Commander Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper is Both ...
When Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper applied to NASA to become part of the astronaut program in 1996, she was well experienced in the diving activities associated with the salvage and repair of naval vessels while waterborne. She reasoned that if she could work on or fix ships while they were in the water, there was no reason she couldn’t work on or build a space station while in space.
So when you consider the elements of NASA’s NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) program, she is a perfect fit. The premier NEEMO mission, in October of 2001, was the first of now 13 missions in the undersea habitat, Aquarius. Stefanyshyn-Piper was selected to act as Commander of the NEEMO12 crew in May of this year.
Aquarius, located about 3 ½ miles off Key Largo, Florida, serves as a kind of training simulation where the crew can work within a contained environment and gain operational experience under conditions that are similar in some ways to being in space. Stefanyshyn- Piper explains that part of the mission is for the crew members to gain a better appreciation of what a crew goes through when in space.
On NEEMO12, Stefanyshyn-Piper was the commander of the 6-person crew. The major goals of the mission, lasting 12 days, were to evaluate tele-robotics in performing emergency diagnostic and surgical functions in a remote environment, to perform life science investigations related to spaceflight, and to investigate open questions and operational concepts that will enable NASA to return humans to the moon.1
“We worked very hard,” Stefanyshyn-Piper says. “I was amazed how similar it was to a flight mission.” She describes the mission as being very busy with a set list of daily tasks to complete; and MUCH to learn. Each task was done with the parallel of being performed in space in mind. Daily activities facilitated a real-time look and feel to how each would apply to the moon. Just as example, when the aquanauts ventured out of Aquarius, they did surveys and began construction of the Luna Sea project, all the while they were analyzing what challenges they were encountering traversing the distances in the heavy gear and carrying or transporting needed tools.
Stefanyshyn-Piper, is a Captain in the US Navy and has 22 years under her belt. She says she plans to stay in active duty as long as she’s having fun! She completed several tours of duty as an Engineering Duty Officer in ship maintenance and repair. In her last tour, she was assigned to the Supervisor of Salvage at the Naval Sea Systems Command, supervising deep sea divers on ship repair tasks.
Stefanyshyn-Piper has a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and is a mission specialist for NASA. As a crew member aboard Atlantis in September of 2006, she participated in two Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) or space walks and extraordinary robotic work done using the Space Station’s robotic arm. Hoping for her second flight in space, Stefanyshyn-Piper explains how crews are recycled every 2 to 3 years within the NASA program. Once assigned to a mission, there is about a year of preparation and training before the flight and at least 6 months of debriefing post mission.
In the meantime, her services were requested in the undersea program on Aquarius. Stefanyshyn- Piper’s knowledge in mechanical engineering and her experience from her vast duties in the Navy made her a valuable and integral part of the NEEMO12 mission. The rest of her crew included: Jose Hernandez, another mission specialist astronaut with NASA, Dr. Josef Schmid, a US Air Force Reserves colonel and flight surgeon, Dr. Timothy Broderick, a physician with the University of Cincinnati and expert in robotics, and 2 habitat technicians who served as engineering support for the mission, James Talacek and Dominic Landucci.
Part of the mission focused on robotic telesurgery technology. During the mission, testing was done that provided valuable information for scientists and surgeons in understanding
the challenges that could be encountered with time delay in the communications at great distances, like between the earth and the Space Station. “Technologies such as surgeon-guided automatic robot function could improve the care of astronauts on future lunar missions as well as soldiers in the battlefield.” 1
In addition, the crew simulated medical emergencies while in Aquarius. In one scenario, Stefanyshyn-Piper, who was trained as the crew medical officer for her Space Shuttle mission, led the team through the procedures for treating a crew member who loses consciousness and stops breathing. And the second scenario was one of poisonous gas inhalation. These are the same procedures set to use on real space missions and are practiced on the International Space Station.
Stefanyshyn-Piper also spent a good deal of time while at Aquarius outside the safety of its walls. With Aquarius at a depth of about 45’, and additional depth to the ocean floor, the crew and Stefanyshyn-Piper observed much sea life and gained an appreciation for what is there. In Aquarius, like in space, the aquanauts are bound by the natural elements
which require them to adapt in order to explore and survive. Being confined in a small space, without the freedom to venture outside to enjoy the sun and feel the breeze, can take its toll. But according to Stefanyshyn-Piper, there is a trade-off.
Unlike in space, under the ocean some sunlight filters through. Stefanyshyn-Piper says that as she looked out the windows of Aquarius she could see and appreciate all the animals and how they live. Equating that to space, she reminisces about looking out the windows of the Space Shuttle, seeing the land masses and water, seeing our planet from that distance, and in her words, “It gives you a better appreciation of how fragile our environment is.”
1 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO/NEEMO12/ topside_journal_1.html
For more information on Commander Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper or the NEEMO program, visit NASA’s website at http://www.nas.gov.