A veteran of International Space Station (ISS) assembly and a first-time flyer will take the spacewalking lead when NASA’s Atlantis shuttle arrives at the orbital laboratory next week.
Atlantis’ STS-115 spacewalkers Joseph Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper venture outside the ISS twice during their 11-day mission to deliver a new set of trusses and solar arrays to the high-flying station.
NASA's STS-115 Crew Stats
|Find out more about Atlantis' STS-115 crew:
MS-3: Heidiemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper
The mission, STS-115, is Tanner’s first return to the ISS since he helped install the station’s first set of U.S. solar arrays during NASA’s STS-97 mission in 2000. It also marks the end of a long road for Stefanyshyn-Piper, who has waited 10 years for her first spaceflight.
Tanner and Stefanyshyn-Piper are expected to perform the first and third of three 6.5-hour spacewalks during NASA’s STS-115 mission.
Power tower redux
A self-described “adventurer,” Tanner, 56, is no stranger to toiling in Earth orbit with only a spacesuit for protection against the hostile environment of space.
A veteran of five spacewalks and three shuttle flights, the Danville, Illinois native has racked up more than 33 hours of extravehicular activities (EVAs) during his astronaut career.
“Joe is the king of EVA,” said Tanner’s fellow STS-115 spacewalker Steven MacLean, who will perform the mission’s second spacewalk with crewmate Daniel Burbank.
Tanner spent six years in the U.S. Navy as an aviator and advanced jet trainer before joining NASA’s aerospace engineer ranks in 1984. Eight years later, he made the astronaut corps.
“I never dreamed that I could actually do it, because the astronauts were superheroes as you recall,” said Tanner, a husband and father of two children, of the Apollo astronauts in a NASA interview. “I think we’re just normal people now.”
Tanner first reached orbit during NASA’s STS-66 spaceflight, also aboard Atlantis, in 1992 during a science mission to study Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s solar cycle. His spacewalking career began in 1997, when he and six crewmates launched toward the Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-82 servicing mission.
But it was Tanner’s third spaceflight – STS-97 aboard Endeavour – that gives a sense a dejà vu to his current mission to help deliver the Port 3/Port 4 truss segments and new solar wings to the station. During that mission, Tanner and crewmate Carlos Noriega performed three spacewalks to install the station’s Port 6 (P6) truss and deploy the outpost’s first U.S.-built solar arrays.
“This is kind of a coming home sort of thing for me to get back to doing EVA on the same type of hardware that Carlos Noriega and I worked on in 2000,” Tanner told reporters this month.
Tanner is also joining his former shuttle commander Brent Jett, who also led the STS-97 mission, for Atlantis’ next flight.
“The night before we landed on STS-97, I asked Brent, ‘Well what are you going to do, are you going to fly again or not?’” Tanner said, adding that after some thought Jett answered yes. “And I thought, maybe we can work it out to fly again together.”
Long wait to orbit
While Tanner has three spaceflights under his belt, Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43, is eagerly awaiting her first escape from Earth’s gravity.
A commander in the U.S. Navy, Stefanyshyn-Piper hoped at one time to be an aviator, but failed the eye exam. Instead, she turned to salvage diving and aided in plans to recover stranded oil tankers and a Peruvian submarine. It was that diving experience that led Stefanyshyn-Piper to NASA in 1996.
“When I learned about NASA and building the space station, and I saw how here were doing the construction underwater, I thought that looks to me more like diving than flying,” she said in a NASA interview. “And so I think I can do that.”
Stefanyshyn-Piper said she expected a long wait before her first flight, because her 1996 astronaut class – which included STS-115 crewmate Daniel Burbank who has already flown – included 44 spaceflyers-to-be. But there were some frustrating times, she adds, when it seemed that her job was simply to train for flight instead of orbital work.
“Just knowing that I am getting a spaceflight, not only that I’m getting to do two spacewalks, that in itself is pretty rewarding,” Stefanyshyn-Piper said this month, adding that the assignment came on her birthday. “Hopefully, my next spaceflight won’t be 10 years from now.”
Growing up with four brothers in St. Paul, Minnesota and her time in the Navy prepared Stefanyshyn-Piper for her role as the sole female member of Atlantis’ STS-115 crew.
“I feel like I’m on a trip with five brothers,” she said of the upcoming spaceflight. “It’s a great crew to be on.”
But Stefanyshyn-Piper said she will have to tie her waist-length hair up during the flight, not the least of which to fit the bundle inside her spacesuit.
“NASA actually has a rule that says females with long hair must have it contained,” she said.
Stefanyshyn-Piper credits her parents Michael and Adelheid, both of whom immigrated to the U.S., for inspiring her active life.
“Just to come to a new country where you don’t know the people and you don’t know the language, maybe I inherited something from them and felt I had to go off and do exciting things,” she said.
Stefanyshyn-Piper has drawn on the support of her family, including husband Glenn and son Michael, to prepare for her upcoming spaceflight, and has packed away one item to take into space for her brother Eric – the only one who won’t be at the launch – a U.S. Marine who recently deployed to Iraq.
Both Stefanyshyn-Piper and Tanner said that, despite their mission’s pressure to jump start ISS construction – which has been on hold since the 2003 Columbia accident – they are both looking forward to enjoying their upcoming flight when they have a private moment.
“If you’re not having fun, than you’re missing out on part of thrill of spaceflight,” Tanner said.
- Video: Astronaut Joseph Tanner’s STS-97 Mission
- Gallery: Prepping Atlantis
- Gallery: STS-115 Crew Training
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage
- NASA’s STS-115: Shuttle Atlantis to Jump Start ISS Construction
- The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown