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Biography

Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper in astronaut gear

Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper in astronaut gear

Biographical Details:

Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper was born on February 7, 1963 in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She was a woman of Ukrainian and American heritage who became interested in science once high school began. She graduated from Derham Hall High School, which was an all-girls school in 1980. Once high school was done, she went to MIT and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1984 and a Master of Science degree for Mechanical Engineering in 1985. While at MIT she competed in intercollegiate athletics on the MIT crew team. It was only till after she received her Masters degree that her astronaut career began shaping up. She first enrolled in the Navy ROTC program at MIT where she completed training as a Diving and Salvage officer. As a diving officer, she was responsible for repairing naval vessels while they are still in the water. She also advised and trained other divers to this task.  One of her experience as a Salvage officer was de-stranding the Exxon Houston tanker off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

After eleven years of experience as both a Diving and Salvage officer, NASA recruited her to become an astronaut in 1996. She reported to Johnson Space Center where she trained for two years. Much of this training takes place in the classroom, where astronaut candidates learn about space shuttle and space station systems. She also took classes such as earth sciences, meteorology, space science and engineering to help her become a better astronaut. When she wasn’t in the classroom, she was training in military water and land survival to prepare for an unplanned landing back on earth. To complete survival training she needed to become scuba qualified and also pass a swimming test by the first month. This test meant she needed to swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swam three lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes with no time limit. She also had to tread water continuously for 10 minutes while wearing a flight suit. Once the basic training period is complete, she became an astronaut.

However, she wasn’t done as this was just the first phase. In the second phase, she was mentored by a group to experienced astronauts who shared their knowledge and experience. The point of this mentoring relationship was to make sure each she was proficient in pre-launch, launch, and orbit, entry and landing.

Even with both phases completed it didn’t mean she went into space immediately. She worked as a lead Astronaut Office Representative and in the Astronaut Office EVA branch until 2006. Finally on September 9, 2006, she flew her first mission STS-115.  According to NASA, the STS-115 was “billed as one of the most complicated space construction efforts ever conducted, and the STS-115 astronauts had trained longer than any other NASA crew.” (NASA) The purpose of the mission was “to install the P3/P4 integrated truss segment with its solar arrays, which will double the existing power-generating capacity of the orbiting outpost after the next mission.” (NASA) Piper was on several different spacewalks on this mission. Before these missions, NASA had determined that it may be safer for astronauts to sleep inside a closet sized airlock before going into space. This was done in order to reduce the time astronauts had to breathe pure oxygen to avoid decompression sickness. The decompression sickness is from having too much nitrogen in a person’s bloodstream and sleeping in the airlock will help get rid this problem as it helps the body adjust to the lower oxygen level. Her job on the shuttle was mission specialist where she spacewalked for 12 hours and 8 minutes, making her the second most experienced female spacewalker.

Two years later she would return to space with the same role on STS-126. She participated in three spacewalks on this mission and would become 25th in all time EVAs by astronauts. During this mission, a small slip up had occurred as a bag was lost. To an average person this may not have been a big deal, but the bag and the contents inside were valued at $100,000. She successfully landed on November 30, 2008 from this mission and has retired from NASA. Currently she is back on her naval duties.

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