OUR ASTRONAUT, CHRISTINA HAMMOCK — MAYBE… “I'LL DO AN UMU IN SPACE”
It isn't every day one can rub shoulders with an astronaut. But by serendipity, good luck or simply fate, we have right here in American Samoa one of just eight new astronauts chosen by NASA for the next generation of space exploration — men and women who will go to the international space station and beyond.
From a pool of over 6,000 applicants, Christina M. Hammock was chosen to take her place in history.
Currently serving as the Station Chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate and Atmosphere Observatory at Cape Matatula, a blustery point on the far eastern end of Tutuila, she introduces herself as 'just Tina'.
“I'm Tina on island, and I love using that name here,” Hammock declared in her first interview with Samoa News. She is happy and bubbly in person, full of energy and ready to laugh; her demeanor belies her serious work.
Officially, she hails from Jacksonville, N.C., but she is currently home-based in Livingston, Montana (although between her scientific expeditions and educational jaunts, she admits she doesn't get back to 'big sky country' often enough).
Now, the sky is no longer the limit for Hammock, whose name was released on Monday from NASA headquarters as one of the chosen few who will, indeed, in a few short years be one of an elite group — who may boldly go 'where no man has gone before'. She has been chosen as a candidate to become an astronaut.
Her official NASA start date is August 12, when she must report to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“We will be training for two years before we are considered “flight ready” astronauts,” Hammock explained. We are astronaut/ candidates and we are all eligible to be astronauts. A lot of the training will be physical.”
She says she is looking forward to the intensive training — where she will also learn how to fly T-38 jets. NASA has a fleet of the supersonic T-38s just for training astronauts.
“We had 'a ton' of medical testing, that was necessary to qualify” she added.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, according to AP, said these new candidates will help lead the first human mission to an asteroid in the 2020s and then on to Mars in the following decade. They will join 49 astronauts currently there, although AP notes the numbers have dwindled since the Space Shuttle stopped flying.
“It's pretty overwhelming.” Hammock admits.
Since the announcement, she says her life has been a whirlwind of phone calls, facebook messages, congratulations and high fives.
“I'm pinching myself. Today I got a phone call from the International Space Station — a guy named Chris Cassidy called to congratulate me.”
Some day she may be one of those people calling back to earth.
“A typical crew on the Station is three Americans and two or three Russians,” she said. “It's really an international effort, but only a few countries send astronauts. The main pool from which they draw the crew comes from the U.S. and Russia, and typical assignments are two to six months.
(Six astronauts currently live and work on the International Space Station: three Russian cosmonauts, two NASA astronauts and one European astronaut from Italy.)
This time around, four men and four women made the cut. “It ended up that way, but not on purpose” she said. Hammock is one of two scientists chosen; the others have military and medical backgrounds.
With the ending of the space shuttle program in 2011, the current crop of astronauts are taken to the space station via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, although there are plans in the works for private firms to fill in the gap.
Will she take something special into space with her? “Maybe I'll take some Samoan banana chips and oka with me, if they let it on board,” Hammock laughed. “I'll do an umu in space... ha ha… maybe not… but I'll miss my umu!”
She says she will also miss many people here, notably her “Tula mom” Tala Silao, who said when she heard the news, “I was so happy for her, I cried. I’m gonna miss her, but I’m so excited for her.”
Co-worker Vai Talamoa of Malaeloa called her “an amazing lady, very talented, self motivated… just awesome to work with. If NASA chose her, it’s because of the outstanding person she is — so capable, just dynamite. It’s been an honor to work with her. I’m proud to say I know an astronaut — how many people can say that?”
Does Hammock have any second thoughts? “No qualms… I've wanted to do this my whole life. I'm happy, honored and humbled to be a part of this.”
She grew up in an era when the dream of space exploration became a reality. Beginning with Skylab and the Lunar Roving Vehicles, and on to America's Apollo space program — which demonstrated that men could indeed travel into space and return safely to earth — the scientific advances were in place when she was born which made one of mankind's most ancient dreams possible.
“My parents are so excited, so proud, so supportive, they know how much I believe in this. My two brothers and two sisters are all so thrilled,” Hammock said. As the eldest of five, she has set the bar high.
Hammock says she wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember…”from the very first time I heard about it,” she told Samoa News.
“My interest began with my dad, who was keenly interested in space. We had scientific magazines about the space program always present in our home … I just always thought it was “really cool”… any kind of exploration… things on the frontier… I knew that's where I wanted to be. And of course, space is the ultimate frontier.”
Space as the final frontier… where have we heard that before? Oh yeah... Star Trek. Which prompted the question, “ Are you a big fan of science fiction?”
Her reply was “not really” which she admits always surprises people, and sometimes disappoints them.
With or without science fiction to motivate her, she says she has been preparing most of her life for this moment. “When I was in middle school, I went to Space Camp. But I decided that I would follow my dreams — my own dreams — and if that gave me the skills to be an astronaut, so be it.
When she heard the announcement go out from NASA early last year, she decided to apply. “I recognized that I would be a good candidate, because I really believe that I have things to contribute to the program,” she said.
Hammock has certainly demonstrated an ability to work in remote places. She's worked in Antarctica for three different seasons, “wintering” at the South Pole as well as other coastal stations at the bottom of the world. She has also worked through two winter seasons in Greenland.
Barrow Alaska, which she laughingly called the “Northern Mediterranean” was a NOAA assignment for her as well, similar to her assignment here in American Samoa.
“I absolutely love the work that I do — and the places I get to do them!” she gushed.
She was only supposed to be in American Samoa for three months, but she extended her stay two different times because she enjoys it so much here… “I love the people, the welcoming nature of the island… I love hiking here, scuba diving, snorkeling… I love my job, being able to work in such a beautiful place. It’s an ideal world here.”
During her time in the territory, she has also found time to give tours of the NOAA station to students and visitors, saying that working with the community gives her great pleasure. Dedicated to her work and enthusiastic about her mission, she even goes in on weekends to give tours. She has spoken to several high schools, and noted “how eager the students are to learn.”
Hammock holds two Bachelors degrees from North Carolina State University (Physics and Electrical Engineering) and a Masters in Electrical Engineering, also from NCSU, which is considered one of the pre-eminent electrical engineering schools in America.