ISS Construction Crew: Atlantis Shuttle’s Spacewalking ‘A’ Team

ISS Construction Crew: Atlantis Shuttle’s Spacewalking ‘A’ Team
Astronaut Joseph Tanner, STS-115 mission specialist, dons a training version of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit prior to being submerged in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Johnson Space Center. United Space Alliance (USA) suit technician Robert Webb assisted Tanner. (Image credit: NASA/JSC.)
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NASA's STS-115 Crew Stats

Find out more about Atlantis' STS-115 crew:MS-1: Joseph TannerMS-3: Heidiemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper*MS=Mission Specialist

The mission, STS-115, is Tanner’sfirst return to the ISS since he helped install the station’s first set of arrays during NASA’s STS-97mission in 2000. It also marks the end of a long road forStefanyshyn-Piper, who has waited 10 years for her first spaceflight.

Tanner and Stefanyshyn-Piper areexpected to perform the first and third of three 6.5-hour spacewalks duringNASA’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 forprotection against the hostile environment of space.

A veteran of five spacewalks andthree shuttle flights, the Danville, Illinois native has racked up more than 33hours of extravehicular activities (EVAs) during his astronaut career.

“Joe is the king of EVA,” saidTanner’s fellow STS-115 spacewalker Steven MacLean, who will perform themission’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 aerospaceengineer ranks in 1984. Eight years later, he made the astronaut corps.

“I never dreamed that I couldactually do it, because the astronauts were superheroes as you recall,” saidTanner, a husband and father of two children, of the Apollo astronauts in aNASA interview. “I think we’re just normal people now.”

Tanner first reached orbit duringNASA’s STS-66 spaceflight, also aboard Atlantis, in 1992 during a sciencemission to study Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s solar cycle. His spacewalkingcareer began in 1997, when he and six crewmates launched toward the Hubble Space Telescope onthe STS-82 servicingmission.

But it was Tanner’s thirdspaceflight – STS-97aboard Endeavour – that gives a sense a dejà vu to his current mission tohelp deliver the Port 3/Port 4 truss segments and new solar wings to thestation. During that mission, Tanner and crewmate CarlosNoriega performed threespacewalks to install the station’s Port 6 (P6) truss and deploy theoutpost’s firstU.S.-built solar arrays.

“This is kind of a coming home sortof thing for me to get back to doing EVA on the same type of hardware thatCarlos Noriega and I worked on in 2000,” Tanner told reporters this month.

Tanner is also joining his formershuttle commander BrentJett, who also led the STS-97 mission, for Atlantis’ next flight.

“The nightbefore we landed on STS-97, I asked Brent, ‘Well what are you going to do, areyou going to fly again or not?’” Tanner said, adding that after some thoughtJett answered yes. “And I thought, maybe we can work it out to fly againtogether.”

Long wait to orbit

While Tanner has three spaceflightsunder his belt, Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43, is eagerly awaiting her first escapefrom 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 strandedoil tankers and a Peruvian submarine. It was that diving experience that ledStefanyshyn-Piper to NASA in 1996.

“When I learned about NASA andbuilding the space station, and I saw how here were doing the constructionunderwater, I thought that looks to me more like diving than flying,” she saidin a NASA interview. “And so I think I can do that.”

Stefanyshyn-Piper said she expecteda long wait before her first flight, because her 1996 astronaut class – which includedSTS-115 crewmate DanielBurbank who has already flown – included 44 spaceflyers-to-be. But therewere some frustrating times, she adds, when it seemed that her job was simplyto 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 prettyrewarding,” Stefanyshyn-Piper said this month, adding that the assignment cameon 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 herrole as the sole female member of Atlantis’ STS-115 crew.

“I feel like I’m on a trip with fivebrothers,” she said of the upcoming spaceflight. “It’s a great crew to be on.”

But Stefanyshyn-Piper said she willhave to tie her waist-length hair up during the flight, not the least of whichto fit the bundle inside her spacesuit.

“NASA actually has a rule that saysfemales with long hair must have it contained,” she said.

Stefanyshyn-Piper credits herparents Michael and Adelheid, both of whom immigrated to the U.S., forinspiring her active life.

“Just to come to a new country whereyou don’t know the people and you don’t know the language, maybe I inherited somethingfrom them and felt I had to go off and do exciting things,” she said.

Stefanyshyn-Piper has drawn on thesupport of her family, including husband Glenn and son Michael, to prepare forher upcoming spaceflight, and has packed away one item to take into space forher brother Eric – the only one who won’t be at the launch – a U.S. Marine whorecently deployed to Iraq.

Both Stefanyshyn-Piper and Tannersaid that, despite their mission’s pressure to jump start ISS construction –which has been on hold since the 2003Columbia accident – they are both looking forward to enjoying theirupcoming flight when they have a private moment.

“If you’re not having fun, thanyou’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

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.