For Nicole Passonno Stott, the path to outer space and an extended stay on the International Space Station led through Clearwater Air Park, St. Petersburg Junior College and the University of Central Florida.
Stott, 46, is scheduled to blaze into the early morning sky Monday aboard space shuttle Discovery with six crewmates on mission STS-128. She will remain in orbit at the space station for at least three months as a member of the Expedition 20 and 21 crews. She is tentatively scheduled to return on Atlantis in late November.
The Albany, N.Y., native grew up in Clearwater watching her father build and fly homemade aircraft from a hangar at the air park north of Drew Street. After graduating from Clearwater High School, Stott studied aviation administration at the Clearwater and Tarpon Springs campuses of what later became St. Petersburg College. The program included getting her private pilot's license at St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport.
The program "was the greatest thing. The ground school was all handled by instructors at St. Pete College," she said. "I was able to take courses that fed right into the engineering degree that I ultimately worked on."
Stott went on to study aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and earn her master's degree in engineering management at the UCF in 1992 while working for NASA at Kennedy Space Center. For about a decade before being selected in 2000 for astronaut training as a mission specialist, she held several positions within the shuttle processing division.
"I have vivid memories of being up close with the hardware and seeing how hard all the teams work down there to get the vehicle ready," she said. "It gives me every confidence that the vehicles are being handled the way they need to be to make us safe to fly."
Among her tasks at the station will be to capture an unmanned cargo transfer vehicle known as an HTV. Stott will work with crewmate Frank De Winne to use a robotic arm on the station to grab the HTV, which Japan plans to launch full of equipment and supplies on Sept. 11.
"That's going to be cool because it's a totally new vehicle and on station we've never done a track and capture like this before," she said.
Long-duration space flight will keep her away from her husband, Chris, and their 7-year-old son, but it's something she's excited to try during her first flight. In 2006, Stott spent 18 days training underwater in NASA's bus-size NEEMO 9 underwater research habitat in Key Largo.
"I can't imagine not wanting to do" long-duration spaceflight, she said. "Fortunately I have a family who is supportive, and I don't think it's because they just want me out of town. I'm happy if it lasts a month, I'm happy if it extends to six months. I think it will be an amazing experience."
She plans to represent her roots by wearing a Clearwater High T-shirt during video broadcasts from space and bringing the school's flag onboard the station. She's not the first CHS graduate in space or on Discovery. Bruce Melnick served as a mission specialist during STS-41 in 1990.
As much as she's anticipating space flight, "The life of an astronaut is 99 percent not about flying in space," she said.
"Fortunately it's all very cool. Everything we do, whether it's training for a space walk in the neutral buoyancy laboratory or training on the robotic arm or flying T-38 [training aircraft], it is stuff I would never have the opportunity to be exposed to otherwise.
"I kind of look at it like spaceflight itself is this perk at the end that someday might happen, but all these things we're getting to do on the ground are unique and interesting on their own."