It’s the way a Marine is always a Marine and a governor is called “governor” long after they leave office. St. Petersburg’s Nicole Stott, who retired from NASA in 2015, will forever be an astronaut.
“That’s the way we like to think about it," Stott said. “I don’t really know how you become a former astronaut. And it’s a really small community, like a family. Every two years we even have a reunion."
There’s a good chance you saw Stott during Super Bowl 54 this month. She appeared as herself in a commercial for skin care brand Olay alongside actor Busy Philipps and comedian Lilly Singh. The three women travel to space aboard an Olay-branded ship, with actor Taraji P. Henson running mission control. It was part of the company’s #MakeSpaceForWomen campaign that raised money for Girls Who Code. The nonprofit helps young women learn computer science.
Olay initially reached out to NASA looking for an astronaut, Stott said. Astronauts aren’t allowed to endorse anything, so NASA directed them to her. She loved that the brand was using space as a platform.
She was taken aback when someone pointed out that, despite multiple space missions, the short ad might be the most publicly prominent thing she has ever done.
“But I’ve been getting calls from people who never would have reached out before,” she said. “And because of it, we’re here today talking about space. It has really been a good thing.”
Stott, 57, grew up in Clearwater and went to Clearwater High School. She attended St. Petersburg College, then known as St. Petersburg Junior College, “a wonderful resource” where she studied aviation administration. She moved on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and later graduate school at the University of Central Florida.
She worked for years as an operations engineer for NASA before she applied to the astronaut program. She was accepted in 2000. The vast majority of the job is on Earth, she learned, preparing for the day you go to space.
“But nothing can prepare you for the feeling coming off that launch pad. There’s not a simulator on Earth.”
Eight years after traveling aboard the space shuttle Discovery for its 39th and final mission, Stott is still ruminating on her spaceflights and how they’ve colored her outlook toward life on Earth. Looking down on her home planet from afar had a profound effect, an intense feeling of “I’m an earthling, along with all the other life on this planet.”
Stott attributes her own success, in part, to parents who shared the things they loved with her, whether that was her father’s passion for building and flying planes or her mother including her in a pottery class.
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Now she spends her time trying to spark the same deep feelings of “appreciation and obligation” to the planet and humanity in people who don’t have the benefit of such an out-of-this-world perspective.
“We go to space and we’re living in this mechanically created, complex life support system, all of this science that does its best to mimic what Earth does for us naturally,” Stott said. “And the international relationships. To work with 15 different countries up there, that’s pretty complex, too. You come back, and realize ... just like that thin metal hull of the Space Station up there, the only border that matters here on Earth is that thin blue line of atmosphere.”
Spending 91 days aboard the International Space Station can make the failure of people to collaborate on Earth seem totally ridiculous, she said.
One way people can capture the earthling feeling is through scuba diving, she said, something she enjoys doing locally. It’s a sensation of “being surrounded by the earth," akin to the time she spent 18 days living underwater at the Aquarius undersea research habitat off Key Largo for a NASA mission.
An even easier way, she said, is to put the Spot the Station app on your phone and look up at the sky knowing that there’s a group of people up there representing 15 countries.
She tries to communicate the feeling through art, both with her own space-themed paintings and via the Space for Art Foundation she founded. It uses large-scale, collaborative art projects to inspire children in hospitals, refugee centers and schools.
“There’s a tendency to funnel kids toward art or science,” she said. “You see it with the focus on (science, technology, engineering and math), which I think is great, until it’s at the expense of art, humanities and social studies. ... It’s really about using our whole brain.”
She’ll help unite the arts and space when she hosts the Florida Orchestra’s Out of This World performances Feb. 28 and 29. The multimedia concerts feature music from Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T. and more alongside space photos and video. Between pieces, Stott will talk about the importance of space exploration.
She also has a deal for a book titled Back to Earth, which she’s currently writing. It’s about how to apply the lessons of living together peacefully in space and “live like crew members on Earth.”
Stott had been living in Houston for two decades when she left NASA. She returned to Pinellas County, where she has family, and it “instantly felt like home again.” She lives with her husband and son.
“There’s something about the water here, the air, the people and the vibe,” she said. “It was sort of like a weight was lifted.”
And she’s only a drive across the state from Kennedy Space Center. She thinks tourists should check out the visitor’s center there before going to Disney.
Her favorite part is the space shuttle Atlantis, which went on display in 2013.
“I just cry every time coming out of that theater, the way they — well, I’m not going to give it away, but the way they reveal that spacecraft. And then I look at it and think, ‘Oh my gosh, that was my ride home.’ ”
IF YOU GO
Out of This World
Nicole Stott joins the Florida Orchestra to present music from Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T. and more. $18 to $48. 8 p.m. Feb. 28, David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa, (813) 229-7827; and 8 p.m. Feb. 29, Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg, (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.