After roaming high seas and ocean depths, NASA astronaut candidate aims for the heavens

by Chris Lazzarino / Photographs courtesy of NASA

This article originally appeared in Issue 4, 2017, of Kansas Alumni Magazine.

She is an aerospace engineer, marine research technician, pilot, advanced scuba diver, sailor, surfer, certified wilderness first responder, spelunker, painter and shade-tree mechanic.

And, finally, astronaut.

Well, not quite. Astronaut candidate for now, but, after completing two years of training, Loral O’Hara, e’06, in 2019 will report for duty in NASA’s astronaut office to await her first flight assignment.

“I’ve always been really curious and loved learning new skills,” the KU aerospace engineering graduate and crew team alumna said June 7 in Houston’s Johnson Space Center, where she joined 11 classmates, decked out in their blue NASA flight suits and perched in front of the next-generation Orion spacecraft, at a rousing introduction ceremony for the new class of astronaut candidates vying to join the current corps of 44. “I’ve been fortunate that the experiences that I’ve always gravitated toward are also those that helped me get up here today, things like fixing engines and flying and diving.”

Born in Houston, O’Hara grew up in nearby Sugar Land. Her parents, Steve and Cindy, took Loral and her sister, Caroline, on visits to Johnson Space Center, and her second-grade class grew tomato plants that flew aboard the space shuttle.

“I’ve wanted to be an explorer ever since I was a little kid,” O’Hara says. “I never really lost that.”

O’Hara came to KU’s School of Engineering as a National Merit Scholar; although she was more than 700 miles from Houston, she did not leave NASA far behind. O’Hara won an internship at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, supported by the School of Engineering and the Kansas Space Grant, she completed the intensive NASA Academy at Goddard Spaceflight Center. O’Hara also designed and built a micro-thruster satellite propulsion system that she tested on NASA’s reduced gravity “vomit comet.”

After graduation, O’Hara worked for a year as a project engineer at Rocketplane Limited in Oklahoma City, then entered graduate school at Purdue University, earning a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics. In 2009, O’Hara’s natural curiosity led her on a detour away from aeronautics, to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“My plan was to come back to aerospace,” O’Hara says from Johnson Space Center, early on her first full, official day at NASA. “And then I went on my first research cruise with the Alvin submersible, the manned research sub, and I was hooked. Going to sea, I loved it. It was the perfect fit. Everything about it was great.”

O’Hara joined Woods Hole as an engineer working on mechanical systems on the workhorse Alvin, which first entered the Woods Hole fleet in 1964. After years of upgrades, Alvin in 2013 began a series of sea trials, from tethered dives to harbor trials in shallow water, then to the open ocean.

For Alvin’s third open-ocean test, O’Hara climbed aboard as the engineer-observer for a seven-hour dive to 1,600 meters, or a mile below the ocean’s surface. Once the deep tests concluded, the team dropped steel ballast weight and Alvin began its ascent. In order to conserve battery power in case sea conditions might delay retrieval at the surface, all lights onboard Alvin were shut off.

“We were a mile deep, so it was completely pitch black,” O’Hara says. “But looking out the window you saw this whole array of bioluminescence. It looked like the night sky; everything was just twinkling.

“At that point, I was like, this must be what it feels like to be in space, looking out a window and seeing all those lights.”

O’Hara first applied for the astronaut corps in 2009, before she even met the minimum requirement of three years of work experience. She applied again when applications were accepted for the 2013 class, and this year finally achieved her dream as one of 12 astronaut candidates chosen from more than 18,300 applicants.

Her classmates, four other women and seven men, include test pilots, a submarine officer, an Antarctic researcher, a SpaceX engineer who worked as a fisherman in Alaska, a special forces helicopter pilot and surgeon, and a former Navy SEAL turned emergency room physician.

“In those 12 you see people who came from all these demanding subsets of culture, and here they are assembled to do a new thing,” says Mark Carreau, c’72, contributing writer for Aviation Week & Space Technology. “I saw people who were ready to embrace the future. Their future.”

What that future might be, though, is anybody’s guess. Many in the current astronaut class might one day be sent to the International Space Station, but all are envisioning travel beyond low-earth orbit.

NASA is planning its first launch of the Orion spacecraft for 2023, although the next manned NASA flight after that likely wouldn’t happen for another two to three years, according to Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica.

“The question becomes whether or not NASA actually goes ahead with plans for deep space exploration,” Berger says. “Despite what’s said, there’s just not a lot of certainty about what’s going to happen.”

Once they’ve earned their astronaut pins, O’Hara and her classmates could find themselves launching for the moon, whether for a landing or long-duration orbits from which deeper journeys could be staged, but any excursions toward Mars likely wouldn’t happen until the 2030s.

Despite the uncertainty, O’Hara is eager for the adventure. She is willing to leave behind her summer home aboard the 25-foot sailboat Muirgen (Gaelic for “born of the sea”), and she’ll miss tinkering with her pickup truck, being outside with the ocean and mountains, and lingering over an espresso in cozy coffee shops.

“The biggest challenge would be leaving everything we know and everyone we love behind,” O’Hara says, “but it’s extremely exciting. I would be thrilled to go on a longer-duration mission, whether it’s to ISS or somewhere else in the solar system. I’ve always loved exploration, and that’s really what led me to Woods Hole Oceanographic.

“Going to sea taught me the value of a good team and careful preparation, having to solve problems in challenging environments with limited resources. That’s basically what you have to do in space, as well, and that’s the kind of environment I thrive in.”

Ready to embrace the future. Her future.

Jayhawk astronauts