Alumna is U.S. space liaison
Ancient buildings and churches dot the Moscow landscape, as do newer Soviet-era concrete-block apartment high rises. "Russia is a very old country with an extremely rich, dramatic history. There's a kind of magical feeling that you're connected with all of it when you stand in Red Square," says alumna Karina Shook.
Although mesmerized by Russia's spirited history, Shook is drawn to its more recent endeavors. For years, United States and Russian manned space travel efforts were a game of leapfrog marked by fierce competition. Recently, however, the two countries united to become key players in the International Space Station (ISS), an ongoing project that includes more than a dozen countries.
In her job as a NASA extravehicular activity instructor and flight controller, the 1996 engineering mechanics graduate has traveled twice to Moscow, where she and others in her group help their Russian counterparts develop protocol and training for the extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalks, required to assemble the ISS.
"We learn about the Russian parts of the space station, and the Russian EVA tools and tasks, and share similar information about U.S. hardware, tools and tasks," says Shook. "We work out details of how we're all going to run the International Space Station once we get a crew on board. We negotiate with our Russian counterparts when there is something that we don't agree on--including how much training the crew members should get for their EVAs. Basically we are the liaison between the EVA people in the United States and the Russian EVA people, and also answer EVA questions from U.S. personnel here who represent different flight-control or training disciplines."
To date, just two parts comprise the someday-multifaceted space station. Russia launched Zarya, or "sunrise," the first piece of ISS, in late-November 1998; a month later, a U.S. shuttle took the second piece, the Unity node, into orbit. The third section, a Russian service module called Zvezda (which means "star"), is scheduled for launch in July. It will house hundreds of cosmonauts and astronauts throughout the next 10 years.
Ensuring that everything associated with the launch happens as planned is a pretty tall order, and Shook and her colleagues often work 12- and 14-hour days. They board a van at 8:30 a.m. for a 45-minute ride to one of the many Russian training facilities and return to their apartments about 6 p.m.--but not for rest. "Five p.m. our time is 8 a.m. in Houston, so we spend most of the rest of the evening in teleconferences with (colleagues at Johnson Space Center in) Houston--and sometimes with various Russians as well," she says.
Although Shook speaks passable Russian, the group's interpreter has proven invaluable. "He has become quite familiar with our terminology, and knows all the people we work with and really can advise us sometimes on who to call or how to work with particular Russians, or give us a reading on the mood or attitude of particular Russians," she says.
And in Russia, the practice of getting to know your colleagues carries much more weight than it does in the United States. "Probably the biggest cultural barrier is the fact that Russians like to get to know you, know how you work, how knowledgeable you are in your subject, and where you are in the hierarchy of your organization before they will begin to trust you," Shook says. "Many meetings are started with what seems to Americans like subject, and where you are in the hierarchy of your organization before they will begin to trust you," Shook says. "Many meetings are started with what seems to Americans like a lot of useless socializing before any work happens. That is just the Russians taking time to get to know you, and you just have to be patient about it."
Sometimes it's difficult for Shook and her group to be patient--especially since their "tours of duty" last only three to four months before they leave and turn their partially completed projects over to a new group.
She says her drive to finish as much work as possible sometimes limits her social life. "There is just a tremendous amount of work that goes into safe manned space flight, and I find myself working a lot and not always relaxing or having as much fun as I'd like to."
Back in Texas, Shook plays violin in the Clear Lake Symphony, and plays Celtic fiddle with a group of friends in the Houston area. She acts in musicals with a local community group, and among other outdoor activities, bicycles and rides horseback.
In Russia, her co-workers have become her friends, and when they take a break, they visit museums or see shows like the circus or the Bolshoi Ballet. On weekends, they might tour the countryside, ice skate at Gorky Park or attend a hockey game. The group often goes out to eat, and one evening Shook's musical expertise became the evening's entertainment. "We went out to dinner one day at a Spanish restaurant, and they had a live Spanish band," says Shook. "They asked us what we wanted them to play, and my colleague, Phillip Fox, told them something with a lot of violin in it because I play violin. So the violin player handed me his violin to play. I played a couple of Irish tunes, and the band kind of joined in to back me up."
Her biggest thrills, however, come from learning about the space program. "I have walked all around and even was briefly inside the U.S. node, Unity, that is currently orbiting Earth," she says. "I've touched the service module, which will be the next large piece to be launched. Just last week I got a chance to see the space museum at Energia, where they let us get into one of the Soyuz capsules that had actually flown in space in 1980!
Just try to keep her feet on the ground.
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