Lifelong fascination takes professor to astronaut corps

Dr. Serena Aunon, a one-time participant in NASA’s Advanced Space Academy who now is an assistant professor at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and a NASA flight surgeon, is one of nine inductees into the astronaut corps for 2009. Chosen from a field of more than 3,500 applicants, Aunon and her colleagues will begin training at Johnson Space Center in August. She discussed her fascination with science and space exploration with Houston Chronicle reporter Allan Turner.

Q: You were born in 1976, seven years after man stepped onto the moon. Can you tell us what first interested you in space flight?

A: For me growing up, it was the shuttle. That’s what I remember. The sheer power was overwhelming. Watching the engines light, you realized very quickly how fast it was traveling when it left the launch pad. It was awe-inspiring.

Q: Both you and your father hold degrees in electrical engineering. He was a college professor; you obtained your degree before entering medical school. In what sense was he a mentor to you?

A: He knew early on that I wanted to work for NASA, that I loved space flight. He said if I was looking at the possibilities, why not become an engineer? I loved science. I loved math. What a perfect combination.

Q: Other early influences?

A: When I was in the 11th grade in high school, I was in the NASA Space Academy. It was a weeklong course for people interested in aviation and space exploration. It was great. It allowed us to begin taking classes in propulsion. It focused on the shuttle. We learned how NASA ran a mission. … It really got you excited at a young age. After that week, I said, “Yes.” I wanted to work for NASA in some capacity.

Q: What about space exploration intrigues you?

A: Just the possibility of having humans up there for a long time. That humans will be there for longer and longer periods. That we’ll be learning to live and work in space is an amazing feat … to put all these complex systems together and figure out how human systems interact with engineering systems. Frankly, going back to the moon and establishing a lunar habitat … is one of the most exciting things about it.

Q: It is probable that at some point you will blast into space. Does that scare you at all?

A: Anyone who says that’s not scary is lying to you.

Q: One can only imagine that the selection process to enter the astronaut corps is rigorous in the extreme. You — and your UTMB colleague Kjell Lindgren — made the cut. Any thoughts?

A: I’m absolutely humbled and honored. The selection process we went through was amazing. It’s difficult to know how the selection board decided. Everyone seemed equally qualified.

Q: What advice do you have for young people who are contemplating a career with NASA?

A: I’d tell them to absolutely stay focused on their dreams. Stay determined. Don’t make decisions that are going to lead you to a specific outcome. Make decisions so that you’re happy. … The biggest thing: Stay confident in yourself. You create your own reality, no one else.

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