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Fairfield Native Reflects on NASA's Space Shuttle Program

Just weeks after the Space Shuttle Enterprise was flown into New York City, Patch sits down with Ann Micklos, a thermal protection engineer for the Kennedy Space Center's 30-year Space Shuttle program.

When Ann Micklos was a student at Roger Ludlowe High School, a guidance counselor told her she wasn’t smart enough to pursue her dream career: working on space shuttle and station endeavors for NASA.

But now Micklos can say she’s worked as a thermal protection engineer and project manager on 110 of the 135 space shuttle missions for the NASA Kennedy Center’s Space Shuttle Program, which wrapped up its last launch in July 2011.

“I just fell in love with the program…it’s such a cool thing to be a part of,” she said.

Though she wound up achieving her goal to work for NASA, Micklos didn’t immediately pursue it.  Following her mother’s advice to “do what you love,” Micklos graduated from high school in 1981 and headed to the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) to study oceanography -- growing up in Fairfield, she had a love for beaches and the ocean.

After graduating with her degree in oceanography, Micklos found out that the Kennedy Space Center was hiring engineers for the Space Shuttle program, following the Challenger explosion in 1986. She applied and was hired.

“Who would pass up on that?” Micklos, who worked on the Space Shuttle program for nearly 25 years, queried.

‘A Better Idea of How Humans Live in Space’

NASA’s Space Shuttle program was a 30-year endeavor to take advantage of reusable spacecraft. It followed the Apollo program, the U.S.’s plan to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

The new program differed from NASA’s Apollo in that rather than focusing on landing humans on other planetary objects, the Space Shuttle program focused on medical-related experiments and allowing “a better idea of how humans live in space,” Micklos said.

“You kind of have to learn to live in your own backyard before millions of miles away,” Micklos said of learning to live in the small cabin space on a shuttle.

The program also created opportunities for NASA scientists, astronauts, and engineers to conduct medical experiments in space. For example, cells can replicate quicker and more purely than on Earth. Conducting tests in space can yield better results for issues studied, like cancer, Micklos explained.

As a thermal protection engineer, Micklos’ job was to inspect the tiles, or the barriers that protect the shuttle from the heat of leaving and entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When a shuttle returned from a mission, Micklos and other engineers would work to inspect the craft and make sure it was ready for its next launch.

The average inspection took about four moths, according to Micklos. After all, the shuttles travel roughly one million miles in a mission at 17,500 mph, Micklos said.

“We do a full inspection -- all 22,000 tiles -- and repair any tiles damaged during a mission.”

Fairfield and the Space Shuttle Columbia

Of the 110 missions Micklos was assigned to, one ended in unexpected tragedy. On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crewmembers. It was the ship’s 28th mission.

Before that day, Micklos had traveled to visit Fairfield -- where her parents still live -- from her current home in Cocoa, Fla. She paid a visit to , where she was once a student, and spoke to her former teacher Ted Ostrowski’s class.

“Anytime I’m back in town I come and talk to his kids about the shuttle program,” Micklos said.

That year the students asked Micklos to bring an American flag to astronaut Dave Brown, whom Micklos had been dating, to take with him on the mission. Micklos was to bring the flag back to Sherman when it returned to Earth.

“They never got their flag back,” Micklos said.

But now a flag representing Columbia is displayed permanently at Sherman, along with a letter from NASA.

Capturing the Moments

As the Space Shuttle program neared its end, Micklos wanted to document aspects from a worker’s perspective via photography.

“I was able to capture moments that reflect more of the true reality of the of the program. I wanted to remember how I saw it.”

Micklos’ created the website Blue Planet Photos to share her “twenty-five years Space Shuttle memories, while providing public outreach concerning human space flight: one step at a time,” according to the site.

Additionally some of Micklos’ work is currently on display until the end of May at Harborview Market in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.

Photography became more than a personal documentation when Micklos helped compile a employee “yearbook” to commemorate the Space Shuttle program. She helped take pictures of each astronaut, engineer, and other employees posing with shuttles in the background (not unlike the featured photo of this story).

Micklos had broken a few bones in her foot during the time the yearbook was being assembled and had to wear a working boot for some photo shoots.

“It made people smile when they saw me gimping…it wasn’t hard to get them to smile [for the photo].”

She has a cast full of astronaut and crewmember signatures to remember the experience.

What’s Next for Micklos

The shuttle program ended in July 2011, but Micklos was able to enjoy some more time photographing shuttles when the .

She’ll miss the family the developed from the Space Shuttle program, but Micklos said she is looking ahead. She hopes to end up working in human space flight again.

For now Micklos is focusing on her photo work and conducting public outreach about the program and its results. She has 25 years of experience and wants “to give back,” especially when it comes to educating students of all ages.

“What we did can’t be learned in a textbook.”

Tod McNeal May 15, 2012 at 08:40 AM
My neighbor down here in Florida... Ann is one of the smartest people I know and most pragmatic. Bless the misguided guidance councilor for mistakenly telling Ann what she couln't do, inspiring Ann to prove that errant advice wrong!

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