Houston. It was the first word from the moon, and the city has served as the home of Mission Control and the nation's human spaceflight program for more than 40 years. But even though Houston has been the home of NASA's astronaut corps for decades, the city has never had a hometown astronaut - until now.
Shannon Walker, born and raised in Houston, will become the city's first native to fly in space when she launches to the International Space Station in June. Walker, along with astronaut Doug Wheelock and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, will launch on June 16 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan and will spend six months aboard the orbiting outpost.
Walker's background is filled with unique events – some by chance and some planned – that led her to become an astronaut. After she graduated from Westbury High School in Houston, Walker attended Rice University. She majored in physics, but wasn't sure what direction that would take her.
"I was having a hard time getting interest from future employers because of my physics background," she said. "It seemed all anyone wanted was engineers."
Walker then happened to meet and interview with a man at NASA, and the subsequent conversation would change Walker's career path for good. That man was former space shuttle flight director and now senior NASA executive Wayne Hale.
"It was a stroke of luck how it happened," Walker said. She joined NASA in 1987 as a space shuttle flight controller. She took some time to pursue her doctoral degree in space physics and then returned to NASA in 1993. She worked in both Russia and the United States as the International Space Station came into being, all the while thinking about taking yet another leap. In 2004, Walker applied and was accepted into the astronaut corps.
"When I became an astronaut, I knew I wanted to pursue long-duration flight aboard the station," She said. "I knew it would be a just a tremendous personal challenge, and I looked forward to it."
Now that she is approaching her flight, Walker is in the process of completing her final training sessions in both Houston and Star City, Russia. Even though she will leave her hometown behind for six months, she's going to take a little piece of Houston with her up to the station.
"They've given me the key to the city to take with me," Walker said. She's also planning on taking up some other personal items as well as some Rice University artifacts. Walker also said she plans on taking up some less tangible things with her – some advice she has received from previous station residents.
"They have all told me to take some time – as busy as it gets – to really enjoy the experience and to take it all in," she said. "I think that's probably the best advice I've gotten."