“I want to go there myself – to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” – Nicki Button
Nicki Button is a graduate student in the Planetary Science Lab in the Department of Geology & Geophysics at LSU. Here, she studies Martian geology, including the geology of volcanoes and impact craters on Mars, with assistant professor Suniti Karunatillake.
Nicki is also a multi-talented researcher. When she isn’t studying images collected by Mars rovers and the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), or traveling to remote locations on Earth to explore features that might appear on Mars, she is playing rugby, serving as vice president and creating social media content for disaster relief organization Rugby Relief, studying to speak French and German, tutoring students at the LSU Academic Center for Student-Athletes and volunteering for various science education outreach groups, including EnvironMentors.
But while Nicki has many interests and talents, her ultimate goal, her dream, is to become an astronaut.
“Ever since I was young, I knew that I wanted to be astronaut,” Nicki said. “Every night that I looked up at the stars, I wondered what existed beyond our planet. I wanted to go to the surface of planetary bodies – to touch something out of this world. Studying the geology of Mars is the closest I can get to the surface of Mars at the moment.”
Nicki often wonders, however, whether she has or is on the right path to gaining the qualifications NASA looks for in astronaut candidates. All of us at one time or another have had doubts that we can become what we dream of being. It can help to meet that one person who is just like you and holds your dream job. If you can imagine it, if you can see it, you can become it.
“Last year, I was reading some biographies of astronauts from the most recent selection, and I learned that astronaut Anne McClain had played rugby and served as captain of the USA Women's National Team,” Nicki said. “I play rugby as well, so I thought ‘wow, it would be awesome to meet her.’”
Through a crazy string of events, Nicki met a friend of Anne McClain’s during clean-up efforts after the 2016 floods in Louisiana.
“Following the Louisiana Flood, my rugby team Louisiana Lagniappe Women’s Rugby Club provided disaster relief by demoing houses and collecting donations,” Nicki said. “More than 100 out-of-town rugby players and their friends joined us in our efforts. Through a partnership with the Austin Huns Men’s Rugby Club and the Austin Valkyries Women’s Rugby Club, we formed Rugby Relief, a non-profit disaster relief organization. One of the members of the Board of Directors is Faith Federspiel, a Chief Master Sergeant. Through her military connections, she knows astronaut Anne McClain and has been fortunate to observe astronaut trainings and events.”
Chief Master Sgt. Faith Federspiel stayed in Nicki’s house when she and others came to volunteer for Ruby Relief, providing flood relief for Louisiana residents. After learning that Nicki was anxious to meet a rugby-playing astronaut, Federspiel arranged for Anne McClain to give them a tour of NASA facilities at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
McClain was selected in June 2013 as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class. Her Astronaut Candidate Training has included among other things intensive instruction in International Space Station systems, spacewalks, robotics, physiological training, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training, according to her NASA bio. Some of her training, including spacewalk training, takes place in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), a Johnson Space Center facility.
This month, Nicki had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how astronauts train to walk and work in space at the NBL. Her tour guide was none other than astronaut Anne McClain.
When Nicki entered the Sonny Carter Training Facility building that contains the NBL, an astronaut training facility and neutral buoyancy pool operated by NASA, the pool deck was buzzing with activity as several astronauts prepared to conduct “dry runs” of upcoming EVAs (extravehicular activities) to occur at the International Space Station. While McClain explained what an eight-hour day working on an underwater replica of the International Space Station looks like, astronaut Thomas Marshburn climbed inside a $10 million spacesuit and was lowered into the pool for a day of training.
Astronaut candidates go through more than a dozen underwater procedures at the NBL as part of their initial certification training, and then may train a particular EVA (extravehicular activity) a dozen times underwater in the neutral buoyancy pool before carrying out the same EVA on Space Station. Anne McClain’s training at the NBL involves both underwater training and directing activities from the mission control booth above the pool while other astronauts are training underwater.
For Nicki Button, meeting astronauts at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab was a “dream come true.”
“Since my dream is to be an astronaut, I always ask astronauts I meet what I would need to do to become an astronaut.” Nicki said. “The advice that I usually receive, and that Anne McClain gave me, is to ‘do what you love.’ Being an astronaut requires all types of backgrounds and astronauts serve in many roles during a space mission. Chances are you will excel by doing what you love rather than choosing a career that you think will look best on the astronaut application. I’ve also been told to never give up; keep applying and keep working. As Anne McClain said, work hard when others are not looking.”
To achieve her ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut, or to work towards a career as a NASA researcher (another one of her top career choices), Nicki plans to take this simple message to heart: Pursue your passion and give everything to it.