Astronaut from Minn. inspires women, girls to aim for the stars
FARGO — Astronaut Karen Nyberg changed a tire for the first time in college.
Now a NASA flight engineer, the Minnesota native gained fame for her time on the International Space Station.
“There are a lot of things in life that are intimidating, but you really have to just push through that and try it,” Nyberg, 44, said last month in a satellite interview from Houston 10 days after returning to Earth.
She grew up about 80 miles southeast of Fargo in Vining, Minn., where her parents still reside, and graduated from Henning Public High School in 1988.
Carrie Leopold, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach coordinator for North Dakota State College of Science, said women and girls might think they can’t aim that high or reach that level because they’re from small-town North Dakota or Minnesota.
She said Nyberg is living proof that that’s not true.
“Younger females tend to think they can’t do things, (that) they’re not good enough or smart enough. They have all of these reasons for thinking they can’t do things, and that tends to really drive me to show them that they can,” she said.
Nyberg said she’s flattered that women and girls from Minnesota and North Dakota are inspired by her.
“It feels good that, hopefully, they can look at me and realize that if they have some far-out dream, that it really isn’t impossible to do it, you just have to work really hard,” she said.
Annie Wargetz, an intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, first heard about Nyberg as a graduate student in the University of North Dakota’s space program.
“Learning about someone from the area following her dreams, and being a female, and just sticking to her dreams and not caring what obstacles came in her way, was very inspiring to me,” she said.
She hopes others will take a cue from Nyberg’s success and take a chance, like she did when she left her home state of Texas to pursue her studies in Grand Forks.
“I would have spent my whole life wondering what would have been if I hadn’t gone, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life,” she said.
Life in orbit
Nyberg has always been interested in math, science and problem-solving, so mechanical engineering was a natural fit for her.
“I think I kind of just naturally ended up in that direction,” she said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UND in 1994 and her master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996 and 1998.
After finishing her doctorate, Nyberg became an environmental control systems engineer with NASA’s Crew and Thermal Systems Division and was selected as a mission specialist in 2000.
Since then, she’s spent a total of 180 days in space over the course of two missions, most recently Expedition 36/37 from May 28 to Nov. 10 with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano.
Nyberg gained quite the following while orbiting Earth 2,656 times aboard the International Space Station — she has almost 100,000 Twitter followers and more than 35,000 Facebook fans.
Her posts, photos and videos about life in space captured audiences worldwide. She explained how she washed her hair in space, showed her space-quilting projects and shared a photo of a dinosaur she made for her son using materials she found on the space station.
When she’s asked what she missed most, the answer’s easy: her family.
“Without having them to miss, I think I could have lived there a lot longer,” she said.
Nyberg said she couldn’t have made it through the six-month space stint if husband Douglas Hurley, also an astronaut, wasn’t willing to take on the role of primary caregiver for their 3-year-old son, Jack.
Jack’s grandparents helped, too.
“It was important for me to know that my son was always being loved all the time by the people who were taking care of him,” she said.
Because of his young age, it was hard to tell what Jack thought about Mom being in space, but his parents talked about it a lot and introduced him to Nyberg’s crew mates.
“I wanted to make sure he knew where I would be and who I would be with,” she said.
She said women can have a STEM career and start a family, but they need a strong support system to do both.
Leopold, of NDSCS, admires Nyberg for her ability to maintain a high-profile career and be a mom to Jack.
In her own career, when she’s asked how she “does it all,” Leopold has an answer at the ready:
“I don’t do it all, and nobody can.”
But you can achieve a nice balance, she said.
NASA intern Wargetz said others might have turned down the opportunity to spend six months in space because of the time away from home.
“But she did it,” she said of Nyberg. “That sends the message to people that you can have a career and a family.”