Apr 18, 2000

How to become an Astronaut 101


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April 19, 2000 -- To the average person, words and phrases like polymer synthesis and olefin metathesis reaction represent little more than good Scrabble scores.

But to Lt. Col. Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman, they mean so much more, and her interest in what these words mean has opened up to her, quite literally, a new universe. Using her passion and talent for chemistry and engineering, Coleman has made her way up the ranks from inspired student to research chemist to NASA astronaut.

Right: Astronaut Catherine G. (Cady) Coleman, mission specialist, speaks to the large crowd that turned out at Ellington Field to welcome home the STS-93 astronauts on April 28, 1999.

Her journey began in high school, under the tutelage of an especially enthusiastic chemistry teacher, Mrs. Ruth Opp.


"She passed her excitement on to me," Coleman says. "I discovered later that many things she talked about I didn't really understand at the time, but she made me want to know more."


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Coleman says her luck with wonderful teachers continued into college. While attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was fortunate enough to study under Dr. George Whitesides.

"He was an incredible lecturer and scholar," she says. "I credit my teachers for giving me my enthusiasm for chemistry."

Coleman continued her studies at the University of Massachusetts, where she earned a doctorate in polymer science and engineering. It is an interdisciplinary field and allowed Coleman to focus on the chemistry of making polymers and the integral processes used to discover why they do what they do.

A polymer is a chain of molecules, which Coleman describes as being similar to a string of spaghetti. Commonly known polymers are plastics, hair, and fibers, like cotton and silk. It is interesting to make chemical reactions using polymers because it involves the chemistry of a long chain of bead-like molecules rather than individual molecules that are free to move around and react in any direction, she says.

"It is the processing that fascinates me," Coleman says. "It's like when you used to try and make fudge when you were a kid. Each time you would try to make it, you would put the same set of ingredients together. Yet, one time you get fudge that is all granular and crunchy, and the next it is a soupy mess that won't solidify. It all has to do with the processing -- how you put the ingredients together, the baking time, the way you mixed it up. I always wanted to know how the differences could happen."

Her interest in processing contributed to her interest in the space program, although she says she did not always know she wanted to be an astronaut.

"Being an astronaut wasn't really a common occupation when I was a kid." Coleman says. "I didn't think about it until I was in college, and Sally Ride came to speak at MIT. Listening to her, I thought wow, I want that job! I wanted adventure in my life."


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Coleman entered active duty in the Air Force upon her graduation from the University of Massachusetts. She began her commission working as a research chemist at the Materials Directorate of the Wright Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She continued her research on polymers and how they can be used in different computer applications, such as data storage.


Coleman was selected by NASA in March 1992 to become an astronaut. Her adventure really began in earnest then, and her knowledge area expanded as she attended astronaut "basic training."

"I needed to learn safety procedures, how the space shuttle works, how the space station operates, software information, and what to do if things go wrong," Coleman says. "Basically, I needed to learn how to be a space shuttle operator."

That is not to say that Coleman completely stopped doing science. However, her involvement with chemistry and science shifted.

"I am away from my own research right now," she says. "As an operator, I consult with other scientists as to how they can make their experiments work in space. I understand their goals, which helps me help them create a workable microgravity experiment."

Microgravity, a condition in which the effects of gravity are greatly reduced, can provide an excellent environment for certain kinds of scientific research. When experiments are done in a microgravity environment, such as on the space shuttle orbiting the Earth, researchers have a unique opportunity to study the fundamental states of matter -- solids, liquids, and gasses -- and the forces that affect them. Researchers can isolate and study the influence of gravity on physical processes, as well as other phenomena that are normally masked by gravity.

"In microgravity, it is possible to change some variables that affect and influence processing in a gravity environment," says Coleman.


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She assisted with many microgravity experiments on her first space shuttle mission, STS-73 on Columbia, which was the second United States Microgravity Laboratory mission. NASA selects experiments to be performed on space shuttle missions. Astronauts called mission specialists conduct the experiments. On that particular 16-day shuttle flight, Coleman served as a mission specialist, and actively participated in numerous experiments housed in the pressurized Spacelab module.

Right: Cady Coleman, mission specialist, handles a tiny mouse ear plant on Columbia's flight deck during the STS-93 shuttle mission. The plant experiment was part of the Plant Growth Investigations in Microgravity (PGIM).


"I personally interacted with 30 experiments, many of which were in fluid physics and crystal growth," she says. "This is where my training as a scientist really came in handy, as it is a challenge to work quickly but well. It is like having 30 customers in 16 days. There isn't time for mistakes. You need to go up there and do your best."

With the space station currently under construction, the possibility of experiments being performed in a more leisurely capacity is a reality. Coleman hopes that one day in the near future she will be conducting such experiments on the space station.

"I want to be able to help experimenters get all they can out of their experiments in space," she says. "On the space station, we would have more time to do more scientific exploration. So much of science is in the mistakes and being aware and intelligent enough to observe them and then learn from them."

For the moment, Coleman has shifted gears away from science to continue to gain the depth of experience required of an astronaut. This past July, Coleman participated in a 5-day shuttle mission, STS-93 on Columbia, serving as the lead mission specialist for the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Chandra is enabling scientists to conduct comprehensive studies of the universe, and study phenomenon such as exploding stars, quasars, and black holes.


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Above: Launch of STS-93 with Chandra on Board: In a beautiful night launch, the Shuttle carries Chandra aloft. Click for video in , , or AVI format. Above: Chandra Deployed from Shuttle: Chandra in the payload bay, released, and receding into the distance. Click for video in , , or AVI format.

"There have been so many developments in space science, like x-ray astronomy," she says. "There was so much excitement about this telescope. We have been waiting to get telescopes outside Earth orbit so we can see out into the universe. Technology makes discovery possible."

Coleman now is training to work in mission control, to be the voice the astronauts in space hear when they call home. Her experience as a scientist will again come in handy.

"I think it will be very helpful that I know from experience how busy the astronauts are," she says. "There needs to be a balance between communication and knowing that they are up there doing their jobs. For instance, I can help make the decisions about whether it is important to discuss with them their plans for the next four hours or to just give them a few more minutes to complete the tasks they are currently doing."

It seems to be this appreciation for balance that makes Coleman such an extraordinary astronaut and scientist. Whether she is processing chemicals, conducting 30 experiments in space, or communicating with the space shuttle, she is in some way utilizing all she has learned.

"The biggest challenge about being involved in the space program is the need to be able to be good at and know a lot about a lot of things," Coleman says. "It's not just chemistry anymore."

Web Links

Microgravity -- News and Research -- from the Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA's lead center for microgravity science.

Preflight Interview -- Interview with Cady Coleman before the STS-93 launch.

NASA Human Spaceflight -- all about the Space Shuttle, the Space Station and other NASA initiatives in human space flight.

Profiles of Women in Microgravity -- Women who are changing the priorities and practice of science. From the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

The Chandra X-ray Observatory -- home page from Harvard University

The Chandra X-ray Observatory -- another Chandra home page from the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center