Clearwater High grad Nicole Passonno Stott is set to blast off on the space shuttle Aug. 25

CLEARWATER — Nicole Passonno Stott's classmates at Clearwater High School always knew she would go far.

She certainly didn't disappoint them.

On Aug. 25, Stott is scheduled to blast off on space shuttle Discovery and fly approximately 200 miles to the International Space Station as a member of the Expedition 20 and 21 crews.

As STS128 lifts off, a group of about 30 or 40 her friends from the class of 1980 will cheer her on from a VIP viewing area not far from the launch site, each wearing a T-shirt that says Nicole's Ground Support Team.

Stott, 46, plans to wear a Clearwater High T-shirt while she does some live TV feeds from space (she also will carry a flag from the school).

She is the second Clearwater High graduate to fly in the shuttle program. The first was Bruce Melnick, class of 1967, who flew as a mission specialist on the Shuttle Discovery STS-41 in 1990.

Stott is scheduled to lift off at 1:35 a.m. Aug. 25, just a few hours before the start of the first day of school at Clearwater High.

Clearwater High principal Keith Mastorides, who said it's exciting to have two astronauts as alumni, plans to discuss Stott's achievement with the students.

"We'll tell the kids anything is possible,'' he said.

David Martin, who has been friends with Stott since seventh grade, said he sent a photo of his family electronically to Stott and she is going to hold it up while a fellow astronaut takes a picture.

"I can say I was in space,'' Martin said jokingly.

He described Stott as "very outgoing, very natural'' and a witty, fun person to be around.

He also recalled the terrible time in 1978 when Stott's father, Fred Passonno, whom she adored, died when the plane he was piloting crashed.

"I'm sure she's going to be thinking of him (during her time aboard the space shuttle),'' Martin said.

Stott also will be carrying a photo of her friend, Jenny Buffington, and her family into space.

The two friends who have known each other for 33 years are so close they were in each other's weddings.

Buffington said in high school, Stott "didn't get into the teenage angst.''

"She was just a good friend all the way around, a loyal person,'' she said.

Stott also was focused on her aviation studies.

"We'd be going to the beach and working on our tans and she'd be flying,'' Buffington said.

Steve Griffin, who has been pals with Stott since the first grade, said she has sent him e-mails from all the different places her work has taken her, including Siberia, Japan, Germany and the Aquarius undersea research habitat 60 feet below Florida Bay as part of NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operation.

He will be driving his motor coach to the VIP area and host a class of 1980 mini reunion.

"It's super exciting for all of us,'' he said.

Another longtime friend, Karen Chamberlin, said she and her child will be among those cheering Stott on Aug. 25.

"I am in awe,'' she said. "It is so inspiring to see someone follow their passions (in this case, flying), and have it lead to something so incredible and magical.

"I use Nicole as a role model for my son, Lex, who is 10 years old, and show him that with passion and dedication, you can achieve great things.''

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Clearwater High grad Nicole Passonno Stott is set to blast off on the space shuttle Aug. 25 08/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 8:39am]

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