), Walker had this to say:
"The Silver Snoopy does mean a lot to the astronauts because it is all about safety and improving spaceflight safety — so we appreciate that you take it very seriously because obviously we take it very seriously. And everybody else who got the Space Flight Awareness Award: you guys are doing awesome work and we appreciate it, the center appreciates it, NASA appreciates it. We are very, very happy for you."
She then talked about what it's like to travel to space for a long-duration mission.
Because Walker traveled to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, she had to spend a lot of time training in Russia. The cold weather there was a new experience for her.
"I was born and raised in Houston," she said. "We did not have snow and that was a shock to my system."
The spacewalk training was something of a shock to her system, too. Astronauts have to wear their full spacesuits during spacewalk training — often for more than seven hours at a time.
"I'm one who likes to eat regularly," she said, "so not being able to eat for eight hours makes me a little cranky."
Walker said she found the speed at which the Russians prepared the Soyuz rocket for launch "amazing." Unlike the space shuttle, which would sit on the launch pad as long as two months before lifting off, the Soyuz rockets are usually placed on the pad the day before a launch. And though the Russians do occasionally have weather constraints that can put a launch on hold — particularly wind — they aren't deterred by snow and below-freezing temperatures.
"When they're ready to go, they go," she said.
Walker was part of a six-person crew aboard the ISS — three Americans, three Russians. She said that the astronauts stay "amazingly busy" and spend much of their time conducting experiments — even on themselves.
Walker was part of an experiment that tested the effects of salt on the body. She had to eat certain meals at specific times and collect blood and urine to see how the sodium was affecting her bone mass, which was already suffering due to the effects of zero gravity.
"I think things like that are interesting," she said, "to really understand how the body works."
Other experiments, though important, were less exciting to conduct. Walker specifically mentioned an experiment that involved watching the movement of bubbles in liquid. She had to keep a constant eye on the bubbles and give a running commentary to the researchers on the ground.
"Let me tell you, those bubbles are not moving fast, and you very quickly run out of ways to describe bubbles sitting in a liquid," she said.
As much of a chore as that might have been, it wasn't an actual chore — unlike vacuuming, which she also had to do on the ISS. "One thing in space, just like home: you cannot escape housework. Every Saturday is clean-the-station day," Walker said, clicking to a photo that showed her vacuuming the station's Japanese module.
Chores aside, Walker enjoyed her stint in the ISS and came away with a new appreciation not only for space, but also for her home planet. At one point during her presentation, she showed a photograph taken from the station of a huge plume of smoke spreading out from a forest fire.
"From space, from our vantage point, you can really see how connected everything is on Earth, because you can see that smoke go across the continent it's on, across the ocean and hit the next continent over," she said. "It's a very stark reminder that we really are very connected."
SILVER SNOOPY AWARDS
Alton Coffey - For outstanding contributions as the LaRC SPLASH Fabrication Lead for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Orion project.
Karen Berger - For significant contributions toward ensuring crew safety and the successful conduct of the Boundary Layer Transition Flight Experiment Detailed Test Objective on STS-133 and STS-134, as principal investigator, and STS-131 as deputy principal investigator.
SPACE FLIGHT AWARENESS MANAGEMENT AWARDS
Darlene Baxter – For providing outstanding leadership to the Langley Research Center Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Program Planning and Control Team.
Paresh Parikh – For providing outstanding leadership to the Human Space Flight Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and ARES Projects.
Darlene Pokora – For providing outstanding leadership to the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Project and managing the successful completion of numerous Orion crew capsule tests at Langley Research Center
SPACE FLIGHT AWARENESS HONOREE AWARD
Mark Thornblom - For contributions to the thermal analysis, assembly, integration and testing of the hardware for the Sensor Test for Orion RelNav Risk Mitigation (STORRM) Detailed Test Objective for the Orion Project that successfully flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour Flight STS-134.
NASA Langley Research Center