Purduette Becomes a “Professor” of Spacewalking

Visit her office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and you’ll see it: an impressive display of Astronaut Barbie dolls. These 11-inch figures represent every era of space travel, from the earliest Mercury missions to the spacewalks of today. The blond-haired blue-eyed dolls stand there, at attention, purposely defying your expectations of who gets involved in the space industry.

“It’s a great representation of my personality,” says Allissa Battocletti (BSAAE ’11). “On the one hand, I’m an aeronautical engineer working at NASA; and on the other hand, I’m a blond, sparkly, show choir girl. I’m proof that you can definitely be both.”

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS

The story of how Allissa came to NASA begins, as many of these stories do, with one small step. Growing up in Indianapolis, she listened to her father talking about the Apollo missions, including Purdue alum Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. Six-year-old Allissa couldn’t help but get swept up in it. “I remember in second grade filling out the what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up paper,” she says. “Most people said princess or firefighter. I said, aerospace engineer!”

She focused on math and science in high school, and when the time came to choose a university, there was really only one choice. “Everyone told me that if I wanted to be an engineer, I had to look at Purdue,” says Allissa. During a campus visit, she happened to interact with a current student enrolled in a co-op program at NASA. “She said she worked at Johnson Space Center, and that’s all I needed to hear! I went up to her and asked, ‘what’s a co-op, and how do I get involved?’”

That Purdue-NASA connection (through the Office of Professional Practice) has launched hundreds of careers in the space industry, and Allissa always tells current Purdue students to take advantage of it. “You need to get as much real-world experience as you can,” she says. “Don’t wait until you graduate! Do it while you’re a student. You’ll get tons of experience, and you’ll also get the chance to figure out what positions interest you, so you’ll know what you would (or would not) enjoy as a full-time job.”

SING, SING, SING

One other aspect of Purdue caught Allissa’s eye: the musical groups. “I had been singing with Indianapolis Children’s Choir,” says Allissa, “and I knew I wanted to keep singing in college. When I learned about the Purduettes, it was perfect!”

She sang for the famous 50-member choir during all four years at Purdue, including Christmas shows, touring concerts, and numerous other functions. “It perfectly fulfilled both sides of who I am,” she remembers. “You have what you’re majoring in, and then you have something else that you love doing. For me, that was the Purduettes.”

She even had an unexpected astronaut encounter. “During one of our performances for the President’s Council, I learned later that Neil Armstrong had snuck in the back to listen to our show! I kept saying, ‘Is this real life?’”

Being a member of the Purduettes provided more than just a creative outlet. As a performer, Allissa also learned how to give presentations, and interact with audience members in a productive way. “I got my technical skills from the aero program,” she says, “but Purduettes helped me with life skills, and social skills. You can’t just be an engineer and sit at your desk all day; you have to be able to talk to people, and present your ideas. It really comes in handy at my current job.”

 

PROFESSOR OF SPACEWALKS

Allissa works for the Flight Operations Directorate at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Her area of expertise is Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) Operations: spacewalks. She explains: “When you become an astronaut, there are so many things to learn. Astronauts have to get a degree in how to be an astronaut. And I am a professor of spacewalking.”

“Every day is very different,” she continues. “Sometimes I’m teaching classes to astronauts. Some days we’re in the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab [where astronauts train in near-weightless conditions]. And when our astronauts are in space, I’m working with Mission Control to write procedures, and actually talk the astronauts through what they need to do, as they do it.”

For the International Space Station, which has been orbiting the earth since 2000, that means plenty of maintenance calls. Like upkeep on a house, if something breaks, astronauts need to fix it. While that may sound mundane, the stakes are somewhat higher when the house is orbiting 250 miles above the Earth!

That leads to occasional “Apollo 13” moments, as Allissa calls them. “Let’s say a box connected to the solar panels isn’t functioning. That is a big problem, which we need to fix quickly, because the station needs power. We’ll literally dump a bunch of items onto a table, and figure out how to use them to fix the issue. Getting our team together to solve a problem is very rewarding.”

LOOKING UP

Allissa Battocletti looks forward to the day when manned spaceflight extends beyond Earth orbit. “I’m looking forward to supporting EVAs, wherever they are. It will be exciting to walk on a surface again, whether it’s on the Moon or Mars. I’m excited to see where we go!”

She also is thankful for the foundation that Purdue gave her. “My Purdue degree carries a lot of weight,” she says. “Purdue set me up to problem-solve and to think critically. That’s the most important aspect of what an engineering degree gives you. Then you can go apply that in so many ways.”

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