Orbiting more than 200 miles above Earth, Clearwater astronaut Nicole Passonno Stott peers down at the Tampa Bay area every chance she gets, and often takes pictures of the region where she grew up.
"I try to look at it as much as I can when we have a clear Florida pass, and it's beautiful,'' she said Wednesday. "It's as beautiful from up here, if not more, than it is from down there."
Stott, along with four other astronauts from the United States, Canada and Belgium, was interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times as she circled Earth aboard the International Space Station. NASA arranged for the communications link from the newsroom to the station.
A 1980 graduate of Clearwater High School, Stott launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery in August and will remain aboard the space station until she returns to Earth on the Atlantis in November.
She said NASA has arranged for her to receive e-mails from her friends and family in the Tampa Bay area while she is on the station. "The support that I feel from that is huge," she said.
"I've had a large contingent of fellow alums and friends from Clearwater High School that have joined in that support. They've brought groups together to watch my space walk and the HTV work that we did. And I know they're following very actively along with this mission. And so, that's really important to me to know that they're interested and that maybe some of what we're doing up here will inspire other people to be interested in the space program."
In the "HTV work" she referred to, Stott used the space station's robotic arm to grapple and retrieve a Japanese cargo ship. Astronauts have performed similar procedures using the shuttle's robotic arm, but this was the first time it had been accomplished on the space station.
She said she also has worked to assemble the COLBERT treadmill. The treadmill is named after comedian Stephen Colbert, who had campaigned NASA to name a room of the space station in his honor. NASA compromised by naming a new treadmill the "Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill."
But for Stott, it was a complex piece of equipment to assemble in a weightless environment, which she did with the other astronauts.
"We had bags and bags of pieces and parts that needed to be assembled." She said the treadmill is almost complete but "we haven't run on it for real yet."
Stott was asked to name the teachers who had influenced her most and said it was a difficult question because there were many. But she mentioned retired Clearwater High School biology teachers Marion Steele and Helen Wilcox and aeronautical engineering professor James Ladesic who still teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
One of the biggest surprises of the mission came when NASA informed Stott and fellow space station crew member Michael Barratt that they had been selected for the very last space shuttle mission.
"I believe for both of us, we've said it was a huge surprise and more than that, it was a really huge honor to be asked to take part in that flight."
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.