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NASA astronaut and UND grad Karen Nyberg reaches for the stars

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GRAND FORKS -- What's it like to sit on top of 3.5 million pounds of rocket propellant?

"It's like being a kid on Christmas morning," said UND alumna and NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg.

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On launch day on May 31, 2008, she spent three hours on her back on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Then, she heard the rumble of the shuttle's three main engines, the giant fire-spewing nozzles that sit just underneath the fin.

Then, the booster rockets kick in and the shuttle begins its eight-and-a-half minute acceleration to a speed equivalent to nine times the speed of a rifle bullet.

"It's not as rough as you think," Nyberg said Thursday, as she described her mission to the International Space Station to a rapt audience of UND students.

The UND Alumni Association and UND Foundation invited her to return to her alma matter so they could honor her with their highest honor, the Sioux Award. She took the opportunity to speak to students as part of the university's "Great Conversations" lecture series.

Just lucky

The way Nyberg tells her ascent to astronaut-hood, winning a lot on a shuttle mission was like winning the lottery.

She'd known, she said, that she wanted to be an astronaut since she was a little girl growing up in Vining, Minn. All the boys in her class wanted to be football players and all the girls nurses and teachers. She wanted to be different, and astronaut was pretty different. As a high school student, she did research and realized that the chance of becoming an astronaut is very slim and decided to do something that could get her there but was still enjoyable, which turned out to be engineering.

She later got her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from UND.

Nyberg drove by the engineering building recently on a tour of campus.

"It brought a lot of good memories, a lot of painful memories," she said to chuckles from engineering students in the audience.

Nyberg went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

While at UND, she interned at NASA's Johnson Space Center and earned a patent for a new kind of robot-friendly probe and socket assembly, according to NASA's biography of her.

Just lucky, she said.

Eventually she went to work for NASA, rising to the position of chief of the robotics branch.

She put in her application to be an astronaut the same year she joined the space agency.

Thousands applied, but only 450 get their references checked. Only 120 make it into the physical and psychological testing. Only a few of those are qualified to be astronauts.

Nyberg said she was supposed to keep it a secret until the press release came out, but her whooping in her office told her boss that he needed to find a new engineer.

A decade later, after delays caused by the Columbia disaster, Nyberg was on her way to the space station.

"I don't feel like I've done anything -- not remarkable; space is remarkable -- but I've been lucky," she said when asked by students if she was used to being a local celebrity.

Shoot for moon

Nyberg's job on the flight up was to be ready for malfunctions and anticipate their impact on other shuttle systems, something she'd practiced often on simulators but ended up not having to deal with in reality.

Once at the space station, she, the other six shuttle crew members and the three station crew members kept busy installing a Japanese lab module and priming the module's robotic arm, Nyberg's specialty.

"I really, really liked weightlessness," she said. "I think my body's better adapted to weightlessness!"

Nyberg described the way her hair would poof out when she tried washing it, to the delight of her crewmates.

She spoke of how weird it was to sleep weightless. The astronauts that stay in space for months at a time get so used to it, they don't even need to strap down, floating free in the room. But, she said, she needed to tuck her arms in and strap her legs down in her sleeping bag, which itself was strapped to a wall. "It's important you feel like you're on something."

What's next for Nyberg?

She's looking forward to starting a family with astronaut husband Doug Hurley and continuing to work at NASA in support of future space missions. Her next dream, though, is to go to the moon when and if NASA returns there.

"If I got to go to the moon, I'd jump at the chance," she said. "It's kind of like my career goal: I keep it in the back of my mind in case it doesn't happen."

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