Sugar Land woman is astronaut candidate

O’Hara graduated from Clements in 2001

By Joe Southern
jsouthern@fortbendstar.com

“I think walking on the moon or orbiting the moon would be incredible. I’ve always wanted to see our whole planet from space. That’s something I’m
looking forward to.” Loral O’Hara of Sugar Land was named
last week as one of the 12 members of NASA’s class of 2017.

For a week and a half Loral O’Hara had to keep the biggest secret of her life.

She couldn’t tell her parents, sister, friends, works associates or anybody until last Wednesday when Vice President Mike Pence flew to Houston to introduce the 34-year-old Sugar Land woman to the world as one of 12 NASA astronaut candidates.

“I live in a pretty small town and everybody knew I was a finalist,” she told the Fort Bend Star the day after the big announcement at Johnson Space Center.

O’Hara, who graduated from Clements High School in 2001, is part of the first class of astronaut candidates in four years and is in the first group recruited to work on the missions that will return humans to the moon and eventually fly to Mars.

“I will go anywhere in the solar system they want to send me,” she said.

Before she can expect to take a trip in space, she must first complete two years of training at Johnson Space Center and then get an assignment in the astronaut office where she will wait in line to be named to a flight.

Her classmates include Zena Cardman, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, U.S. Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, U.S. Army Maj. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Robb Kulin, U.S. Navy Lt. Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raja Chari and Jessica Watkins. They have been described as NASA’s most diverse class and were selected from more than 18,000 applicants.

Going to space has always been a dream of O’Hara’s ever since she was a little girl.

“We got to do experiments with tomato seeds that went up on the space shuttle when I was in second grade at Quail Valley Elementary School,” she said.

O’Hara was born in Houston but grew up in Sugar Land, where her parents, Steve and Cindy O’Hara, still live.

“I got to visit Johnson Space Center a lot as a child,” O’Hara recalled.

The 12 candidates, pictured here at NASA’s Ellington Field in Houston, are Zena Cardman, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, U.S. Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, U.S. Army Maj. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Robb Kulin, U.S. Navy Lt. Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raja Chari, Loral O’Hara and Jessica Watkins.
(Photos NASA)

One particular visit was during a debriefing of a space shuttle mission in 1999 that featured Eileen Collins as the first female shuttle commander. She got to meet the crew and collect autographs.

“I got to chat with (Collins) for a couple of minutes,” she said. “That’s when I realized that could be me some day.”

O’Hara has always been adventurous and ambitious. At age 16, while many of her peers were learning to drive, she was learning to fly.

“I got my pilot’s license at the Sugar Land Airport while I was in high school,” she said.

According to her official NASA biography, O’Hara “is a private pilot and certified EMT and wilderness first responder. Recreational interests include working in the garage, traveling, surfing, diving, flying, sailing, skiing, hiking/orienteering, caving, reading, and painting.”

O’Hara earned her bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Kansas in 2005 and her master of science degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 2009 from Purdue University. She is currently a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. As a student, she participated in NASA’s KC-135 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, the NASA Academy at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the internship program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, she worked on the team that refitted the famed submersible Alvin from 2009 to 2013 and most recently has been working with the remotely operated vehicle Jason. Both Alvin and Jason received acclaim in 1986 when they were used to explore the wreck of the Titanic.

O’Hara said working at sea has helped prepare her for work in space.

“There are a lot of similarities between the two,” she said. “Going to sea is a lot like going to space.”

She said the need for a good team, the preparation and working in a confined space are important to both jobs. When she reports to Johnson Space Center on Aug. 21, she will begin training to work on the International Space Station, conduct spacewalks and learn other skills that will enable her and her astronaut colleagues to take the Orion spacecraft to the moon and possibly to Mars or other deep space destinations.

“I think walking on the moon or orbiting the moon would be incredible,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see our whole planet from space. That’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Hard work has always been a part of O’Hara’s life. She played youth soccer as a child and was on the high school team for one year. She spent four years running cross-country and track for Clements. She credits her coach, the late Tony Frankie, and her art teacher, Gail Waterman, for inspiring her in school.

“I still hear his (Frankie) voice in my head when I run,” she said.

As a future astronaut, O’Hara knows that boys and girls will be looking up to her as a role model and want to follow in her footsteps.

“I would tell them to always keep learning,” she said. “You need to build a diverse skill set … and focus on science, math and engineering.”

“Always stay curious about the world around you,” she added.

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