NC scientist lands astronaut dream job

dblustein@newsobserver.comJune 17, 2013 

Christina Hammock of Jacksonville, an alumna of N.C. State University, has been named one of eight selected to join NASA’s Astronaut Class of 2013.

Many dream of becoming an astronaut, and more than 6,100 people applied this round after the job was advertised in 2011.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I can remember,” Hammock said in a phone interview Monday from her current post in American Samoa with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Her father, Dr. Ronald Hammock, a physician in Jacksonville, was especially proud, though his fatherly instincts immediately kicked in.

“When she goes into space, it’s dangerous,” he said. “I want her back by 11 o’clock.”

Hammock, 34, said she’s always been drawn to exploring the frontiers of science. Her adventure bug has taken her to jobs as far north as Barrow, Alaska, and as far south as Antarctica.

The Antarctic winter may have been the perfect training for space, suggests her father. It’s “cold and dark and you ain’t going no place,” he said.

Hammock heads to Houston in August to begin two years of astronaut training, where she’ll learn the ins and outs of the astronaut business, including how to fly a jet and how to say “Welcome to the Space Station” in Russian.

Her dream of being an astronaut started to become a reality more than a decade ago during her time at NCSU. As an undergraduate, she received a scholarship from a group of retired astronauts. She recalled living off Hillsborough Street one summer while conducting research in NCSU’s astrophysics department.

“She was just a very energetic and lively personality,” said Stephen Reynolds, her advisor in NCSU’s physics department.

Hammock studied physics and electrical engineering at NCSU, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She once built a Tesla coil, one of those high-voltage museum machines that shoot sparks and can turn on light bulbs from afar, just for fun, according to Reynolds.

Hammock is one of four women who make up half the groundbreaking astronaut class, the highest percentage on record.

“It’s just a testament … that the playing field is becoming more level and that women are in a position now to really excel and follow their own dreams,” Hammock said.

And where will she go as an astronaut?

With this astronaut class, NASA is “laying the groundwork for a mission to an asteroid in the 2020s, and human missions to Mars in the 2030s,” according to a video statement by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Hammock’s first destination as an astronaut is uncertain, but her passion for space exploration is not.

“I’m overwhelmed but also very humbled to have been selected to such an important program and one that I believe in so much,” she said.

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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