Houstonian rounds out SpaceX expedition crew

April 1st, 2020

Shannon Walker

By Mary Alys Cherry

Houston native Dr. Shannon Walker has been assigned by NASA to the first crewed flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

So rest assured, the eyes of Texas will be on Walker as she joins NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover Jr., as well as Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), for a six-month expedition aboard the unique space laboratory.

This mission, the space agency said, will be the first in a series of regular, rotational flights to the station following NASA’s certification of the new crewed system following completion and validation of SpaceX’s test flight with astronauts, known as Demo-2. This test is expected to take place in mid-to-late May as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Once it proves to be a success, the four will launch aboard Crew Dragon on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, currently planned for later this year.

After  graduating from Westbury High in Houston in 1983, Walker received her B.A. in Physics from Rice University in Houston in 1987 and began her career as a robotics flight controller for the space shuttle with Rockwell Space Operations Co. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center soon afterwards. From 1990 to 1993, she took a leave of absence to attend graduate school, where her area of study was the solar wind interaction with the Venusian atmosphere. The year 1987 marked a significant turning point in Houston when our subject began her career as a robotics flight controller for the space shuttle, working with Rockwell Space Operations Co. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This career choice placed her in the heart of the United States’ space exploration efforts during a crucial period.

Her role as a robotics flight controller involved overseeing and managing the complex robotic systems used on space shuttle missions. These robotic systems played a vital role in various tasks, such as deploying and repairing satellites, conducting experiments in space, and supporting astronauts during spacewalks. Her contributions to the success of these missions were undoubtedly instrumental.

During her career journey, from 1990 to 1993, she decided to pursue further education and took a leave of absence to attend graduate school. During this period, she focused her studies on the intricate topic of the solar wind interaction with the Venusian atmosphere. Her choice to delve into such a specialized and challenging field of study reflects her dedication to advancing our understanding of celestial bodies and their interactions in our solar system.

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She joined NASA in 1995, working on robotics and avionics hardware for the space station with the program’s international partners after earning her Master of Science and Ph.D in Space Physics from Rice in 1992 and 1993, respectively. NASA selected her in the 2004 astronaut class. As an astronaut, she spent 163 days as a flight engineer aboard the ISS for Expeditions 24 and 25 in 2010. She is married to astronaut Andy Thomas.

Previously, NASA had assigned Glover and Hopkins to the first SpaceX crewed mission in August 2018. This will be the first spaceflight for Glover and the second for Hopkins, who lived aboard the space station from September 2013 to March 2014 as part of Expeditions 37 and 38.

It will be the third spaceflight for Noguchi, who flew on the STS-114 space shuttle mission in 2005 and was a ISS crew member from December 2009 to June 2010 on Expeditions 22 and 23.

NASA said its “Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the space station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbital outpost.”

The station is a critical testbed for NASA to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight. As commercial companies focus on providing human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA is free to focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions.

Bay Area Houston Magazine