'Unusual interests' might lead to the stars
By JULIE CHURCH, Times Staff Writer
As a teenager, Nicole Passonno Stott dreamed of flying, but her passion for flight has taken her farther than she expected when she and her father built biplanes in the garage.
Stott, 39, grew up in Clearwater, where her early interest in flying put her on a path to become a mission specialist in NASA's astronaut program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. She recently completed NASA's rigorous two-year astronaut candidate training program.
Someday -- it's not clear when -- she might be on the shuttle herself.
"I never pictured myself as an astronaut when I was growing up," she said recently. "It wasn't my lifelong dream or anything. But then again, I'd never not pictured myself doing it."
Stott is still getting used to the fact that people treat her like a celebrity. But she doesn't see being an astronaut as the culmination of her career. Rather, it is for her the next step in a series of interesting and challenging jobs she's had with NASA.
That down-to-earth outlook, says a mentor, is one of the qualities that makes Stott a good candidate for an astronaut.
"She's just one of these people you like to work with," said Tip Talone, director of international space station and payload processing at Kennedy Space Center. "She's mature and outgoing, but also a team player and she knows the program inside and out. When you add those qualities together, she fits like a hand in a glove."
Talone, 60, has known Stott since she started with NASA in 1988.
"Some of the blue suits (astronauts) have big egos, but Nicole has a really good head on her shoulders," he said. "She's a regular Joe."
Stott's interest in flying began as a hobby.
"It took me a long time to figure out I could make career out of doing something I love," she said.
Stott and Jamie Jarvis have been friends since middle school. Jarvis said Stott was a typical teenager -- with a few exceptions.
"She had some unusual interests from the rest of us," said Jarvis, 39, who now lives in California. "While we were into the latest music and fashion and hanging out on Clearwater Beach, she was off flying planes with her dad."
Stott spent much of her free time at the Clearwater Executive Airport with her father, chemical company owner Fred Passonno, who built and flew small planes. She relished the opportunity to help him with the Plexiglass and fabric that went into the biplanes.
"I'd go out in the garage or out to the airport and help him whenever he'd let me," she said.
But in 1978, just days before Nicole's 16th birthday, Fred Passonno was killed when an experimental airplane he was piloting crashed in a canal near Lake Tarpon. He was 47. He had been building a nearby dream house on the lake for his wife, Joan, and three daughters.
By that time, Stott already had decided she wanted to be a pilot. Her father's death didn't quell her passion for flying. To the contrary, it inspired her to get her pilot's license and study for a career in aviation.
"I was devastated when it happened of course, but I never thought about giving up flying," she said. "He was a guy whose whole life was spent flying and building planes, and the way he died was kind of the culmination of that."
Stott got her private pilot's license at 18, graduated from Clearwater High School in 1980 and enrolled in the aviation administration program at St. Petersburg Junior College. She then studied aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
When she graduated in 1987, Kennedy Space Center had a hiring freeze, so Stott took a job as a structural design engineer with Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach.
"I knew it wasn't for the long term," she said. "People there tend to get pegged into specific positions and that wasn't for me."
The space center contacted Stott a year later and she's been with NASA ever since.
"I've worked in every part of space shuttle operations you can imagine," she said, "and I've had so much fun."
"I have so many friends who have moved or changed jobs every couple years to find something they enjoy," she said. "I feel fortunate that I get the opportunity to try something new every few years and it's a little different each time."
Stott met her husband, Chris, a British citizen from the Isle of Man, through her job at NASA. While he was working on his master's degree, he was assigned to Kennedy Space Center for three months. They've been married for five years.
"He's into all this space stuff, too," she said.
When Chris, 31, got a job with McDonnell Douglas in California, Nicole moved with him. They were living in Huntington Beach and she was working for NASA's Space Station Hardware Integration Office in 1997 when she decided to apply for the astronaut candidate training program.
It was, she thought, an interesting next step. She talked to some people she considered mentors. They encouraged her to go for it.
Stott was not selected the first time she applied.
Instead, she was asked to join the Aircraft Operations Division in Houston. She served as a flight simulation engineer on the shuttle training aircraft. The trainer is a Gulfstream II modified to mimic the flight characteristics and instrumentation on the shuttle.
She reapplied for the astronaut candidate training program in 1999. This time, she made the cut.
In 2000, she began astronaut training. It included classes on shuttle systems, mathematics, geology, meteorology, guidance and navigation, oceanography, orbital dynamics, astronomy, physics, and materials processing. Candidates also trained in land and sea survival, scuba diving and space suits.
"It's all so cool," she said.
Trainees were exposed to the problems associated with high and low atmospheric pressures and learned to deal with emergencies at those extremes.
In one of Stott's favorite parts of the training, the candidates were exposed to the microgravity of space flight. A modified KC-135 jet flew a series of parabolas, producing periods of weightlessness for 20 seconds during its dives.
"That," she said, "was really fun."
One of the most important things astronaut candidates learn through the program, Stott said, is how to work together in a close environment.
"When you're up there, you need to rely on each other to keep things going," she said.
While she waits for a space shuttle mission assignment, which could take five years or longer, Stott lives in Houston with her husband and two German shepherds, Stella and Lucy. Her mother, Joan Passonno, lives in Palm Harbor and her two sisters live in Tarpon Springs, so Stott said she visits Pinellas County frequently. She is assigned to the space station habitat and payloads group at Johnson Space Center. There, she helps to facilitate crew experiments on shuttle missions and works on shuttle orbiter and space station environments.
Make no mistake: Stott looks forward to going into space. But if it never happens, she feels she's already fulfilled her dream.
"I'm excited to go to the space station, but I also really love what I'm doing now," she said. Being an astronaut, she said, "can't be what your whole life's about. You've got to enjoy what you do along the way."
-- Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks