For as long as she can remember, Christina Hammock has wanted to be an astronaut. She doesn’t recall any specific childhood moment when the thought first occurred to her. It was just always there — through middle school and high school in Jacksonville, N.C., and then through her years at NC State, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering in 2001 and a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2002.
“It’s literally been as long as I can remember,” she says. “I’m sure I heard about it when I was really young, but it’s been a lifelong dream.”
So Hammock, 34, was ready when the call came from NASA earlier this month to let her know if she had been selected as one of eight new astronaut candidates out of a pool of more than 6,000 applicants. At least she thought she was ready.
“When I got the call, I started the speech I had prepared for the person giving me the bad news,” she says. “Instead, they gave me good news. I was dumbfounded. I had no idea how to react to that news.”
That news — that Hammock has a chance to realize her lifelong dream — means she will spend the next two years training to be an astronaut. Assuming she passes all the physical and mental challenges of training, Hammock will become an astronaut. What her specific mission would be is not clear at this point, but NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in his announcement of the eight new astronaut candidates that they could do research on the International Space Station or lead the first human mission to an asteroid or to Mars.
“I just hope to represent the goals of the space program in whatever way I can,” Hammock says. “I’m very excited about just about every direction NASA is going in. I’m personally very excited about the research on the International Space Station, given my background in science.”
We spoke with Hammock from American Somoa, where she is the station chief of the climate observatory for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She has been there for about 10 months, the latest in a series of far-flung work locations that include the South Pole and the ice caps of Greenland. She once worked in minus 105-degree weather at the South Pole. “If you have the right clothing, it’s actually doable,” she says. “It takes many, many layers.”
Hammock says she typically runs the instruments for research being conducted at remote sites. That experience required her to to be able to think on her feet and handle the physical aspect of working in extreme conditions — attributes that may have contributed to her selection as an astronaut candidate. But she says she was drawn to that work naturally, not as a means to become an astronaut.
“There’s a whole list of check boxes that people who are interested in becoming astronauts can try to fill,” she says. “I decided early on that I was not going to live my life according to those check boxes. I was just interested in being my best and following my own dreams. If those skills I acquired made me into a good candidate, then I would apply.”
Among the skills Hammock will have to acquire in the next two years are how to fly a jet (although, given her background, she says she will eventually serve as a flight engineer rather than a pilot) and how to speak Russian (to help her work with Russian astronauts serving on the International Space Station). The training begins in August in Houston, and will take her all over the globe over the next two years.
“NC State prepared me really well,” Hammock says. “NC State is kind of where everything got started.”
During her time at NC State, Hammock did an internship in the astrophysics department. She credits physics professor Stephen Reynolds and engineering professor Cecilia Townsend with encouraging her. “They were instrumental in me believing I could follow my dreams,” she says.
Those dreams included being one of the few women working in a field like electrical engineering. Now, Hammock is one of four women — half of the group — selected as astronaut candidates.
“It’s just demonstrating that women are in a position now to follow their dreams,” she says. “There may be a wider variety of what’s acceptable for women to study and go into professionally. I was often the only girl in my engineering classes, but I never experienced any discrimination. Everyone was just really encouraging.”