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For release: 10/01/03
Release #: 03-172

Tucson, Ariz., native Janice Houston to share NASA experiences at alma mater Oct. 13

Photo description: Houston

For Janice Houston, one look was all it took. As a child gazing at the Arizona sky, she wanted to become a space explorer. Houston is doing just that working with modules for the International Space Station — the most sophisticated laboratory ever built in space.

Photo: Houston (NASA/MSFC)

The Arizona night sky, shimmering with a vast array of diamond-bright stars, intrigued the young girl. Janice Houston wanted to reach out and touch those stars, so she decided to be a space explorer.

"Growing up under such an awe-inspiring sky, I would sit outside our home and wonder what was up there," Houston said.

Houston's eyes are still focused on the stars, including a new human-made star she works with — the International Space Station — one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and the most sophisticated research laboratory ever built in space.

Houston will be returning to her home state, and that inspiring sky October 13. She'll speak to her alma mater, The University of Arizona in Tucson, as part of the Physics Alumni Lecture Series. The lecture series is a comprehensive program designed to expose science, math and engineering students to the many career paths open to them. Houston also will speak to the Professional Masters Program at the University of Arizona on October 15, as part of the university's Industrial Colloquium Series. The weekly series brings in industry representatives to talk about the challenges and rewards of their jobs.

"I know there's a young person out there right now, staring at the same star-studded sky that enchanted me," Houston said. "I want to share what I do as a scientist with all those young people."

Working at NASA contractor Jacobs Sverdrup Technology, Inc. in Huntsville, Ala., Houston is a microgravity, or near-weightlessness, analyst for Node 2 and Node 3 — two important, Italian-built modules that will allow the Space Station to be expanded. She works with engineers in Turin, Italy, and at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the nodes are managed, to study how movements in these structures can be minimized to preserve the weightless environment for Station scientists and their experiments.

"I have been to Turin five times and actually spent several nights performing tests at Alenia Aerospazio — the contractor responsible for building the nodes," Houston said. "Italy trips are all about long work days, long test nights and learning a whole new culture."

A long way from Italy, Houston was born in Tucson and graduated from Buena Vista High School in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

"A friend of my dad's really liked astronomy and I read all of his books," Houston recalled. "When I was 16, I took a summer college course in astronomy at the University of Arizona and I knew it was for me. I also loved going to the many observatories in Arizona, because with the clear skies and low humidity, the weather was always good for observing."

After high school graduation, she returned to Tucson to continue her studies at the University of Arizona, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1993.

In 1994, Houston began her aerospace career at Boeing Aerospace Operations in Hampton, Va. There, she supported NASA's Langley Research Center on the Long Duration Exposure Facility — a structure that housed 57 experiments, enabling researchers to study the effects of the unique space environment on a variety of things, including living organisms, electronics and space hardware.

The facility spent 69 months in space, and Houston was responsible for archiving all of the photographs and results on the Internet.

In 1995, The Boeing Company transferred Houston to Huntsville, Ala., to conduct research for protein crystal experiments. Flying in private and government airplanes in parabolic flight paths — a roller coaster-style series of climbs and dives that provides five to 25 seconds of near-weightlessness — Houston floated like an astronaut. She performed experiments while floating to help microgravity researchers determine the best conditions and methods for growing protein crystals in space. Scientists grow protein crystals to learn how these important biological substances work in humans, animals and plants.

Based upon this work, Houston holds two patents that uniquely identify a low-gravity environment and describe methods and uses for moving solids and liquids with magnets.

Houston's knowledge and understanding of microgravity led to her current assignment: helping Space Station scientists deal with environmental issues their experiments may encounter in space.

When she's not busy working with microgravity, Houston likes to remain well grounded, relaxing in the historical Huntsville home she spent five years renovating. She also has a fascination with caving. But her true love is sharing her experiences with up-and-coming students in her field — especially women.

"I represent a tiny minority," Houston said. "Women only account for about a fifth of physics bachelor degrees, yet industry wants them. So I encourage young girls to keep their eyes on the stars, but also to study science and engineering, so that they can be part of NASA's mission in exploring the universe."

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Steve Roy
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