to Become an Astronaut 101
|Lt. Col. Cady
Coleman talks about what it's like to be an astronaut and how
a passion for high school chemistry led her to become one.|
To the average
person, words and phrases like polymer synthesis and olefin
metathesis reaction represent little more than good Scrabble
But to Lt.
Col. Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman, they mean so much more,
and her interest in what these words mean has opened up to her,
quite literally, a new universe. Using her passion and talent for
chemistry and engineering, Coleman has made her way up the ranks
from inspired student to research chemist to NASA astronaut.
biggest challenge about being involved in the space program
is the need to be able to be good at and know a lot about a
lot of things."|
began in high school, under the tutelage of an especially enthusiastic
chemistry teacher, Mrs. Ruth Opp.
her excitement on to me," Coleman says. "I discovered
later that many things she talked about I didn't really understand
at the time, but she made me want to know more."
Coleman says her luck with wonderful teachers continued into college.
While attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was
fortunate enough to study under Dr. George Whitesides.
an incredible lecturer and scholar," she says. "I credit
my teachers for giving me my enthusiasm for chemistry."
her studies at the University of Massachusetts, where she earned
a doctorate in polymer science and engineering. It is an interdisciplinary
field and allowed Coleman to focus on the chemistry of making polymers
and the integral processes used to discover why they do what they
A polymer is
a chain of molecules, which Coleman describes as being similar to
a string of spaghetti. Commonly known polymers are plastics, hair
and fibers, like cotton and silk. It is interesting to make chemical
reactions using polymers because it involves the chemistry of a
long chain of bead-like molecules rather than individual molecules
that are free to move around and react in any direction, she says.
the processing that fascinates me," Coleman says. "It's
like when you used to try and make fudge when you were a kid. Each
time you would try to make it, you would put the same set of ingredients
together. Yet, one time you get fudge that is all granular and crunchy,
and the next it is a soupy mess that won't solidify. It all has
to do with the processing -- how you put the ingredients together,
the baking time, the way you mixed it up. I always wanted to know
how the differences could happen."
in processing contributed to her interest in the space program,
although she says she did not always know she wanted to be an astronaut.
an astronaut wasn't really a common occupation when I was a kid,"
Coleman says. "I didn't think about it until I was in college,
and Sally Ride came to speak at MIT. Listening to her, I thought
wow, I want that job! I wanted adventure in my life."
is where my training as a scientist really came in handy. …You
need to go up there and do your best."|
active duty in the Air Force upon her graduation from the University
of Massachusetts. She began her commission working as a research
chemist at the Materials Directorate of the Wright Laboratory at
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She continued her research on polymers
and how they can be used in different computer applications, such
as data storage.
selected by NASA in March 1992 to become an astronaut. Her adventure
really began in earnest then, and her knowledge area expanded as
she attended astronaut "basic training."
to learn safety procedures, how the space shuttle works, how the
space station operates, software information and what to do if things
go wrong," Coleman says. "Basically, I needed to learn
how to be a space shuttle operator."
That is not
to say that Coleman completely stopped doing science. However, her
involvement with chemistry and science shifted.
away from my own research right now," she says. "As an
operator, I consult with other scientists as to how they can make
their experiments work in space. I understand their goals, which
helps me help them create a workable microgravity experiment."
a condition in which the effects of gravity are greatly reduced,
can provide an excellent environment for certain kinds of scientific
research. When experiments are done in a microgravity environment,
such as on the space shuttle orbiting the Earth, researchers have
a unique opportunity to study the fundamental states of matter --
solids, liquids and gasses -- and the forces that affect them. Researchers
can isolate and study the influence of gravity on physical processes,
as well as other phenomena that are normally masked by gravity.
it is possible to change some variables that affect and influence
processing in a gravity environment," says Coleman.
an operator, I consult with other scientists as to how they
can make their experiments work in space. I understand their
goals, which helps me help them create a workable microgravity
with many microgravity experiments on her first space shuttle mission,
STS-73 on Columbia, which was the second United States Microgravity
Laboratory mission. NASA selects experiments to be performed on
space shuttle missions. Astronauts called mission specialists conduct
the experiments. On that particular 16-day shuttle flight, Coleman
served as a mission specialist, and actively participated in numerous
experiments housed in the pressurized Spacelab module.
interacted with 30 experiments, many of which were in fluid physics
and crystal growth," she says. "This is where my training
as a scientist really came in handy, as it is a challenge to work
quickly but well. It is like having 30 customers in 16 days. There
isn't time for mistakes. You need to go up there and do your best."
With the space
station currently under construction, the possibility of experiments
being performed in a more leisurely capacity is a reality. Coleman
hopes that one day in the near future she will be conducting such
experiments on the space station.
to be able to help experimenters get all they can out of their experiments
in space," she says. "On the space station, we would have
more time to do more scientific exploration. So much of science
is in the mistakes and being aware and intelligent enough to observe
them and then learn from them."
For the moment,
Coleman has shifted gears away from science to continue to gain
the depth of experience required of an astronaut. In July of 1999,
Coleman participated in a five-day shuttle mission, STS-93 on Columbia,
serving as the lead mission specialist for the deployment of the
Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Chandra is enabling scientists to conduct
comprehensive studies of the universe, and study phenomena such
as exploding stars, quasars and black holes.
have been so many developments in space science, like x-ray astronomy,"
she says. "There was so much excitement about this telescope.
We have been waiting to get telescopes outside Earth orbit so we
can see out into the universe. Technology makes discovery possible."
is training to work in mission control, to be the voice the astronauts
in space hear when they call home. Her experience as a scientist
will again come in handy.
it will be very helpful that I know from experience how busy the
astronauts are," she says. "There needs to be a balance
between communication and knowing that they are up there doing their
jobs. For instance, I can help make the decisions about whether
it is important to discuss with them their plans for the next four
hours or to just give them a few more minutes to complete the tasks
they are currently doing."
It seems to
be this appreciation for balance that makes Coleman such an extraordinary
astronaut and scientist. Whether she is processing chemicals, conducting
30 experiments in space or communicating with the space shuttle,
she is in some way utilizing all she has learned.
challenge about being involved in the space program is the need
to be able to be good at and know a lot about a lot of things,"
Coleman says. "It's not just chemistry anymore."