Astronaut tells students to shoot for the stars

Standing before an audience of South Whidbey High School students, former Navy captain and astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper described the biggest mistake she made while up in space.

During a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk, Stefanyshyn-Piper lost a tool bag used for making repairs to the outside of the International Space Station. Unbeknownst to her, it wasn’t clipped onto anything and sailed away into space when she pushed it away.

She said she tells people about this particular error of hers, especially youth, because she believes it demonstrates how to carry on when the worst can happen. In her case, the work was finished with a back-up set of tools.

“That’s something important to remember, that mistakes are going to happen,” she said. “Just make sure you learn from it and don’t do it again and then just press on.”

The Minnesota-born, retired astronaut attended MIT as a young woman and studied engineering. When she was initially accepted to the university, however, she worried the steep price of tuition would affect her family’s remaining college fund for her three little brothers.

Hearing about the ROTC, she decided serving in the Navy seemed like a fair trade-off for her tuition. As a deep-sea diver, she made repairs on Naval ships, which she thought might be similar to walking in space.

She was right.

“Everything you learned in high school physics comes back to haunt you,” Stefanyshyn-Piper said about the feeling of movement in space.

Stefanyshyn-Piper credits her early interest in math and science to an engineering seminar she attended through the University of Minnesota while in high school.

By speaking to young people, she said she hopes to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM. Programs at Oak Harbor schools and the surrounding area have benefitted from her help, and last year she visited First Robotics Lego competition teams from both Island and Skagit counties. Additionally, Stefanyshyn-Piper mentors teenage girls with the Oak Harbor Soroptimist program, where she emphasizes a STEM career for girls.

And as a woman in the field, she acknowledges the people who have doubted her abilities and how she rose above it.

“My advice to young women is to not let those naysayers get to you. Have confidence in yourself,” she said. “ It may mean that you have to work harder, but in the end, you have proved them wrong.”

During one of the final slides of her presentation at South Whidbey High School, Stefanyshyn-Piper displayed a photo from space showing the curvature of the earth, pointing out to the audience of teenagers with a wry smile that the earth indeed isn’t flat like some have suggested.

“We have to take care of our planet, because this is the only one we have,” she said.