The first UCF graduate to launch into orbit aboard a NASA space shuttle and live on the International Space Station says she still gets goose bumps when she describes the moment she first saw Earth from outer space.
Nicole Stott, one of the most famous alumni of the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS), shared stories, photographs and videos in front of a packed room at the UCF Harris Engineering Center July 18 as the guest speaker for a CECS Alumni Association networking event.
During her 90-minute presentation, she delighted the audience with fascinating tales of her life in space, her journey to get there and how her CECS education played a key role.
She shared personal photos and videos that captured the thrilling – and often lighter – moments of her space flights and three months of close-quarters living on the ISS alongside international astronauts.
Among her anecdotes was her vivid tale of the launch experience, stating that no amount of astronaut training can prepare someone for such a heart-racing moment.
“You know you’re going some place fast, and at that point you’re hoping, ‘yep, I hope I’m going the right place,’ you’re watching all the displays that are shaking like crazy. For that first two and a half minutes with the boosters, while those things are going, it’s a wild ride,” she said. “It’s definitely a smile-across-the-face kind of thing, and when those boosters fall off, it’s very peaceful and very quiet.”
Photographs she shared included spectacular scenes of Earth including Florida, an African desert, an Australian salt lake which she said reminded her of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, nighttime city lights, sunrises and sunsets.
“Every 90 minutes you’re going around the Earth, so every 45 you have either a sunrise or a sunset happening, and if you catch that out the window, it is beautiful every time, and it looks different every time.”
And the most beautiful scenery of Earth from afar, Stott believes, is between the southern tip of Florida and the northern coast of South America.
“It’s probably the most beautiful place on the planet, with the colors, the reefs and the way the islands all mix in. It became one of my favorite places to take pictures,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter what you’re looking at out the window when in orbit, it is all impressive.”
Among the many wonders she encountered in zero gravity was the way water acted.
“You can actually take a ball of water or any fluid and put your hand through it and it coats your hand like a glove. The surface tension is very different up there.”
She praised the ISS for how it unites many countries in the common pursuit of scientific discovery.
“Everything that’s going on up there, everything about it is helping life get better here on Earth.”
Stott gave credit to UCF for contributing to her success, praising a progressive partnership between CECS and the Kennedy Space Center that developed the engineering management master’s program she was in.
“My time at UCF prepared me very well for what I ended up getting to do. UCF has a very creative way of engaging in the programs that are offered here.”
Stott holds a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and an M.S. in engineering management from UCF. She began her aerospace engineering career in 1987 at Pratt and Whitney Government Engines as a structural design engineer. A year later, Stott joined NASA at the Kennedy Space Center as an operations engineer in the Orbiter Processing Facility. In the following years, she held a variety of engineering positions within NASA.
In 2000, Stott reported for NASA astronaut candidate training. Afterwards she was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Station Operations Branch and worked in various roles. In 2006, she served on the crew of an 18-day mission aboard NASA’s Aquarius undersea research habitat, performing space-related research.
On Aug. 28, 2009, Stott launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-128). She was a flight engineer on the ISS Expeditions 20 and 21 crews (Aug. 28 to Nov. 29, 2009), then returned to Earth on the Space Shuttle Atlantis with the crew of STS-129 after logging 91 days in space. She was also onboard STS-133 (Feb. 24 to March 9, 2011) – the Discovery’s final mission. During the 13-day, 5.3 million-mile flight, the crew delivered critical spare parts and supplies to the ISS.
Stott has received many special honors including NASA Distinguished Service Medal; NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and UCF Alumni Association Professional Achievement Award.