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Reaching for the Sky: Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper

From the red planet of Mars to the Milky Way galaxy that we call home, space is a place where we send rocketships and satellites and astronauts. Ever since space travel began in the 1960s, we have seen some big events. From Neil Armstrong being the first man on the moon to the more recent astronaut Scott Kelly in the ISS (International Space Station), astronauts are our portal for exploring space. 

One name that you might not have heard of is Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. She was a naval officer and an astronaut, and this is her incredible journey.

Photo:   NASA Johnson


Heidemarie was born in the capital of the state of Minnesota, St. Paul in 1963. Her father was born in Ukraine but immigrated to the United States after marrying Heidemarie’s mother, a German woman.

During her childhood years, Heidemarie was a part of a Ukrainian cultural community, and because of that, she can speak fluent Ukrainain. 

Heidemarie went on the graduate from an all-girls high school in 1980 after which she attended college at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology - this is one of the best colleges in the United States!). From MIT, Heidemarie got a degree in mechanical engineering.



While at MIT, Heidemarie joined the NROTC (Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps), and when on to complete her training for the navy in Panama City, Florida. She is trained in diving and salvaging. Her work through the United States navy earned her the rank of captain (colonel).
After serving in the Navy for about 10 years, Heidemarie was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1996.

(Fun fact: it is extremely hard to be selected as an astronaut candidate. You have to take many tests and interviews and go through months of training to be able to travel to space!)

After 2 years, she became qualified to become a mission specialist.

Photo:   NASA Johnson

Heidemarie’s first space mission was on the “STS-115” aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Photo:   NASA Johnson

During this trip, she became only the 8th woman ever to do a spacewalk out of the 180 people who have done it. During this mission, she also spent around 12 hours outside of the Space Shuttle, making her the 2nd most experienced spacewalker. After STS-115, Hediemarie went on two more missions: NEEMO 12, and STS-126.
Heidemarie was once again a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour which went to space for 15 days. She also became the Lead Spacewalker on this mission. During this mission, Heidemarie spent almost 22 hours doing spacewalks! Her work during STS-126 helped to restore full power to the International Space Station!

During STS-115, Heidemarie said that exploring space is the future of humans. She said that before, people used to travel from one hill to the other, then they started travelling across oceans with boats. They then started travelling to the skies by plane, and now, humans are travelling to space in rockets. She hopes that, “we can learn something that we can bring back here and help solve some of the problems we have on Earth.” 

Photo: NASA Johnson

After returning from space missions, Heidemarie went back to work in the Navy in 2009 after officially retiring from the Astronaut Corps. She once again began work in the Navy but this time as a Chief Technology Officer. Over the next few years, Heidemarie worked at different posts in Maryland and San Diego, California. She officially retired from naval service on July 1, 2015.

In honour of Space Month at America House, here are some fun videos to watch about space and space missions:

  • To see the view from the space station in real time, click here

  • To see a short film about space exploration in America, click here

  • To watch one of Heidemarie’s spacewalks with fellow astronaut Steve Bowen, click here

  • To learn more about space and NASA, visit their website here

Vocabulary list

Influential: having power to cause positive change

Naval officer: a person in the navy of a country

Immigrated: to come to a country to live there

Cultural Community: a group of people, many times in a different country, who are from the same place as you or have your same beliefs (example: Ukrainian cultural communities in New York City)

Fluent: to be able to speak a language easily and well 

Mechanical Engineering: type of engineering that focuses on machines (like in a factory)

NROTC: a program in the United States that trains college students for entry to the navy after graduation

Diving: swimming deep underwater using special breathing equipment

Salvaging: saving something that is in danger of being destroyed (example: a sinking ship)

Candidate: a person who meets all the requirements for a specific job or task

Qualified: having all the necessary skills to do something

Abroad: being in/on a ship or rocket 

Spacewalk: astronaut does work outside, in space, on the shuttle wearing a special suit to protect them

Experienced: having skills from doing something before (example: experienced in dancing from taking dancing classes)

Retiring: used to describe a person who will step down/retire from their job, many times due to old age 

Posts: assignment to a task or location in the military 

Public eye: having the attention of the general public

Annik Brar Headshot (1).png


Annik Brar is a student at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. studying International Affairs and Psychology. In her free time, she manages a support page for people with Type 1 Diabetes. She also loves photography and traveling and can speak Punjabi and Hindi fluently!


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