No two Shuttle flights are ever alike–they have never become routine–but STS 121, which left the Kennedy Space Center on July 4th ,is different because it has the crucial but mundane mission of proving that it is safe. Not just the Discovery but the three other Shuttles that NASA needs to complete the International Space Station. The seven person crew, which happens to include two women, will spend the bulk of their time delivering supplies to the Station and removing literally tons of garbage.
The last time Discovery flew was the return to space in 2005 when there was a spotlight, for the third time, on its Commander Eileen Collins. When I spoke to Collins in 2001 she had been the first woman Shuttle pilot, then the first woman commander. Each event worth celebrating because NASA had finally, after more than 30 years, selected not only women as astronaut Mission Specialists–like Sally Ride–but women pilots.
This flight of the Discovery is different because the media did not dwell on the women in the crew or on the fact that one of them is African-American. The two women-Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson, both rookies, received the same couple of paragraphs about their education and experience as the men in the crew. In the past, when a Shuttle carried more than one woman, usually one was an experienced astronaut, as if her presence would make it easier for the rookie. This time there are both rookies. Although the Shuttle flights have never become routine, the selection of astronauts has. Women and people of color are in the corps, sharing the risks and wonder with everyone else.
I never spoke to Lisa Nowak when I was writing Almost Heaven because she had not flown and I had limited my interviews to flown astronauts. I made an exception for Stephanie Wilson in 1999 because I was still living in Pasadena, California and she was a great favorite of everyone I knew at the nearby Jet Propulsion Lab. She had worked there from 1992 for four years before being selected, on her second try, as an astronaut candidate. At JPL she worked on the Galileo Project.
We had a lot in common. Like me, Stephanie loved Pasadena but had Massachusetts ties and still missed New England. And like me she found the lure of a career as an astronaut endlessly fascinating. However, a generation my junior, Stephanie had hoped and planned to be an astronaut most of her life while I simply wrote about them. Stephanie had had her sights on the heavens from high school. She had thought about becoming an astronomer but in college she “moved from astronomy to engineering, I moved from instead of looking at the stars, to building my own spacecraft and traveling there in person.”
I asked her in that interview how she felt about having a mixed crew (men and women) and she replied: “I look at it more from a general point. I think it’s advantageous to have a mixed anything. I think if it were not advantages to having a mixed anything, we wouldn’t be here on Earth as a mixed lot of people. I think that in itself seems to validate diversity in anything. If we were supposed to be one people with one idea, then that would be all that exists.”
A religious woman, Wilson joined the AME church in Clear Lake, Texas. In Houston she met Mae Jemison, the only other African American woman who has flown in space. Like Mae, Wilson feels strongly about informing young African Americans about NASA and her job there so that they can aspire, as she did, to look at the stars closer up, maybe help build a spaceship, and if they are lucky, as she feels she is, float in 0 gravity and enjoy the view.