On May 31, 2008, Karen Nyberg became only the sixth Minnesotan to launch into space, when she and her crew launched from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. She also became the first University of North Dakota alum to achieve that feat.
A native of Vining, Minn., Nyberg graduated summa cum laude from UND in 1994, with a degree in mechanical engineering. UND Discovery recently caught up with Nyberg at her astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to reflect on her space shuttle mission and to discuss what astronauts do when they’re not in space.
UND Discovery: What have you been up to since you got back from your mission in space?
Nyberg: When we first got back, we did a bunch of technical debriefs about the mission. Then we actually traveled around and gave presentations as a crew about our mission. That was a couple months of debriefs. Since then, I have been working in our astronaut office Robotics Branch. What we do in our technical assignments, or what we call grounds jobs, is we support crews that are in training for certain missions and serve as a liaison between the astronaut office and various projects that are going on around NASA.
UND Discovery: What does an astronaut do between missions?
Nyberg: We have a ton of different jobs. I am in the Robotics Branch. We also have a Space Shuttle Branch, Space Station Branch, the Constellation Branch, which is our new program; a Safety Branch, and a Space Walking/EVA (Extravehicular Activity) Branch — all of those different areas. We have astronauts working in those areas and supporting different projects. For instance, in the EVA branch, if there is a new tool being designed, you may assign an astronaut to follow the development of that new tool, which might be used during space walks.
UND Discovery: I’m sure you’ve rehashed it many times, but what was going through your mind in the final seconds of the countdown?
Nyberg: Well, it felt very much like we were in the simulator. We had “simmed” many times in our motion-based simulator, in which we actually get suited up in our launch-entry suits and go through a number of different ascents. I had a certain job that I had to do right when the engines cut off, so I was thinking of that. I had to get up and take video of the external tank as it fell away, so I wanted to make sure that went OK, so I was thinking of that.
UND Discovery: Can you describe the rush upon liftoff?
Nyberg: It’s definitely an exhilarating ride. It wasn’t quite as rough as I was expecting. I was told the weather and the upper air winds can make a difference on how rough it is. It seemed pretty smooth, but as the Gs started to build, it was clear that you were going somewhere.
UND Discovery: How is one selected for a shuttle mission?
Nyberg: There are a lot of things that go into it, but the primary thing is whenever it is your turn. They were selecting an astronaut class about every two years for a while. We were selected in 2000 and then there wasn’t one for four years, and now we’re just selecting another class this year. When an assignment comes up and everyone from a previous class has been assigned, then you know your turn is coming up soon. But they also look at the crew mix of skills and who would work well together.
UND Discovery: Are there astronauts with several missions under their belts?
Nyberg: These days, it’s not as many, but in the early 1990s, people definitely had multiple flights. I think the most that someone has is seven.
UND Discovery: That seems like an incredibly high number.
Nyberg: Yes, but these days, especially with the shuttle program winding down, there won’t be as many opportunities [to go on missions]. Once the space shuttles are retired, we will continue to send astronauts to the Space Station on the Russian Soyuz, until our Orion vehicle is built.
UND Discovery: Are you eager to get up again?
Nyberg: Oh yeah, I would love to. (On May 15, after this interview, NASA announced that Nyberg would be a crew member for a 2010 space shuttle mission.)
UND Discovery: We’ve all seen the images of you floating in space holding the UND flag. How would you assess your UND experience?
Nyberg: UND has a great engineering program. It definitely gives you what you need, and it’s a size that allows you to get personal attention if you need it. We have a lot of people from Purdue who work here at NASA; we have a lot of people from Texas A&M, Harvard, MIT and a lot of Ivy League schools. But with UND, the education is as solid, and maybe more. It was great preparation for my basic engineering skills. There are a number of folks here at JSC [Johnson Space Center] that have taken the long-distance Internet learning program from UND’s Space Studies Department. And with the AgCam project, you definitely hear about UND.