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Four-time space traveler Voss touches down at alma mater

How does an astronaut relax after a hard day's orbit? With cozy slippers and a good book, of course. Astronaut Janice Voss (SM '77, PhD '87), a veteran of four shuttle flights who has logged nearly 1,000 hours in space, said she re-read her childhood favorite, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, during her last mission.

Dr. Voss, an aeronautics and astronautics alumna and member of the department's Visiting Committee, said in an interview last week that as a sixth-grader reading the book for the first time, she made up her mind to be an astronaut. "My parents said I never talked about being anything else after that," she said.

In a November 5 presentation sponsored by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, she encouraged MIT students in their drive for space. "This is a good place to get an education if you want to be an astronaut. More astronauts have come from MIT than from any other private institution," she said.

Dr. Voss was on a shuttle that rendezvoused with the Russian space station Mir before the space station was in the public eye. The STS-63 mission was essentially a practice run in February 1995 to check communications procedures prior to the first docking mission four months later.

"We hadn't worked with the Russians for 20 years. This time we had a Russian on crew, and we spent a weekend in Moscow training," said Dr. Voss.

Her most recent mission, in April 1997, was cut short after four days because of problems with one of the shuttle's fuel cell power units. The seven-member crew spent nearly three months on the ground waiting, then re-flew the mission in July.

That mission, the STS-94 MSL-1 Space Lab, lasted 16 days and 6.3 million miles. It orbited the Earth 251 times, carrying with it scientific experiments in materials science and combustibility that were monitored by the four scientist crew members, including Dr. Voss.

"It was dual shift," she said. "Half of us slept and half were awake at any particular time. The sleep stations, which look kind of like coffins, are the only private space. And those are shared with crew members from the other shift."

Dr. Voss, a specialist in robotics, expects that her fifth mission could be next summer on the assembly flight for the new international space station. She would probably serve as the robot arm operator, working from inside the shuttle to assemble the station, she said.

Although some think of astronauts as confined to bulky suits with large helmets, that gear is worn only during launch and re-entry. Otherwise, they dress casually for their work on board, like most researchers at MIT.

"NASA is concerned about flammability, so our clothes have to be 100 percent cotton. We choose what we want and they order them from L.L. Bean, Lands' End and J. Crew. Except the pants, which are made from a special nonflammable material," she said, wearing her blue rugby shirt from the Space Lab mission. "Your feet aren't really on the ground, so you don't need much of a sole, but you need some protection. I wear Polartec slippers."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 12, 1997.

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