Nicole Passonno Stott once lived and worked for 18 days on the Aquarius undersea research habitat 60 feet below Florida Bay as part of NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operation.
But that's nothing compared with the time she will soon be spending in orbit in a vessel the size of two Boeing 747 aircraft.
Stott, who grew up in Clearwater, is scheduled to launch Aug. 13 on the space shuttle Discovery on the STS 128 mission to the International Space Station, where she will live for four months as a flight engineer and science officer as part of one of the first six-member crews aboard the craft.
"It's still a little bit surreal,'' she said last week by phone from Montana, where she was vacationing with her family.
It will be her first time in space. She was originally scheduled for a launch in 2005, but that mission was scrapped.
Stott, 46, was born Nov. 19, 1962, in Albany, N.Y. When she was about a year old, she and her family moved to Clearwater.
She attended Plumb Elementary School, Palmetto Elementary School, Oak Grove Junior High School and Clearwater High School.
Always athletic, she loved spending time at the beach, taking ballet lessons and playing softball and tennis as a child.
But it was the countless hours she spent at Clearwater Airpark with her father, the late Fred Passonno, that helped shape her future at NASA.
She said he built several small experimental aerobatics airplanes in the garage at the family's house, which meant she and her siblings "were always the kids with the speckled painted bikes because he would paint them in the garage and our bikes always caught the splatter.''
Most weekends, she would accompany him to the airport and was rewarded with short, breathtaking flights.
"I have vivid memories of flying in small planes with him over our neighborhood in Clearwater and looking down at our house and the cars and the people and being so impressed by the different perspective it gave me,'' Stott said. "And then there was even more excitement to be had when we'd fly over Clearwater Beach doing aerobatics.
"There is nothing more beautiful than seeing the white sand and the beautiful water while hanging upside down in a biplane.''
Some key moments
On July 20, 1969, she was home in front of the TV eating a grilled cheese sandwich watching Neil Armstrong take a walk on the moon thinking "how cool it was.''
She also got to see several early shuttle launches, thanks to an uncle who worked at the Kennedy Space Center "again, thinking how cool it was.''
"But honestly, it never crossed my mind at the time that there was any real possibility for me to be an astronaut,'' she said.
After high school, Stott enrolled in the aviation administration program at what was then called St. Petersburg Junior College, now St. Petersburg College, and earned her private pilot's license.
She went on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering.
She took a job working with the advanced engine design group at Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach before accepting a position at the orbiter processing facility in 1988 getting shuttles ready for launch and caring for them upon their return.
"This was the start of an amazing experience working up close and personal with the space shuttle," she said.
And the job evolved into her becoming an astronaut.
While STS 128 is still docked to the International Space Station, Stott will perform a space walk with crewmate Danny Olivas. Their tasks will be to remove and replace a new ammonia tank on the outside of the station as well as relocate some external payloads to the shuttle payload bay for return to Earth.
"Nicole is truly among the best of the best,'' said fellow astronaut Piers Sellers. "She has prepared herself for this flight with tremendous dedication and good humor, in spite of many trials and delays along the way. I can't wait to see her in orbit doing great things.''
Stott also will perform science research activities in the laboratory modules. She said the living conditions will be very comfortable.
"We basically live and work throughout the entire interior of the station,'' she said. "Each crew member has a sleep station that is about the size of a small phone booth.
"From what I understand, they have enough space, are comfortable to sleep in and provide each crew member with some private space.''
To prepare for the flight, she left Houston where she lives with her husband, Chris, and son, Roman, and trained in Russia, Canada and Germany. Most recently she spent time at the JAXA Astronaut Center in Tsukuba, Japan.
"This is definitely a dream job, at least for me,'' Stott said. "I pinch myself every day because I can't believe this has really happened for me, and I really can't believe that the reality of flying in space is actually in my near future.
"I am thankful every day for the people who encouraged me to apply and for the opportunity to be doing something that I believe is important to the future.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.