Shuttle to be Ziegelaar’s night job

Posted June 12, 2009, at 7:36 p.m.

When the tedium of the day-to-day minutiae of working at NASA gets to her, Bridget Ziegelaar goes to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“It really gives you that sense that this is special,” she said during a phone interview Friday. “It’s easy to forget that it’s different than other [workplaces].”

As extravehicular activity flight manager for NASA mission STS-127, which is scheduled to lift off today, the 34-year-old graduate of Old Town High School and the University of Maine will be in charge of the spacewalks from ground control in Houston.

There will be five spacewalks during the mission to complete construction of the Kibo Laboratory on the international space station.

Ziegelaar spends hours poring over charts and metrics and agonizing over the tiny details that can make or break something as complicated as manned flight to outer space.

“To be honest, it’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day routine. We go to meetings just like everybody else. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture,” she said.

When the space shuttle Endeavour launches from Cape Canaveral today, it will be the result of a year’s worth of planning and training.

The crew starts its planning from the ground up. Ziegelaar’s preflight role is to ensure that the astronauts working on the space station are equipped and prepared for the mission.

“The team will plan out every detail, from what tools are needed, to fitting pilots for suits,” she said.

Since every aspect of the mission has to be carefully choreographed, “you have to complement the spacewalks into the mission as a whole,” she said.

Astronauts also train in a weightless environment, called a Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where they simulate moving around the cramped quarters of the space station. The NBL is essentially a swimming pool.

“We do simulations in mission control. For spacewalks, the best way to train is in the NBL,” she said.

After the Endeavour’s launch, Ziegelaar begins two straight weeks of work, with her shift beginning at midnight and ending at 9 a.m.

Ziegelaar, who will watch and guide the astronauts’ work from mission control in Houston, said she still has the urge to go to space.

“I dream of it in the back of my mind. I would never say no if they asked,” she said. “But of course it doesn’t work out that way. It’s very competitive.”

Most astronauts either have military aviation experience or doctorates. Ziegelaar, who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in science, technology and public policy with a concentration in economics from The George Washington University.

She has no immediate plans to get a doctorate.

“I would [pursue a doctorate] if something jumped out at me as a passion,” she said. “I haven’t found something yet. I don’t have that drive to go study engineering.”

Still, Ziegelaar, the daughter of former Bangor International Airport Director Bob Ziegelaar, says she’s happy in her current position, and excited about today’s mission.

“It’s the most fun I’ve had, and it’s definitely the busiest,” she said. Ziegelaar has been working full time at NASA since 1998.

Christopher Cassidy, who will perform the final three spacewalks on the mission, is also from Maine. Cassidy grew up in York and was a Navy SEAL for 10 years.

“I did not know him until we were both assigned to this mission. Since then we’ve always had that little bond,” Ziegelaar said.

“He’s signed messages to me, ‘Go, Black Bears,’” she added.

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