As a young girl growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a small town of 44,000 and a few hours away from Boston, Stephanie Wilson says she spent her nights looking up into the sky wondering what was there.
But it would take a conversation with an astronomy professor to light the flame that would lead her to pursue engineering and a future as a NASA astronaut — making three flights aboard a U.S. space shuttle into space.
“It really started a thought process about what other opportunities were available and what were some other ways that I could function in aerospace,” she said.
She entered Harvard University in the fall of 1984, receiving a bachelor of science degree four years later in engineering science. Her first job would be with the Martin Marietta Astronautics Group in Denver as a loads and dynamics engineer.
Wilson later earned a master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas where she researched the control and modeling of large, flexible space instruments, much like the structures and devices used at NASA. Next for Wilson — becoming a member of the Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem at a Pasadena lab focusing on the Galileo — the unmanned spacecraft that would study Jupiter and its moons.
Then, in April 1996, Wilson accepted an invitation from NASA as an astronaut candidate and reported to Johnson Space Center in August for two years of training.
“A lot the choices I made were broad because they would allow me many opportunities,” she said.
Keeping her eye on the prize and taking advantage of every opportunity, she completed her first spaceflight on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006, logging almost 13 days and becoming the second African-American woman to fly into space.
By 2010, she would add two more expeditions into space to her belt.
The astronaut says she credits God and her upbringing for all the opportunities and accomplishments in her nearly 30-year career.
“I think my faith played an essential role,” she said. “I also think my family, friends and teachers played a part as well because they always encouraged me to go for my dreams.”
Wilson received the NASA Distinguished Medal, both in 2009 and 2011, an honorary doctorate of Science from Williams College and the Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year Award, among her many honors.
She remains with NASA, currently working in the branch for operations of the International Space Station, NASA’s habitable artificial satellite that’s in low orbit around the Earth.
“I do believe I found my purpose in life,” she said. “I have to remind myself that God is in control. I might not understand his plan, but he does have one. I hope people will see that anything is possible.”