Local scientist reaching for the stars

 

A part-time Livingston resident may soon be trading her beach wear for a space suit. 

Christina Hammock, who owns a house in Livingston, was one of the eight new astronauts named by NASA Monday. The eight — four men and four women —  were selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants, the Associated Press reported.

Hammock is currently working for NOAA —  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — in American Samoa, an island in the Pacific five time zones west of Montana. She’s doing climate observation there, and enjoying life on the island. 

“It’s like living in a post card,” she laughed Monday night during a phone interview. 

Hammock said she has wanted to be an astronaut since she was a child. She credits her father’s own interest in space exploration for her interest. 

“I’ve always been drawn to exploring, discovery and science,” she said.

When she heard a year and a half ago that NASA was accepting applications, Hammock said she reviewed her education and professional experience and decided to apply. 

 

The application process

To apply, Hammock submitted a resume and supporting documents. She was invited to on-site interviews, which included a wide range of medical tests, physical exams and skills tests. She was notified about 10 days ago that she had been accepted. 

She’ll move to Houston in August to begin a two-year training program. Hammock emphasized that she and the other seven will be called “astronaut candidates” during their two-year training.

The training will include, among many other tasks and skills, learning how to fly a jet aircraft and learning a new language. She’ll learn Russian to communicate with space travel counterparts, Russian cosmonauts. American astronauts ride to the International Space Station on Soyez rockets these days, Hammock said, with the last American space shuttle launch having taken place in 2011. 

She’s already met two of her cohorts — Anne McClain, a helicopter pilot, and Josh Cassada, a former naval aviator. 

“They’re both awesome,” she said. 

After their training, the astronaut candidates will then wait for their mission assignments. While they wait, they’ll work for NASA in their respective fields. Hammock said she supposes her duties might include contributing to the human-space program in a technical, administrative or advisory role. 

 

Science career

Hammock, 34, holds undergraduate degrees in physics and electrical engineering as well as a master’s degree in electrical engineering, all from North Carolina State University. She was often the only woman in her electrical engineering classes and when she entered the workplace, was often the only woman on a particular project. She never felt discriminated against, but it would have been nice to have a “peer group or support network” of other women in engineering, she said. 

As an electrical engineer, Hammock’s career has had two tracks. 

One was working on a NASA mission as part of a team that designed scientific instruments used on spacecraft. She worked on a radiation detection device that is on the Juno mission, which is on its way to Jupiter. And she worked on another radiation monitoring device, the Van Allen probe. She has worked on earth-orbiting telescopes. 

Then, she took a leave of absence from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to do remote field station work, which included stints in Greenland and northern Alaska. And she worked in Antarctica back in 2004. 

She made Livingston connections during her time at the South Pole. A number of Yellowstone National Park employees in recent years have worked in Antarctica, and many of them are settled in the Livingston area.  

“I have so many friends who worked in Yellowstone that sometimes I forget I didn’t work there, too,” she laughed. 

Hammock bought a house in Livingston about three years ago, after many visits and having fallen in love with the area. Livingston was her home between field work assignments. While she was in town between jobs, she spent some time volunteering at Montana State University’s space science engineering lab, praising the “really cool work” they do there. 

She also made presentations on her work to Park High School classes at the invitation of her friend, PHS math teacher Shari Kepner. Hammock addressed students in chemistry, calculus and physics classes, emphasizing the adventures that can be had with a science degree. 

“It was just super cool, and the kids were into it,” Kepner said Tuesday morning. “A number of parents contacted me and expressed how excited their kids were.” 

 

Houston — and beyond

Asked what skills she’ll bring to the astronaut program, Hammock noted that since she doesn’t have flight experience like several of the other astronaut candidates, she feels her strength is her science instrumentation background. Asked what else she might bring to the program, Hammock joked about Livingston-specific items. 

“Jam from the jam lady at the Farmers Market. Neptune’s Brewery beer,” she laughed. 

But in all seriousness, Hammock said she is humbled and overwhelmed at the prospect of being an astronaut and traveling into space. 

“I’m beside myself with excitement,” she said. 

Hammock’s astronaut class might travel to the International Space Station, to an asteroid, and beyond  — perhaps even to Mars.

And there might be a house for sale in Livingston ...