This story originally appeared in August 2010

When Shannon Walker ’87 blasted off June 16 for a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station (ISS), she knew that keeping in touch with her husband and fellow astronaut, Andy Thomas, would be a lot easier than when he spent 130 days aboard Mir in 1998. Back then, they had to rely on ham radio and an occasional e-mail, but these days, he can check on her simply by turning on NASA TV. And the rest of the world can tune in as well or log on to her blog to catch the latest space flight news.

Walker is a flight engineer on the crew of Expedition 24, which launched in two groups from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. She also serves as co-pilot for the Soyuz spacecraft that lifted her, astronaut Doug Wheelock, and cosmonaut and pilot Fyodor Yurchikhin into orbit. The first trio departed April 2.

This is Walker’s first flight, and while she won’t be the first Rice alum to achieve orbit, she will be the first triple Owl, having earned her bachelor’s in physics and her master’s and doctorate in space science at Rice. She also is the first Houston-born astronaut. A graduate of Westbury High School, she became fascinated with space travel as a child and never wavered from her goal of going there someday.

The Expedition 24 crew will celebrate the record for the longest continuous manned presence in space — a mark previously held by a crew on Mir, which was occupied for just under 10 years. She also will be present when the first commercial spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, will rendezvous — but not dock — with the station. The Dragon is NASA’s choice to lift cargo to the ISS after the shuttle program ends, and while it will be capable of carrying crews into orbit, no manned missions have been set.

Walker’s duties onboard the ISS include operation of the robotic arm, her specialty since early in her association with NASA. She also has been heavily involved in solving ISS problems from the ground during her years at Mission Control in Houston and at the Russian control center.

“I know so much on the engineering side and not so much on the operations side,” Walker said. “I know how the control centers work. I know how to problem solve. I know who’s involved in working on the problems and can make a decision, and that’s a big comfort factor. I have absolute confidence in the people on the ground, having known them for so many years.”

Walker will take part in materials science experiments and in ongoing work to understand how the body reacts in space. “But the one I’m particularly excited about that does somewhat relate to my training at Rice is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer,” she said. “One module of that will study the secrets of the universe by looking at cosmic rays and trying to understand information about antimatter and dark matter.”

Walker places high value on what she brought to NASA from Rice. “Rice is a top-notch engineering and science school,” she said. “The education there — just the general broad-based education I got in the sciences — helped me get to where I need to be, because this is what NASA’s all about — science and engineering.”

Walker and Thomas, who live in Seabrook, Texas, try to avoid talking shop at home, but Thomas did offer Walker hints on the practicalities of living in space. “So much of our training focuses on the systems and how to operate the station but not on the day-to-day life — how to slow down and really enjoy the experience,” Walker said. “He wanted to make sure I enjoy it and not just focus on work the whole time, as I am wont to do.”

Two items that have special meaning for Walker went up with her aboard the Soyuz. One is a plaque for Rice that will be installed in Rice’s Brockman Hall for Physics when construction is complete next year. She also took a watch owned by Amelia Earhart on behalf of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., the international organization of women pilots of which Earhart was the first president. “To me it represents how far women have come in the field of aviation,” she said, “and how far we can go.” 

—Mike Williams