Nicole Stott, 56, has completed two missions on the International Space Station and two flights on board a space shuttle. Now an artist, she was the first person to paint a watercolour in space. We met Nicole at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at an event organised by Omega watches to celebrate this, the 50th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, and the Omega Speedmaster watches that those first moonwalkers wore.
How to become an astronaut
There’s a picture of our astronaut class, all in our blue suits sitting together. There are 17 of us, and we all came to that place in very different ways. I think across the board you can say though that each of us was inspired by the moon landing and Apollo and what went on in the space days before us.
I grew up with parents who shared what they loved with me. My mum is a very creative person, and my dad loved to build small airplanes. I wanted to know how things fly; if you want to know how things fly, why would you not want to know how rocket ships fly? And so I ended up with a job here at the Kennedy Space Center as an engineer.
For the longest time I thought only special people got to be an astronaut. But I saw that 99.9% of what an astronaut does is not flying in space – 80 per cent of it was a lot like what I was already doing as a Nasa engineer. That encouraged me to think about at least filling out the application. And then the thing that pushed me over the edge was people that I considered to be mentors saying, ‘OK, Nicole, pick up the pen and fill out the application’.
Women in space
I think working in space is absolutely going to become more open for women. One of the things I communicate with kids – and adults too, because sometimes we need to hear it – is that the spaceship doesn’t care if you’re a boy or a girl.
Our class, while you see only three women of the 17 people in that picture, we [the women] were part of a much bigger group in the astronaut office; at that time, I think we were roughly 25% women, and now, of the 40 astronauts, we’re getting close to 40% women. And that happens across all of what you see. In fact, the head of all of our flight directors at Mission Control in Houston and the head of launch control here at Kennedy Space Centre are women who both started out as engineers. I think it’s a wonderful example for a lot of other tech fields and business organisations that have not gotten to that point.
The dangers of going into space
I do think you’re ignorant if you think it’s not dangerous. But when you go out to the launch pad, you’ve trained so much for all these things that we think can go wrong, you’ve worked with your crew, you know the ground. You’re anxious to get to space and know how it feels, to do the work that’s there because you believe that work is worthwhile to your children and everybody else here on Earth. The fear associated with it for me was not for myself, it was about my family watching me do it. It is a lot more difficult watching somebody you love strap into a rocket than it is to do it when you’re trained to do it.
Going back to the moon, or beyond
One of the things that the ISS [International Space Station] has done for us in preparing us to go back to the moon or to go on to Mars, is it’s set us up in a way that I don’t think there’s going to be any one country that’s going to do it on their own anymore. And I think that’s a really good thing. I believe that a permanent presence on the moon is hugely beneficial to life on Earth. In fact, I think everything we do in space is about improving life on Earth – but that purpose-built space station is begging us to come back and to stay and to utilise it in a way that allows life here on Earth to improve.
I’ve spoken with the folks at Virgin – they’re developing sub-orbital spacecraft – and ultimately, the business case is to get from A to B quicker on the planet. But in the meantime, why not enjoy it as a tourist? Most of the people that I’ve met that have bought a ticket to go, they’re not just thinking about that five minutes that they’ll have in space, looking out the window. They’re thinking about how they will try to get whatever they’re seeing out that window into their heart and their mind so that they’ll use it in a positive way afterwards. And I think that’s really important.
Nicole wore two Omega Speedmaster watches in space. Since 1965, the Omega Speedmaster has been the official watch for every piloted Nasa mission, and was worn by both Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. It is the only piece of equipment that has been used in all of Nasa’s piloted space missions, from Gemini to the International Space Station programme of today. Every astronaut of every nationality is now issued with two models: a mechanical Speedmaster Moonwatch for EVA (extravehicular activity) and a digital Speedmaster X-33 for use in-spacecraft. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there is a gold version of the Speedmaster, which replicates a model made to commemorate the event in 1969. That edition was restricted to 1,014 units (with 14 for astronauts). The same number has been made of the new edition, which also features a piece of lunar meteorite on the caseback to represent the moon.