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Oceanographer in Orbit

Astronaut alumna has dual perspective on inner & outer space

"I wanted to be an astronaut ever since I saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.” Millions of average Americans could have said that. But Wendy Lawrence is not your average American, or your average astronaut.

More than 3,000 men and women apply every two years to be NASA astronauts, but only 30 or so are selected. Lawrence, a US Navy helicopter pilot, got the call in March 1992 to join the 300 or so men and women who can put the word “astronaut” on their résumé and epitaph. She is one of about 150 active astronauts and may someday be among the select few who populate the International Space Station.

“I followed the same path as many astronauts have before me—through the military,” Lawrence noted. She graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1981 and then was asked to attend the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in a Navy initiative to beef up its officers’ scientific knowledge. “It was a reward to go to WHOI and get to work with such a well-rounded group of people,” she said. And the master’s degree in ocean engineering that she earned in 1988, she said, was one of the “key things that helped get me selected to be an astronaut.” The MIT/WHOI degree, she said, “set me apart from the others. I had gotten a quality education from a rigorous program.” The fact that she had researched and published a thesis certified her as an officer of noteworthy intellect—one who could handle the rigors of space flight and the precision of space-borne experimentation.

As a Navy aviator for 11 years, she logged more than 1,500 hours and 800 ship landings, making her a natural candidate to serve as a flight engineer and orbit pilot on the space shuttle.

“It took 25 years for my dream to come true,” said Lawrence, who made her first space shuttle voyage on Endeavor in March 1995. “The greatest memory from that trip was my first chance to look out the window. An entire life of work became worth it with just one look. I was finally there, and it was humbling. I remember thinking ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why am I so fortunate?’ We live on an amazingly beautiful planet.”

“The flight really gave me an increased sense of respect for taking care of this planet,” she said. From 200 miles high, with the eyes of an oceanographer, she could observe eddies, internal wave patterns in the ocean, alongshore currents, and sediment transfer at the great river deltas off India.

That awesome glance marked the beginning of more than 894 hours in space for Lawrence. She would later fly in 1997 and 1998, but then came her rewarding and frustrating relationship with the Russian Mir space station. For several months, she trained as the backup to astronaut John Blaha for the fourth shuttle-Mir docking mission. But shortly before the flight, the Russians declared a 164-centimeter minimum height requirement for astronauts in the Soyuz capsule, Mir’s escape ship. Lawrence stands 160 centimeters (5 foot 3 inches).

“Height in the capsule is critical,” Lawrence said. “Astronauts who do not fit properly into the seat could snap their necks” on the bumpy ride through Earth’s atmosphere. Trained but not qualified for Mir, Lawrence later assumed the role of NASA’s Director of Operations at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.

She helped her fellow Americans prepare for long-term flight, Russian style, and served as a liaison between one-time competing space programs. During that tour she discovered that “sitting height” was more important than “standing height” for fitting into Soyuz and that she sat tall enough to render the 164-centimeter limit meaningless.

Lawrence turned suddenly from trainer to trainee, and for four months she prepared for the sixth Mir-shuttle docking mission. She would replace astronaut Michael Foale and become the second American woman to live on Mir.

Then on June 25, a supply ship punched a hole in Lawrence’s plans. The Spektr module of Mir was severely damaged when Progress smacked into the side of the space station. The damage crippled the craft and necessitated extensive work by cosmic mechanics.

When Russian and NASA flight directors determined that it would take many hours of space-walking to repair Mir, Lawrence was sold short again. She could fit into the shuttle and the Soyuz, but she could not safely fit into the bulky Russian Orlan spacesuit required for space walks.

Lawrence was replaced by David Wolf. Two months later, she rode along on the space shuttle Atlantis and helped Wolf through the hatch to destiny. A year later, she rode on Discovery as it picked up the last American inhabitant of Mir.

“There are no bad missions, so I’m not going to be picky,” Lawrence noted. “There is still a mystique to being an astronaut. Not a lot of people get to go into space.”

—Mike Carlowicz

Originally published: March 1, 2000