Insider Interview: Nicole Stott talks leaving NASA, orbital artistry
Nicole P. Stott, a space flight veteran, having flown to orbit twice on NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle Discovery, has decided to depart the space agency so that she can pursue another of her passions – art. The former astronaut is not walking away from promoting the benefits of space exploration or inspiring the next generation of engineers and astronauts who will ride fire to orbit.
Unlike a good many of her fellow astronauts, Stott did not start her career at NASA as an astronaut. Rather, she began working for NASA in 1989 as an operations engineer in one of the three Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. What followed was more than 11 years serving at the space agency’s Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers (as well as other sites). Then, in 2000, Stott was selected to be a Mission Specialist; she would join one of the most elite groups in existence – the U.S. astronaut corps.
Stott would wait nine years before traveling to orbit as a member of the STS-128 crew on board Space Shuttle Discovery. Two years later, in 2011, she would ride Discovery again, during the orbiter’s final mission, STS-133.
She opted to leave NASA earlier this year (2015) and, having a strong passion toward art, she detailed her reasons for leaving the agency in an interview with SpaceFlight Insider shortly after she had made the announcement of her departure.
SpaceFlight Insider: What type of art are you working on?
Stott: “It’s kind of a mixture of mixed media, not straight painting, although I would like to get into a little bit of that, but I think I need some training (laughs).
“Right now, most of what I’m doing is based [on] pictures that I took from space. I’m not doing anything that is like PhotoShop-y or on the computer or anything like that.
“What I’m really doing is taking the image and either layering it with multiple images or embellishing it with paint in some way or I got some larger format stuff that I have done. I’ve added some sea glass and things to them, so it’s kind of a physical mixed-media kind of thing. Other than mixed media, I haven’t come up with a way to describe it.”
SpaceFlight Insider: When did you first become interested in art?
Stott: “It’s kind of cool, I got all kind of ideas that are associated with it, I really enjoy the artistic side of things and have played around with it for some time now, ever since I was growing up. I really enjoyed woodworking and things like that, so art has always appealed to me.
“I think that using it to communicate the importance and power of space exploration in some way that would target an audience that wouldn’t otherwise be paying attention – it’s a very powerful tool. I think that’s a good thing, and I think that it should get kids tied in, in some way as well.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Where do you think that your artistic side comes from?
Stott: “Well, I think that I’ve always had some flair for it (laughs), I have definitely always been a hands on person, I love woodworking, making artistic boxes out of molding, things like that, I have always gifted pictures that I have taken on trips and done something with them, you know something that was a little bit more than just printing them out and sticking them on a card.
“I’ve done a little painting along the way; I did some painting on [the] station, nothing fancy. I had flown a paintbrush that had belonged to a friend of mine from Kennedy Space Center, his name is Ron Woods, and he’s a wonderful artist, he does mostly watercolors and he was a flight crew equipment guy. So he worked over in crew quarters with the space suits and that sort of thing for years. I think he just recently retired as well, but he’s really a wonderful, wonderful artist. I flew a paintbrush of his, one of the first that he had used to produce these really incredible paintings with. It was something someone had given to him, and I painted something on [the] station with that… but I have always had an interest in art.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What is it like to paint on orbit?
Stott: “Well, you know, it ended up being a lot easier than I thought it would be. I was very worried about making a mess, so I was very careful about that. It was watercolors, and I used the least amount of water that was needed. I kind of balled it up in the brush. Now when you do that, you’re not really painting with nice strokes, you’re more-or-less pushing the paint around. I think you might be better off with a Q-Tip or something!” (laughs)
“It wasn’t anything that is going to win me any prizes, but it was fun and…”
SpaceFlight Insider: So, we shouldn’t expect to see it hanging in the Louvre anytime soon?
Stott: “No, I’m thinking you probably won’t see that! (laughs) That’s not going to happen, that’s my guess, yeah. But, it was fun to do it, as I knew there was a connection to a friend of mine and his paintbrush and why not use it while it was up there? So, you know, that was kind of cool.”
SpaceFlight Insider: How do you plan on using your art in terms of raising awareness about STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math)?
Stott: “I’m really hoping to become more actively engaged with educational groups to help keep interest in space alive.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Can you tell us a bit more about your STEAM outreach efforts?
Stott: “At this point, I’m involved with a couple groups through stuff I did when I was with NASA. Things that were just part of the normal outreach activities that we do as our job.
“The more and more that I see of it, it’s interesting to me to see just how much of this stuff is going on all over the place and I think that there is some opportunity out there to develop a STEAM or STEM network in a way that people can [have] better access [to] the resources that are already out there.
“I kind of equate it to charity organizations; for instance, there are groups out there that are trying to get clean water to different places. All of them are independently trying to do this on their own. What would happen if we gave them an effective means to communicate with one another – how much more effective could they be? It brings out the concept of not reinventing the wheel.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the STEM and STEAM world out there to get these groups better tied together. Not that they should replace each other or become one, big organization, but just that they have a better way to utilize the resources that are already out there.
“I’m on the board of trustees at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and I have worked with those guys on some of the activities that they have and they’re starting to work a little more with the AOPA, which is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The AOPA is starting to think about how they can pull together, from points across the country aviation-based STEM elements that go on, whether it’s in Elementary, Middle or High School.
“When you go to colleges you see the ‘Arts and Sciences’ building and in recent years, we tried to separate the two, but I think that we’re starting to come around to the fact that they probably shouldn’t be considered separate, that they encompass both sides of your brain. The creativity that we associate with art comes from the same place where we get engineering. Some of the most wonderful artists that I have ever met are engineers! (laughs)”
SpaceFlight Insider: Why did you opt to leave NASA at this time, was it any one thing, was it a variety of things? Or did you just think that the time was right?
Stott: “You know, it just felt like it was the right time. It was a really hard decision to make, as you can imagine. You know, I was with NASA for almost 28 years, whether that was in or out of the astronaut office. It has been one of those special experiences.
“After I flew on [STS] 133, I remember, because I saw you a couple times down there [at Kennedy Space Center], when I was living down there working on the Commercial Crew Program stuff. Well, when I came back to Houston, I had every intention of lining up to fly again, I think we, as a family, came to the decision that, timing wise, where my son was in school and, quite honestly, having been blessed to have flown the way I had already, I had reached the point where I figured out that I didn’t need to do that again. Having said that, you could ask me when I am ninety-five if I wanted to fly in space again and my answer is going to be Yes! (laughs)
“In terms of the grand scheme of life and moving on and doing something else, that kind of thing – it just all seemed to kind of work out and as I started to think more and more about this art stuff, what I want to do in terms of educational outreach – it made more sense to do that outside of NASA than it did to stay within the agency. I’m just thankful for my family for providing me with the opportunity to make this change as well as my ‘peeps’ over at the space center; I still have a badge, I can get on site, which allows me to stay nicely tied into things that are going on out there and be there to support my friends and colleagues and support them as they prepare to fly. It’s good to be able to be there in a way other than having to feel like I need to fly myself.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Well, with that, we want to wish you all the best and to thank you for chatting with us about your future plans.
Stott: “No problem whatsoever!”
STEAM-related promotional activities have increased in the years since the close of the Shuttle Program in 2011. Stott’s interested in both STEAM and outreach are a common theme among current and former members of NASA’s astronaut corps. Similarly, Apollo 12′s lunar module pilot, Alan Bean, has been producing textured paintings to help relay what it was like to walk on the surface of another world. Like Stott, Bean adds texture to his work via pieces of his patches and other items from his time on the lunar surface into his work.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.