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Home > January 2016 > Meet Allison Bolinger at Kids Week 2016
Meet Allison Bolinger at Kids Week 2016
Posted: 2/3/2016 1:06:59 PM

Allison Bolinger, NASA spacewalk flight controller and lead trainer, will join us for Kids Week 2016. But before you meet her in person, let’s take some time to hear from Allison and learn more about her background and work.

Allison Bolinger, NASA spacewalk flight controller and lead trainer, will join us for Kids Week 2016. But before you meet her in person, let’s take some time to hear from Allison and learn more about her background and work.

Growing up in central Ohio, Allison always wanted to be an astronaut and even attended Space Camp several times. “One of my earliest memories was watching the Challenger space shuttle accident as a very young child and feeling inspired to help continue the mission of those brave astronauts,” she told the Intrepid Museum. Now Allison works in the group responsible for training astronauts how to perform extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalks. She also works in mission control while astronauts prepare for and execute EVAs from the International Space Station (ISS).

“After working in the group as an instructor and flight controller for about 10 years, I was promoted to Task Group Lead about 18 months ago,” she added. “I am now the technical lead for the 22 people who specifically focus on the tools and timeline for training, and develop the step-by-step procedures.”

In her free time, Allison enjoys baking, traveling, training for triathlons—she wants to run her first Olympic-distance triathlon this year!—and spending time with her husband and dogs in their cabin just west of Houston. What else can we learn about her today?

Intrepid Museum: Tell us about your background. How did you get to NASA?

Allison Bolinger: Throughout school, I excelled at math and science and figured that aerospace engineering would be a great fit. When I was looking at colleges, I chose Purdue University because it had a very highly ranked aerospace program, had the largest presence in the astronaut corps (aside from astronauts with a military background) and was very active in the Cooperative Education Program at NASA. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class in 1999.

While at Purdue, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into NASA’s co-op program and started alternating between spending a semester working at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and a semester at school. Working in the co-op program is a great way to learn what the different organizations within NASA do, and I was eventually hired full-time at NASA as a civil servant. I graduated from Purdue with a BS in aerospace engineering in May 2004, got married in June 2004 and then started full-time at NASA in July 2004!

What exactly do you do in your current role at NASA?

We teach the astronauts how to use the tools and EMU (extravehicular mobility unit, or spacesuit) that they’ll use during the EVA, and how the airlock works. The EMU is basically a small, self-contained spacecraft with its own life support system, including oxygen for breathing, water for cooling, battery power and even a jet pack in case the astronaut becomes separated from the ISS.

We are also experts on all the external components of the ISS, and choreograph all the steps in the multipage EVA procedures. We teach the astronauts examples of EVAs they could do, through training runs at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), the 6.2-million-gallon pool where we have life-size mock-ups of the ISS.

What is it like to work at NASA? What projects are you currently working on?

I absolutely love working at NASA. It’s a very dynamic environment where I never find myself doing the same thing twice. In a given week, I might spend a day out at the NBL evaluating a crew member or a new EVA, then I might spend a day in mission control working on console—I’m very rarely at my desk and I love it!

As the Task Group Lead, I am no longer in charge of training a specific astronaut or writing a specific EVA procedure. I help manage the overall training programs for the astronauts and our employees. I also lead the team that performs final EVA evaluations of astronauts before they complete their training flow to deem them acceptable to launch to the ISS and perform EVAs. I also help manage the overall EVA plan for the next few years so we can track what new hardware is launching and when and how all of the pieces of particular EVAs fit together.

What shuttle missions have you worked on?

As I was moving up in my career, the first shuttle mission I worked on was STS-114, the return-to-flight mission after the loss of space shuttle Columbia. We trained Steve Robinson and Soichi Noguchi to do the EVAs and Andy Thomas to serve as the intravehicular (IV), or the guy who stays inside to lead the crew through the procedures.

The next mission I worked was STS-120, where Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock and Dan Tani did the EVAs, and Paolo Nespoli was the IV crew member. The final shuttle mission I worked was STS-134, with Drew Feustel, Mike Fincke and Greg Chamitoff as the EVA crew members, and Mark Kelly helping out inside.

I then worked a space station increment with Mike Hopkins and the two EVAs he did with Rick Mastracchio. I also got to work an EVA with Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide, but I did not train them on the ground.

Who or what inspires you?

Growing up, my hero was Judith Resnik, one of the astronauts whom we lost in the Challenger accident in 1986. I was inspired by her, as she was one of the early female astronauts and she was also from Ohio. I also find inspiration in looking up at the night sky. It started in high school. When I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, I just take a few minutes to look up at the stars and moon, and it helps remind me why I’m working so hard!

Why are educational institutions like the Intrepid Museum important within society?

It’s a great way for kids (and adults!) to get hands-on experience with topics that interest and inspire them. It’s one thing to see pictures and videos of the space shuttle on the Internet and in books, but it’s much more powerful to be able to walk around an actual shuttle. I feel that seeing these things firsthand really helps to bring history alive and encourages kids to learn more on their own after they leave the museum. I remember my childhood trips to COSI (Center of Science and Industry) in Columbus, Ohio, were always such a treat!

Allison will be at Kids Week 2016 on Thursday and Friday, February 18 and 19. She’ll give presentations on training astronauts for their EVAs and will lead workshops on building your own ISS out of household items like paper towel rolls, aluminum foil and more. And what advice does she have for those who want to follow in her footsteps and work for NASA? “Continue to work hard in school and always stay focused on your dream!”

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