Purdue University has produced 22 astronauts, including both the first and last men to set foot on the moon. These incredibly brave people are among the select few that have been able to say, "You know what, screw this planet. I'm leaving for awhile." After hearing about David Wolf's sphincter-tightening exploits while on Mir I have no desire to venture into any situation that can remotely involve the words "explosive decompression".
This week on Monday the Purdue astronaut family lost one of those 22 space-farers who looked at the danger of venturing into a place that has no atmosphere or protection from cosmic radiation and laughed. Janice Voss, 55, passed away from breast cancer this week in Scottsdale Arizona. Voss was one of only six women who have been into space five different times, serving on STS-57, 63, 83, 94, and 99.
Seriously, she laughed at danger:
Like a good science fiction story, Voss's missions have not been without their element of danger. On her third flight, ground operators detected voltage irregularities in one of the Space Shuttle's three electricity-generating fuel cells. Fearing an explosion, they cut the mission to a "minimum duration flight," descending after five days instead of the planned 16. Was Voss worried? "Actually, I was on my sleep rotation when the problem was discovered," she says, "By the time I woke up the decision to move to minimum duration flight had been made." While initially disappointed, the crew and the experiments flew again for a full 16 days a few months later, resulting in total space time permitting more science than would have been possible in the original mission.
Janice Voss is an Indiana native and the kind of woman that dads wish their daughters could grow up to emulate. It is a shame that so many girls today would be more interested in the latest vacuous exploits of the vapid Kardashians than in women who loved science and wanted to help mankind, but I digress.
Born in South Bend, Voss completed her high school requirements at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. After her 1972 (at age 16 because, as they say in Massachusetts, she was wicked smaht) high school graduation she attended Purdue, earning a bachelor's degree while doing a co-op at the Johnson Space center in Houston. She would later earn a Master of Science degree in Electrical engineering and Computer science from a little place called MIT in 1977. Ten years after that she earned her doctorate from MIT in 1987.
In 1990 she became part of Astronaut Group 13, known as The Hairballs. Since the number 13 has unlucky connotations and NASA didn't exactly have a great success with Apollo 13, the group jokingly took a black cat as their mascot. Voss would train as a mission specialist, eventually going into space five times. Her New York Times obituary describes her work with NASA:
(On STS-94) Dr. Voss in charge of experiments as payload commander, the crew set more than 140 small fires in insulated chambers to test the behavior of fire in weightlessness. The tests were intended to gain a better understanding of how fire and heat work on Earth and also to address safety concerns after a 90-second fire flared aboard the Mir station five months earlier. She also coordinated experiments on how plants react in space, using a greenhouse containing about 50 spinach, clover, sage and periwinkle plants.
Her desire to start fires in space could not have been satiated without the tragic death of Purdue's first astronaut, Gus Grissom, who died in a fire to teach us that having a 100% pure oxygen pressurized environment isn't the best idea.
Voss was heavily involved with Spacelab on her flights, and on her final mission in February 2000 she and her fellow crew members worked continuously in shifts to produce what was at the time the most accurate digital topographical map of the Earth.
Even after he final mission she worked with NASA as the director of the Kepler Space Observatory, which is designed to look for extra-solar planets. This was launched in March 2009 and is still functioning today. She also helped train newer astronauts at how to run experiments in space.
All told, Voss spent over 49 days in space, traveling almost 19 million miles in space around the earth. She was one of the first extraplanetary pyromaniacs and dedicated her life to science from age 16 forward. She is the first former astronaut from Purdue to die of natural causes, joining Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee (who never made it to space) who were killed in the Apollo I fire. More importantly, she was an example of how daughters can grow up as badasses in the world of science.