Launch Successful: Alum's Second Space Mission Begins

Karen Nyberg is a mom, crafter, marathon-runner, engineer and astronaut. This May, she began a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. It's hard to believe that just 15 years ago, she was a graduate student here at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Nyberg training

Nyberg participates in a routine operations training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at Johnson Space Center. Photo courtesy of NASA

At a special briefing at Johnson Space Center in March, Nyberg shared her experiences living in Austin, attending The University of Texas, becoming an astronaut and preparing for a space flight.

Nyberg earned both her Master of Science (1996) and her Ph.D. (1998) in mechanical engineering from the Cockrell School. While in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Nyberg's research focused on thermal control systems in space suits that help astronauts survive in the extreme temperatures of space.

"I was able to work directly with people at NASA while I was in graduate school, and that was valuable to my career early on," she said.

Nyberg will serve as a flight engineer for the Expedition 36/37 crew that launches May 28. This is her second space mission. Her first, in 2008, was a 14-day shuttle mission that helped assemble the International Space Station. It was on that mission she became the 50th woman to go to space. Nyberg attributes much of her opportunity to become an astronaut to the female astronauts who paved the way before her.

How did they influence you?

I think I grew up in an age where it was OK to do anything you wanted to as a girl. A lot of the scientist, engineer and astronaut females that came before me set the stage for it being a possibility for me. It's pretty incredible what some of those women probably had to go through to make it easy and to make it no question that I was able to do it.

Today's space travelers are quite different from the military test pilots who pioneered human spaceflight. With longer missions, more reliable vehicles and the stability of the space station, becoming an astronaut today means becoming skilled in science and engineering, just as Nyberg did.

How does mechanical engineering specifically help you with what you do, and what advice do you have for students?

I think regardless of the type of engineering you choose, you're learning a process of evaluating things, solving problems, and you know, honestly, I'm not sure that the type of engineering is that important. It's the process of going through those four years of college that make you become the type of person that can operate in an environment like space and understand the problems that need to be solved.

For astronauts, it is just as important to be physically fit, as it is to be mentally prepared. Living in space for months at time can take a toll on the human body. Daily exercise and medical monitoring while in orbit will help alleviate problems during their stay and provide insight on how to keep crew members healthy on future longer-duration missions to places like Mars.

What is the most common problem astronauts train for?

I would say the most common problem is what happens to our bodies with the lack of gravity — that we lose bone mass and our hearts don't have to work quite as hard.

We do physical training because we need to keep our bodies moving. Our bodies are very smart, and as soon as the body realizes that we don't need those bones to hold us up, the bones start to degrade.

It normally takes crews two days to arrive at the International Space Station, but Nyberg may have the opportunity to try out a new, one-day flight. The one-day trip was first attempted and successfully completed by a current crew in March, after being tested on unmanned cargo capsules similar to the one Nyberg will be in.

What do you think about the possibility of having a shorter, six-hour flight to the ISS?

I personally would like to do the short rendezvous because it's a small vehicle, and I just would like to get where I'm going. The facilities in the Soyuz aren't as comfortable as what is on the space station, so I'm all for just getting there. I also think you can accumulate fatigue over a couple of days. Even though you're mostly resting, you're probably not going to sleep very well in the Soyuz the first couple nights.

Not only will Nyberg's May mission be longer — at six months instead of 14 days — but the launch itself will also be very different from her previous launch, this time in a Russian capsule instead of an American shuttle.

How do you feel about launching in a Soyuz capsule for the first time?

I think it's a fantastic vehicle, mostly in it's simplicity. You're constantly making upgrades but not making upgrades to the point where it makes it too complicated of a vehicle... It's cozy. I'm looking forward to the launch and doing a little comparison of the two [the Soyuz and the shuttle].

Since Nyberg will be gone for half the year, she is making household arrangements now, such as choosing a preschool for her son to attend in the fall. But she says there aren't many ways to prepare for being apart.

How do you mentally prepare yourself to be away from your family?

I don't know if you can really mentally prepare yourself to be away from your family. I think you just go with the flow and make sure things are in the order you would like things to be when you leave. Then just do it, and keep in communication while you're gone. I'll do what I can to prepare, but it's going to be hard when the time comes. And it's going to be hard to be away from them.

Nyberg launches from Kazakhstan on May 28 aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-09M capsule with cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano.

"We plan on sharing what we're doing up there with the rest of the world," Nyberg said.

She will share training updates and mission highlights. Follow Karen Nyberg on Twitter at @AstroKarenN.