CSUF alumna shoots for the stars

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Experience teaches everyone that life doesn’t always go according to plan. However, sometimes people do get to meet their goals.

Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, a 42-year-old Cal State Fullerton alumna knew she wanted to be an astronaut at the age of 16 when she learned of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space and an astronaut on board the Challenger, according to NASA.

This was before the 1986 accident, when the Challenger exploded after launch, killing McAuliffe and the other six astronauts on board. This only fueled her interest in becoming an astronaut.

“It kind of invigorated my desire to be there,” said Caldwell-Dyson.

Caldwell-Dyson received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from CSUF in 1993 and her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Davis in 1997, according to NASA records.

She grew up in the desert area near Palm Springs with her family.

Moving to Houston, Texas and adjusting after being selected by NASA in 1998 was no easy feat for the outdoor-loving California native, who also participated in Track & Field at CSUF.

“Texas is no California, that’s for sure,” Caldwell-Dyson said.

Texas introduced her to mosquitoes, flying roaches and fire ants. But Caldwell-Dyson said the people she interacted with made up for the differences.

“It’s not paradise, but the people that live here kind of make up for the lack of invitation in the outdoors,” she said.

Her father was an electrician and the experience she gained while working in construction with her father helped her join a research group led by Scott Hewitt, Ph.D, a chemistry professor at CSUF.

Hewitt, who was building a laser ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer as a new professor at CSUF, appointed her to his research group after having students in his class fill out a survey about themselves. In the survey, she expressed her experiences as a construction worker and electrician in her spare time.

“I think at first I was humored by it because I was very surprised,” Caldwell-Dyson said.

The laser ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer monitors “atmospheric and combustion radicals,” which are “highly reactive species that only last for microseconds” and “difficult to detect with other, more conventional instruments,” said Hewitt. Using the mass spectrometer, all the ions are given the same amount of kinetic energy and based on by monitoring how long it takes for the particles to reach the end of the tube, twice, their mass is determined.

“You have to have a very special instrument that’s fast enough and that can measure very, very small quantities,” Hewitt said.  “We designed this instrument to do just that.”

Caldwell-Dyson worked with strong dedication to the project for 15 months. Her main focus in the project was designing parts, including the tubing, valves, deciding the length of the tubing and its diameter for optimum results at the least amount of cost, Hewitt said.

“She was a very hard worker, very dedicated,” Hewitt said about Caldwell-Dyson, who he describes as cheerful and outgoing.

She employed her electrician skills in designing and building the protection system, or “foreline” for the mass spectrometer pumping system, which safeguards $700,000 worth of equipment on the mass spectrometer from malfunctioning at any given time of day, Hewitt said.

Caldwell-Dyson said the things she was asked to do in the research group stretched her skills beyond what she needed while working in construction, as she had never built a logic board or circuit board before.

“I had to order parts and design things,” Caldwell-Dyson said. “I never really done much of that — my father was the one that kind of designed things and gave me the job to do to make it happen.”

Her work on the laser ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer impressed the dean from the UC Davis College of Science, who upon meeting her called UC Davis staff to mail an application to Caldwell-Dyson, guaranteeing her admission upon completion of the application, Hewitt said.

Seeing how far his former student has gone makes Hewitt very proud of Caldwell-Dyson.

She still has more to accomplish, as she can still go back up to space, Hewitt said. In the meantime, she is using her experience living in space to improve designs for the International Space Station.

“The people who do all the designing of the spacecraft and the things that are on the International Space Station, they’ve never been up there,” Hewitt said. “So they don’t understand what it’s like when you’re up there. So, she’s working really hard on getting them to have a better perspective on that so that they will have better designs and things will work better up there.”

Caldwell-Dyson also had to work to get an education.

She used to work at the math tutoring room in McCarthy Hall as a room monitor, scanning the identification cards of students entering and using the room. She also worked as a “Gamma Girl,” which is a radiation safety student helper that would monitor the chemistry labs for radiation.

Caldwell-Dyson has been the recipient of various special honors, including the NASA Space Flight Medal in 2007 and 2010, the Outstanding Doctoral Student Award in Chemistry from UC Davis in 1997 and the Lyle Wallace Award for Service to the Department of Chemistry at CSUF in 1993, according to NASA.

Recently, Caldwell-Dyson was a keynote speaker at the ninth annual Natural Sciences and Mathematics Inter-Club Science (NSM-ICC) Symposium at CSUF March 1.

There she presented “Life On-board the International Space Station,” a video presentation of her time in space during both the expeditions she was involved in.

Caldwell-Dyson was part of the STS-118 in 2007 for nearly 13 days and part of the Expedition 23/24 for a total of 176 days. During the latter, she performed her first of three spacewalks to replace a broken pump module on the space station, she said.

Adrian Velasco, 21, a biochemistry major and director of administration in the NSM-ICC of CSUF, said Caldwell-Dyson is an inspiration although he plans to be a medical doctor and not an astronaut.

“She inspires me to be a professional in the field, no matter what she’s doing,” said Velasco. “It just goes to show, you know, that being a Cal State Fullerton student, you could actually, you know, be successful in the field, so, that success I can translate to myself.”

Hewitt served as a mentor to Caldwell-Dyson, encouraging her to attend graduate school when financial situations made it seem doubtful and motivated her to go the extra mile, she said.

“I really hadn’t considered going to graduate school but that’s exactly what I needed to do and if it weren’t for Scott, in particular, encouraging me the way he encouraged me, it was debatable where I would have actually gone with the right timing,” Caldwell-Dyson said.

Hewitt said the pathway to becoming an astronaut is narrow, with only two roads to take.

“To be an astronaut you either have to be a Ph.D. scientist or you have to be a military pilot … ” Hewitt said.

CSUF students should be proud of attending the campus, Caldwell-Dyson said.

“I’m very grateful that I went to Cal State Fullerton for many, many reasons,” Caldwell-Dyson said. “I think that any student there … I think it’s going to serve them well.”

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