NASA astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper became the first MIT alumna to walk in space during the successful STS-115 space shuttle mission, Sept. 9 through Sept. 21.
Stefanyshyn-Piper spent more than 13 hours on two extravehicular activities (EVAs) outside of space shuttle Atlantis while it was docked with the International Space Station. She was responsible for assembling a major truss segment, which includes a new set of photovoltaic solar arrays that provide power to the space station.
Stefanyshyn-Piper and fellow astronaut Joseph Tanner were also the first EVA crew to spend the night in the space station's Quest airlock module as part of a new procedure to help purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams. This procedure helps prevent decompression sickness, commonly referred to as the "bends," when the astronauts perform space walks in a spacesuit that is pressurized at a significantly lower pressure than the space station.
"One of the things about doing EVAs in space is you have the opposite effect of going diving," she said in a recent interview. "When you go diving, you go from the Earth's atmosphere to a higher atmosphere and so when you come back up you have to decompress. Well, the same thing happens when you go out on a spacewalk because you're inside the space station at 14.7 psi nominally, and when you go out on your spacewalks, you're only at 4.3 psi."
Stefanyshyn-Piper was also the prime operator of the space station's robotic arm and was the overall lead for transferring supplies from the shuttle's cargo module to the space station.
Stefanyshyn-Piper received an S.B. in mechanical engineering in 1984 and an M.S. in mechanical engineering in 1985. As an MIT undergraduate, she was a member of the women's varsity crew team and received its Most Valuable Player Award in 1982.
Stefanyshyn-Piper participated in MIT's Navy ROTC Program and received her commission as a U.S. Navy officer upon graduation in June 1985. She gained extensive experience as a diver and salvage officer and currently holds the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy.
She was chosen as a NASA astronaut in May 1996 and trained for more than a decade for her first mission into space. The STS-115 crew was selected in February 2002, one year before the Columbia accident, and spent more than four years training for its mission.
Only six other women astronauts and one woman cosmonaut have walked in space. Since the space station assembly effort began in 1998, a total of 72 EVAs have been conducted by 63 astronauts and cosmonauts from six different countries. Stefanyshyn-Piper is only the fifth woman astronaut to walk in space in support of the space station assembly effort.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 4, 2006 (download PDF).