Alumna and Astronaut Offers Advice to Aspiring Female Engineers

Astronaut Nicole Stott

To succeed in engineering or any other field, artist and retired astronaut Nicole Stott (’87) encourages girls and young women to “live what you love, look for role models, and focus on helping others.”

For Stott, engineering is all about making the world a better place and helping people – a goal at the heart of the aeronautical engineering alumna’s distinguished 27-year career with NASA. Stott, who lived for 104 days in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle, performed a spacewalk for more than six hours while tethered outside the ISS, and was the first person to create a watercolor painting in space that’s inspired by the view through an ISS window.

High above the Earth, finding creative inspiration was as easy as looking out the window. “You see this flowing, beautiful, colorful, alive planet, and you realize we’re all traveling on spaceship Earth together,” she said. “When you get back home, you have to share that realization with others – to help take care of the planet and the people who live here.”

Since retiring from NASA in 2015, Stott continues to leverage her love of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) to improve life on Earth. For example, she is the founder of the Space for Art Foundation, an organization that focuses on creating large-scale, space-themed art therapy projects with children in international hospitals and refugee centers and working with a team of art, aerospace, astronaut, and health professionals. 

She also continues to give back to her alma mater, serving as a member of the Embry-Riddle College of Engineering Advisory Board, and is a university Board of Trustees emerita. A tireless supporter of education and the arts, the university honored Stott in 2019 with the dedication of the Nicole Stott Art Gallery at the Mori Hosseini Student Union in recognition of her remarkable achievements.

Growing up, access to positive role models who shared their love of flying was a primary inspiration for Stott. Born in Albany, N.Y., and raised in Clearwater, Fla., Stott’s father was a businessman who “loved to build and fly airplanes,” she said, and as a result, she was often “hanging out at the local airport.” Her mother was a nurse with strong creative tendencies, who nurtured Stott’s interest in painting, woodworking, sewing and ballet.

Those experiences were her “first exposure to people who lived what they loved and loved sharing it with people around them,” she said.

Along the way, Stott also met influential female role models such as Val Spies, who owned a glider business at the airport where her father kept his airplane, and air-show pilot Debbie Gary. As a young person, in addition to flying with her dad in his planes, Stott flew in a Piper Cub with Spies; and later with Gary, who also took Stott’s young son on his first small airplane flight – they both shared their love of aviation with her.  A teacher, Mrs. Ransom, also inspired Stott during a high-school introduction to aeronautics class.

“Young girls and young women need to see other women doing interesting and challenging things – things they might think are impossible,” Stott told a Forbes reporter in 2017 “I really believe I have a responsibility to be present and to show them what’s possible.” 

Stott was driven by a passion for flying when she entered St. Petersburg College to study aviation administration and earned her private pilot’s license; she later earned a B.S. degree in aeronautical engineering from Embry-Riddle (1987) and her M.S. degree in engineering management from the University of Central Florida (1992). Her career began with a job as a structural engineer for Pratt & Whitney Government Engines, where she performed structural analysis on advanced jet engine component designs.

In 1988, she joined NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where she worked as an operations engineer in the Orbiter Processing Facility and held other positions within NASA Shuttle Processing. Ten years later, she joined the Johnson Space Center. Her work there included service as a flight simulation engineer on the Shuttle Training Aircraft where she helped train astronauts to safely land the space shuttle.

In 2000, she was selected as an astronaut candidate. In 2006, and in preparation for long-duration spaceflight, Stott lived and worked as an aquanaut on the longest-duration NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO 9) mission – for 18 days on the Aquarius undersea research habitat – an experience she believes was the best analog to flying in space. She also trained extensively along with her ISS crew members in Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe. 

In 2009, on her first spaceflight, she was as a member of the STS-128 Discovery crew, and she flew for three months aboard ISS as a member of the Expeditions 20 and 21 crews. During her time on ISS, she completed a 6.5-hour spacewalk becoming the tenth woman to perform a spacewalk. She also flew the robotic arm to capture the first free-flying Japanese cargo vehicle, participated in more than 100 research investigations, and after three months returned to Earth as a member of the STS-129 Atlantis crew. 

In 2011, Stott flew her second spaceflight to ISS as a member of the STS-133 Discovery mission – the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery. STS-133 was also a milestone flight for Embry Riddle – the first time two alumni were on the same flight (Al Drew and Stott were mission specialists together on this flight).

Throughout her successful career, Stott’s loyalty to Embry-Riddle has persisted. In 2009, she was in space when she took part via satellite call in an Embry-Riddle Industry Advisory Board meeting for the Daytona Beach, Fla., College of Engineering.

In space, Stott said she experienced what author Frank White describes as the “overview effect” – a change in her perspective of Earth as our home planet, and of our interconnectivity and significance, which reinforced her belief in our obligation to care for our home planet and each other. “I want a world where everyone appreciates that we live on a planet, we’re all Earthlings, and the only border that matters is the thin blue line of atmosphere that protects us all. We all need to behave like crew members, not passengers, of Spaceship Earth.”

Today, Stott uses her artwork to share her spaceflight experience, and to raise awareness of all the wonderful work going on in space to improve live here on Earth. She also continues to urge aspiring female engineers to “reach for the stars,” follow their passion, seek out role models, and apply their skills to benefit others.