Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remembering an Indiana Female Astronaut

During Women’s History Month, it’s only fitting that we recognize one of America’s top astronauts, Janice E. Voss, Ph.D., who died in early February from cancer at the age of 55.

Born in South Bend, IN on October 8, 1956, Voss went on to graduate from Purdue University in 1975 with a degree in engineering. From there she headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning her master's degree in electrical engineering in 1977 and her doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics in 1987.

Voss actually began work with NASA at age 16 as a freshman at Purdue. As a member of the Johnson Space Center's co-op program, she worked on computer simulations in engineering and development in the years that led to the start of shuttle-era flights. In 1977, she returned to the center for a year and worked as a crew trainer teaching entry guidance and navigation.

Before beginning her career as an astronaut, Voss worked at the Orbital Sciences Corporation that launched the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite from the space shuttle in September, 1993, and NASA's Mars Observer from a Titan rocket in 1992.

Voss was selected by NASA in January, 1990 for the astronaut corps, becoming a full-fledged astronaut in July, 1991. She served as mission specialist on five space shuttle missions, including the only repeat flight in the shuttle program's 30-year history. She flew with the first commercial laboratory, rendezvoused with Russia's Mir space station and helped create the most complete digital topographic map of the Earth.

In total, Voss logged over 49 days in space, traveling 18.8 million miles while circling the Earth 779 times. Her five missions tied her with the record for the most spaceflights by a woman. She served twice as payload commander and did research on fluid physics and material science, such as growing crystals and developing metal alloys, as well as medical tests to determine the effects of microgravity on the human body.

It all started, her mother said, when Janice was six and picked up a book at the local library--“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle — a fantasy in which one of the main characters is a scientist who happens to be a woman.

A multiple recipient of NASA's Space Flight Medal, Voss donated her personal papers in 2009 to Purdue Libraries' division of archives and special collections as documentation of her spaceflight career.

"Knowing that someone else got from here to there brightened many of my days at Purdue," Voss said at the time, referring to the university's earlier astronaut alums. "Maybe my papers will help someone else feel that they aren't that different from me."

"If I can do it, then so can they," Voss said.

Four years after returning to Earth for the final time, Voss transferred from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA. There she headed the science program for the agency's Kepler space observatory. Designed to search for Earth size planets orbiting distant stars, Kepler was launched in March 2009 and to date has confirmed 61 exoplanets and identified more than 2,000 planetary candidates.

Voss left Ames in 2007 and most recently served as the payload lead in the astronaut office's space station branch at the Johnson Space Center.

"As the payload commander of two space shuttle missions, Janice was responsible for paving the way for experiments that we now perform on a daily basis on the International Space Station," chief astronaut Peggy Whitson said in a NASA statement following Voss’ death. "By improving the way scientists are able to analyze their data, and establishing the experimental methods and hardware necessary to perform these unique experiments, Janice and her crew ensured that our space station would be the site of discoveries that we haven't even imagined."

Voss launched her first and final missions aboard the shuttle Endeavour. As a member of the STS-57 crew in June 1993, she helped conduct biomedical and material science experiments in the first commercially-developed Spacehab module, a pressurized laboratory mounted in the orbiter's payload bay that more than doubled the work area for astronaut-tended activities.

Here is a recap of her flights:

First mission 1993:

Voss was one of a crew of six astronauts on the shuttle Endeavour, which lifted off on June 21 for what was planned as an eight-day mission. Bad weather kept the shuttle from landing on time and the mission lasted almost ten days. On its mission, the crew retrieved Eureca, a European science satellite, and launched Spacehab, the world's first commercial laboratory module in space--a 9,600 pound pressurized laboratory mounted in the orbiter’s payload bay. Voss supervised 22 experiments in the Spacehab, most of them on how animals develop in weightlessness. The Endeavour landed July 1. Spacehab was the first commercial laboratory launched into space with its primary purpose to offer industrial and academic researchers access to space.

Second Mission 1995:

Eileen Collins was NASA's first female shuttle pilot when Discovery took off from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 3. Voss was also on board, assigned to operate one of Discovery's two robot arms. She maneuvered the shuttle’s robot arm to grasp an astronomy satellite being deployed. The flight was the first of eight planned missions to rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir, the first U.S.-Russian meeting in space since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking. Discovery did not dock with Mir, but maneuvered close to the station in a dress rehearsal for an Atlantis mission planned for later in the year, verifying flight techniques, communications, and navigation and sensor aids. The Discovery “Near-Mir” returned to Earth on Feb. 11 as planned.

Third and Fourth Missions 1997:

Voss went to space twice in 1997 because technical problems cut short the initial trip. The Columbia blasted off on April 4 with a crew of seven, including Voss who was in charge of 33 experiments, including some on how food grows in weightlessness and how flames spread. The crew set more than 140 small fires in insulated chambers to test the behavior of fire in weightlessness. The tests were intended to gain a better understanding of how fire and heat work on Earth and also to address safety concerns after a 90-second fire flared aboard the Mir station five months earlier. She also coordinated experiments on how plants react in space, using a greenhouse containing about 50 spinach, clover, sage and periwinkle plants. However, the Columbia's planned 16-day mission ended after only four days when NASA detected voltage irregularities in a generator and feared the defective unit could overheat and explode. The shuttle landed safely back on Earth on April 8, but the crew was reassembled three months later and on July 1 the Columbia lifted off again to complete the mission, returning on July 17.

Mission Five 2000:

Voss' fifth trip into space began on Feb. 11 when the Endeavour lifted off on an 11-day mission to use radar signals reflected off of the Earth to precisely measure Earth's topography for NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. After deploying a nearly 200-foot mast, Voss and her crewmates worked around the clock in two shifts to map more than 47 million square-miles of the Earth's land surface.

Information for this post came from: The Indianapolis Star, New York Times, MSNBC, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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