Houston, We (Finally) Have an Astronaut
NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Expedition 24/25 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Credit: NASA

Houston may have been the home to NASA's Mission Control and the hub of U.S. human spaceflight program for more than 40 years, but the Texas metropolis has never produced a hometown astronaut. That is, until now.

On Tuesday, June 15 at 4:35 p.m. local time in Houston, flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Texas will watch as astronaut Shannon Walker becomes the first Houston native to launch into space.

Walker, 45, is headed to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft set to launch from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where the local time will be early June 16 at launch.

Walker will be joined by fellow NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin on the planned Soyuz TMA-19 flight. They are scheduled to spend six months aboard the orbiting space station once they arrive on Thursday to join three other Expedition 24 crewmembers already living on the station.

Walker joined NASA in 1987 as a space shuttle flight controller. She attended Rice University, majoring in physics, and joined the space agency after meeting and interviewing with former space shuttle flight director and current senior NASA executive Wayne Hale.

"It was a stroke of luck how it happened," said Walker.

Walker also pursued her doctoral degree in space physics, and returned to NASA in 1993. She has worked in both Russia and the United States throughout the construction of the International Space Station. In 2004, Walker applied and was accepted into NASA's astronaut corps.

"When I became an astronaut, I knew I wanted to pursue long-duration flight aboard the station," she said. "I knew it would be just a tremendous personal challenge, and I looked forward to it."

Flying on space stations is also a family affair for Walker. She is married to NASA astronaut Andrew Thomas, a veteran of three space shuttle flights ? including a 2005 trip to the International Space Station ? and one long-duration stay on Russia's Mir space station.

Walker traveled around the world to train for her long-duration spaceflight, which included in-depth studies in Houston and Star City, Russia, as well as at space centers in Europe, Japan and Canada.

Despite being so far away from her hometown, Houston is never far from Walker's mind. Not even in space.

Walker is taking a special memento with her to the cosmic outpost.?

"They've given me the key to the city to take with me," Walker said.

She also plans on taking with her other personal items, such as Rice University artifacts, on the mission. And, perhaps equally as important, she'll take along the wise words from previous station residents.

"They have all told me to take some time ? as busy as it gets ? to really enjoy the experience and to take it all in," Walker said. "I think that's probably the best advice I've gotten."

SPACE.com will provide complete coverage of the Expedition 24 crew's mission to the International Space Station. Click here for mission updates and launch updates.