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Her Time for Discovery
STS-116 Astronaut Joan Higginbotham During her nine-year tenure as an engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Joan Higginbotham actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches -- an impressive accomplishment for anyone. But when she returns to Kennedy for the launch of Discovery on STS-116, she'll take "participation" to a whole new level: as astronaut Joan Higginbotham on her first shuttle mission.

Image at Right: Astronaut Joan Higginbotham. Image credit: NASA

The Chicago native's planned vocational path didn't initially point to the space program. "My career plan originally did not include becoming an astronaut," she explained. "What I had envisioned for myself was to get a degree -- my electrical engineering degree -- and go on to work for IBM."

But an engineering hiring freeze at the industry giant coupled with an offer from NASA changed all that. Two weeks after her graduation from Southern Illinois University in 1987, Higginbotham arrived in Florida and began her career at the space center as a payload electrical engineer. Over the ensuing years, she held a number of positions in the shuttle program, even working in the firing room -- the launch control "nerve center" during the shuttle countdown and liftoff.

In those first years at Kennedy, Higginbotham earned an advanced degree in engineering management from nearby Florida Institute of Technology. After that, at the urging of one of her bosses, she applied to join the astronaut corps in 1994.

Joan Higginbotham acts as CAPCOM to the space station. When she didn't make the cut on her first try, Higginbotham returned to Florida Tech, this time earning a master's in space systems while continuing to work full time at the space center.

Image at Left: As one of her many assignments in the shuttle and space station programs, Higginbotham served as ISS spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in Houston's Mission Control Center during the STS-105 mission. Image credit: NASA

"It was hard. I'd been back two years earlier. I'd gotten a master's degree. I'd pretty much figured that I was done," said Higginbotham. "I worked essentially night shift so that I could go to school during the day and get my second (master's) degree. But obviously, it paid off."

That payoff came when she applied a second time to become an astronaut. Her hard work was rewarded and she headed for Houston as part of the 1996 astronaut class.

Since then, her assignments have spanned various aspects of the shuttle and International Space Station programs. After originally training as part of the STS-117 crew, she was assigned instead to the STS-116 mission, where she will operate the station's remote manipulator system.

"My primary task in this mission is to act as robotics arm operator on the space station along with Suni (Williams). I am the load master, who is the person in charge of transfer, and I also am in charge of deploying some small satellites once we undock from the space station," Higginbotham said.

Joan Higginbotham (right) and STS-116 crewmate Suni Willams train for their mission. Image at Right: Higginbotham (right) trains with astronaut Sunita Williams in the virtual reality lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center as they prepare for their duties during mission STS-116. Image credit: NASA

"The arm operations are really complex. We have very tight tolerances between the arm and different structures," she explained. "As we're putting the P5 truss into position, we are coming within inches of a box, and that's unheard of. You always want to stay two feet away from a structure. So, two feet and two inches is a big difference!"

But while this mission and those to come are extremely complex, she sees them as challenges that will give the astronauts the experience they need for future exploration planned by NASA.

"When we go back to the moon and on to Mars, I don’t think those operations are going to be any less complex than the ones that we are doing now, Astronaut Joan Higginbotham finishes M-113 training. so it's essential for us to master these skills now for us to continue with our exploration."

Image at Left: As part of her final prelaunch training at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Higginbotham finished the safety escape rehearsal by driving one of the M113 armored personnel carriers. Image credit: NASA

And despite the fact that she'll be back at Kennedy where she participated in scores of shuttle launches in the past, this time will be different. When the main engines ignite, the solid rocket boosters thunder, and Space Shuttle Discovery roars off the launch pad, Higginbotham will be strapped into her seat on Discovery's middeck for the ride of her life.

"Personally, it means that I have this really unique opportunity to serve my country in this manner," she reflected, "and I feel extremely honored and blessed to have that opportunity."

You can learn more about what makes Joan Higginbotham tick. Meet her and other astronauts in our interactive Astronaut Flight Lounge.

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center