Prof Has the Right Stuff

November 18, 2003

Heather Heilman

Cheryl Nickerson next to a model of the space shuttle Cheryl Nickerson believes in NASA. "Nobody can do what NASA can do like NASA can do it," she said. Nickerson, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, has been involved with the agency for several years.

She's received funding from NASA to study the ways microgravity affects bacterial pathogens and the human immune system. Two years ago, she was awarded NASA's Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She's sent experimental payloads into orbit.

Now she's begun the long process that may culminate in her own journey into space. She is one of 120 finalists, selected from an applicant pool of more than 5,000, for a place in the next class of astronauts.

At the beginning of September, she spent a week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she underwent a series of rigorous medical, psychological and performance tests.

"If it can be probed, it's probed," she said of the medical tests. "You'll never know more about your health." Despite the intensity of the testing, one doesn't have to be a superman or superwoman to be an astronaut, according to Nickerson. "They're looking for physically fit, well-rounded individuals with a science or technology background, who have the ability to lead and to get along with others."

Although the week wasn't easy, it was often fun and exciting. One of the high points for Nickerson was sitting in the bustling mission control room for the international space station. "It was so compelling to stand in there. You felt you were part of the history," she said. Twenty candidates at a time are evaluated during a weeklong period.

There were 15 men and five women in Nickerson's group. There are four types of astronauts -- commander/pilots, mission specialists (which would be Nickerson's position), payload specialists and educator astronauts taken from the ranks of grade school and high school teachers. Mission specialists have a wide range of duties, from helping investigators plan experiments to operating onboard systems and doing space walks.

"You have the opportunity to do a lot of things you may never have done before," Nickerson said. "If you're selected, you spend two years as an intern studying everything from astronomy to geology to mechanical engineering to extreme survival training."

The destruction of the Columbia space shuttle this spring only increased her desire be a part of the manned space flight program. "Public opinion seems to be that this should be the end of the program. People don't think it affects them other than as lost tax dollars. But that couldn't be further from the truth," she said.

Cell phones, weather and defense satellites, CAT scans, laser surgery, programmable pacemakers and treatments for osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer and infectious diseases are just a few of the things we take for granted that have their roots in NASA research. Nickerson also has her eye on the much longer view -- to the time when human survival will depend on our ability to colonize space. She says that every astronaut fully understands the dangers of space travel.

Odds are she will not be among the 12 new astronauts chosen in February, because many of those who get selected have been through the testing process more than once. But if she's not chosen this winter, she plans to stay in the program and reapply next time. "In the meantime, with my research, I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I'm contributing."

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