‘Rice gave me the skills,’ triple Owl astronaut tells Rice Emerging Scholars

Shannon Walker ’87 spoke with Rice Emerging Scholars about her time at Rice and how it prepared her for success at NASA.

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Shannon Walker ’87 spent six months aboard the International Space Station in 2010, but before she strapped into the Soyuz cockpit as co-pilot, the “triple Owl” earned three degrees at Rice University while learning life lessons she said equipped her for future success at NASA.

“Rice prepared me,” the astronaut said July 23 while addressing the 2019 cohort of students in the Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP), a six-week academic program designed to help first-year students prepare for the challenging pace, depth and rigor of Rice’s STEM curricula. “Rice gave me the skills.”

Walker, the only native Houstonian to become an astronaut, told the RESP students that the “unique atmosphere at Rice” provided both a close-knit community and the opportunity to learn from people who were different from her in a variety of ways.

“In the space business, it’s all about problem solving and, especially these days, working with others working across cultures, with people you don’t know well or even understand,” Walker said. “How do you get past all of that and still work together successfully?”

Between slides of her time in space aboard the ISS, Walker shared stories of living and researching with a crew comprising both U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

She learned enough “technical Russian” to get by, moved to the distant Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia to begin training for her mission and, once in space, looked forward to the Japanese curries her counterparts in the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency would send up to supplement the American and Russian space food packets.

Opportunities such as participating in Beer Bike while at Baker College, Walker said, also helped her learn how to work closely with people over long periods of time.

“They had your back,” she told the students, encouraging them to participate in the sort of team-building traditions Rice values as much as its academic reputation.

Work hard, Walker said, “and I guarantee you there is a position for you at NASA. We need good quality people and we’d love to hire from Rice.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.