Feature

Astronaut Candidate Interviews - Shannon Walker
11.11.04
Q: You've got a fairly large extended family.

A: Yes.

Nine nieces and nephews.

Yes.

So, I know, I think, because we've talked some about this, what your reaction was when you found out. But, I want to know what the family's reaction was. What about the nieces and nephews and the siblings, etc.? How did they--?

They were, my whole family was very excited when I was selected because they know I've been trying for this job for a very long time. And so, uh, mostly when I called up my family to tell them, I got a lot of screams in the phone of excitement and squeals in the background from the kids. My, most of my nieces and nephews are, are fairly young; so, they, uh, they've been studying space in school and studying about astronauts. So, they're just, cannot believe that their Aunt Shannon is, is going to be an astronaut.

So, perseverance. I mean, clearly you've been working at this for a while.

Yes. This was my fifth interview. My first application was in 1991, and my first interview was in 1994. And, I've been interviewed every time since then. So, uh, it was quite a thrill to get the "Yes" phone call this time as opposed to the "Thanks, but no thanks; please try again" phone call.

And, you've had a good job in the interim. It's not like you've been away from the space program. You've been in the middle of this for some time. So, can you just talk briefly about your, your role in the space program for the past few years?

For the past years, I have been working in what's called the Mission Evaluation Room in the Space Station Program. And, the Mission Evaluation Room is the team of engineers, uh, that work in the Control Center. We support the flight controllers, and we support, uh, the, the, the Station. We have two main roles: to make sure that the Station is operating the way we designed it; we're actually the design representatives in the Space Station, for the Space Station. Uh, so we want to make sure that, that the Station operates the way we wanted it to and the way we built it; and then, we do the detailed problem-solving whenever there are issues on the Space Station. So, uh, we get down in the nitty-gritty, trying to figure out which line of software code isn't doing what we think it ought to be doing or, or which piece of hardware isn't, isn't functioning properly.

Having spent some time in that environment myself, I know what it's like when you're trying to work the problem--

Yes.

--you know? The problem's going to get solved, or the challenge has got to get solved, or you run across the unexpected.

Yes.

And, I know that teachers more and more try to use that in the classroom to teach by, in, in, in inquiry-based methods or, uh, to have kids solve a problem. And, I wonder if you might just comment on the real world aspects of that, because you've lived it for a while here. And, it's not, uh, uh, not so much from a, uh, from a, really in the context of exploring. I mean, really, you've been out in this, trying to explore space and--

Right.

--help explore space. So--

Yeah. So, when, uh, when we have problems, we quite often do not have information, too much information as to what went wrong. So, we, uh, our job involves a lot of asking questions, "Why?" "Why is that doing that?" "What information do we need to try and understand the problem?" And, and, uh, "How are we going to get that information?" And, quite often, it's not possible to get the information you need. So, what else is out there, uh, to try and tell you what, what the answer is for the problem you're trying to solve? And, that's very similar to what, uh, kids do in classrooms when they're faced with experiments or learning new things. It's, you've just got to keep asking "Why?" And, and, "What else do I need to know to try and understand this?"

What about the situations when you, there's no way you're going to get all the information you want? You've got, you think, 60% of the information you--

Right.

--want, and the 40% either you're never going to get, or it's just going to take way too much time to get it in order to make the decision you need to make. So, how do you come to a, a decision there? Can you give me an example of a situation like that?

Oh, gosh. Probably most of the problems we solve, uh, we don't have all the information that we would like to have; but that's also a, a problem in and of itself. Sometimes you can have too much information. You keep gathering information and never bother to find out what the real answer is. But, uh, you have to make, uh, really good educated guesses. Since we've spent so much time with the hardware and software, we know what it's supposed to be doing. We know how it operated on the ground. And so, based on the limited information, we can, uh, work our way through as to what the problem is on orbit.

So, as we said before, you've been in school for some time where you studied and got--

Yes.

--your Ph.D. at--

Yes.

--that was in '93 at, at Rice. And, I just wondered if you might, uh, think back to, uh, is there a specific individual -- maybe it's not an individual -- but, who inspired you? Who triggered you? Did anybody have to sit down and say, you know, give you a swift kick and say, "Shannon, do your homework!" Or--

No! Uh, actually, my, uh, father was a professor at, at the University of Houston. So, uh, it, there was always an emphasis on school when I was growing up. It was always expected that we would do well, which was not actually a big problem because we, I enjoyed school. I liked learning things. I liked solving problems and, and doing my homework. I realize a lot of kids don't like that, but I, I always enjoyed going to school. And so, and learning things. So, uh, I guess, uh, I can't really point to a single incident or teacher that inspired me. But, there are so many that have had an influence on my life to learn new things and, and really look at, look at whatever subject we were studying in, in a variety of ways.

You, uh, I guess is there a, can you maybe describe a time in your learning, as a student, where you remember the light bulb going off? Where you said, "Okay, I had no clue. I didn't understand this five minutes ago, and now I totally get it!"

That, I think that happened a lot with my physics homework when I'd first go in and, like, "What are they talking about?" And then, I think it, it's a lot of times. It's a lot of times that it happens. And, it really is working through the problems, where you think you might understand something and then you keep sort of plugging away at it. It's like, "Oh, I understand now why that's doing what it's doing."

Do you, uh, you're going to be a role model--

Yes.

--in this role that you, probably more so than in your previous job as a NASA engineer. And, really, from the visibility of the astronaut position.

Yes, exactly. That's more public.

So, right. There's much more public, uh, part of your job now than you've had before. So, I guess, from, and, and specifically you're going to be a role model for young women that would like to go into math, science, engineering, technology, geography, these types of fields. And so, what would you say to them?

I would say: "Don't be afraid." Don't be afraid. It is hard, but, uh, don't be afraid to ask questions. And, don't be afraid to do the homework. It, it's fascinating to learn math and science and engineering. And, just get in there and do it.

You took a, uh, when you were in Russia, you were in Russia for some time, and you've said you took a, a trip over to--

To China.

--to China.

Yes.

Right across the, the railroad, I guess.

Yes.

So, I guess I'll let you just talk about that trip and how that trip was an exploration experience, I'm sure, in and of itself.

Oh, it was! It was, it was quite the, quite the adventure. I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow over to Beijing. And, uh, I went with a girlfriend of mine who was living in, in Moscow at the time. And, we shared a, a compartment with two other Russians. And so, just trying to, first, learn how to live with strangers for, for as long as it took was interesting in and of itself. And then, going through the Russian countryside, uh, and seeing how it change, how it changes as you go from west to east, uh, was just fascinating to me. Because you go from, from forested area outside of Moscow to the high steppes, uh, in, in Siberia. And then, uh, we went down into Mongolia. We went south into Mongolia, which was, uh, a whole different culture. I had been living in, uh, the Russian culture for so long and then, uh, uh, getting some experience in the Far Eastern or Eastern cultures was, was quite interesting, and then into China, spending some time in China. Uh, just an amazing adventure.

So, what, I'd like to talk about how that relates to the discovery process sort of. Because a trip like that not everybody goes on. It's not like a weekend--

Right.

--adventure. It's not like you look up your, you know, your weekend, "Oh, it's weekend things to do in Houston."

Right.

"Let's go to China on a, one a railroad through Russia." So, what, what surprised you about that trip? Or, what did you learn on that trip that you didn't know, or just, boy, just said, "Wow! That's really cool!" And, and you would not have known, had you not gone down that road.

Well, there were so many things that I got to see, uh, during that trip that I hadn't seen before. And, I had the opportunity to, to talk with people, uh, from different parts of the world that I would never have had the opportunity to meet and talk in a foreign language, which was, uh, not, I wasn't quite as good at it as I would like to have been. So, uh, just the challenging, challenge of getting out there and talking and experiencing, uh, uh, was, it, the whole thing was exploration. It was all new to me. I had never been there before. So, uh, talking and experiencing and doing.

Were there any times in your education when you felt discouraged and you said, you said, "This is never going to end! I'm never going to get this out of my," you know, "I'm never going to get the degree I'm going for. I'm never going to do this." And, and what got you through those? If, if in fact there were discouraging times. I'm just making an assumption here.

Yeah, I think everybody goes through periods, especially in college, where, where the homework is really piling up and then, uh, you have several more weeks of school left and you think that, uh, you'll never be able to get through all the homework problems that you have to do or read all the books or write all the papers that you have to write. But, uh, knowing, knowing that the end is in sight definitely helps. Uh, and knowing that you're going to accomplish something important, uh, helps you, uh, get through the work that needs to be done.

So, what are you most excited about right now?

Oh, I'm excited about starting this whole process.

Yeah?

Uh, I'm looking forward to the, the training, learning things I don't know. Uh, experiencing new things. Going to new places that I haven't been. I'm looking forward to all of that.

End tape.