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Astronaut from Clearwater to take off on shuttle, spend three months on space station

Friends and fellow Clearwater High graduates will see Nicole Stott blast off on Discovery.

Associated Press

Friends and fellow Clearwater High graduates will see Nicole Stott blast off on Discovery.

The next Clearwater High School reunion will be 1:36 Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center.

No, it's not an official reunion, but people from the Class of 1980 are loading up cars and preparing to drive to Cape Canaveral to see one of their own launch on the space shuttle Discovery.

After years of waiting, many classmates of Nicole Passonno Stott and other friends and family members are about to see her blast off. Many will wear T-shirts that say "Nicole's Ground Support Team," and will watch the fiery liftoff from a viewing area for friends and family.

"I'm so excited, but good gosh I'm nervous, too," said her friend David Martin, 47, a computer salesman from Oldsmar. "Of course, I can't wait to see her get up in the air and get out into space."

"I will probably be having a hard time holding back the tears," said friend Jenny Buffington, 46, a speech pathologist in Temple Terrace. "Goose bumps and tears, over the top."

Another friend, Steve Griffin, 46, of Clearwater, who has worked on space shuttle programs as a manager at Honeywell, is planning to take his motorcoach to the space center and host a gathering of Stott's friends.

"It's just super-exciting," he said. "We're kind of living vicariously through Nicole … just kind of basking in it."

Stott, 46, is among seven astronauts who will launch in the wee hours of Tuesday, unless weather or equipment issues force a delay.

But unlike the other six, she will remain for about three months aboard the International Space Station, serving as flight engineer. She is scheduled to return to Earth aboard the shuttle Atlantis in November.

Stott grew up in Clearwater and attended Plumb Elementary, Palmetto Elementary, Oak Grove Junior High and Clearwater High.

Friends say that as a youngster, she was funny, athletic and adventurous. "She was a very, very smart girl, but she was just one of the girls when she was with us," Buffington said.

She also loved flying, something she learned from her father, Fred Passonno, who was a pilot and a builder of experimental aircraft. She spent many days as a youngster hanging out with him at the Clearwater Airpark.

"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 in an interview with the Times earlier this year. "And then there was even more excitement to be had when we'd fly over Clearwater Beach doing aerobatics."

"Her dad was her hero and she talked about flying with him," Buffington recalled.

But in 1979, when Nicole was still in high school, Fred Passonno died when the experimental aircraft he was flying nose-dived into a canal on the west side of Lake Tarpon.

It would be natural for someone to turn away from flying after such an accident. Passonno did not. After high school, she enrolled in the aviation administration program at St. Petersburg Junior College, and became a licensed pilot.

"I'm sure her mom was not happy with her. I know she wasn't at first, but she wasn't going to stop her. … She had that goal in mind that she was going to do it and she did it," Martin said.

She went on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering.

She later worked for Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach and in 1988 took a job at Kennedy Space Center, helping prepare and process the shuttles before and after landings.

One person she met in that job was Bruce Melnick, another Clearwater High graduate who already was in the astronaut corps. He says Stott was always focused and succinct, "one of those kinds of people that right away you paid attention to what she had to say because whatever she said, you knew it was important."

When he later heard that she was selected as an astronaut candidate in 2000, "It didn't surprise me at all. It was just, like, yeah, that makes sense."

On this mission, she and a fellow astronaut will conduct spacewalks on their fifth, seventh and ninth days in orbit. They will replace an ammonia tank and work on a cargo removal system for the space station.

Then she will say goodbye to her shuttle colleagues, and remain on the space station with five other astronauts for the next three months.

But for now, her friends are focusing mostly on the launch. Said Martin: "There's no doubt I'm going to shed some serious tears once that big bad boy gets into the air."

Times staff writer Eileen Schulte contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

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Astronaut from Clearwater to take off on shuttle, spend three months on space station 08/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 10:55am]

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