AAE alumna O'Hara graduates from NASA's astronaut candidate program, eligible for spaceflight

After two-plus years of training, Loral O'Hara (MSAAE '09) is ready for her first spaceflight assignment as part of NASA's astronaut program.
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Loral O'Hara, who received her master's from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2009, capped two-plus years of NASA astronaut training Jan. 10 and is eligible for spaceflight assignment. (Photo: NASA) 

Crowding into a diameter of 6 feet, 11 inches inside the sphere of the Alvin submersible, diving a mile deep into water off San Nicolas Island, enveloped by total darkness.

Contorting, twisting and inching into crevices, light sometimes a luxury, while caving in Massachusetts and New York.

Camper-vanning across the Atacama desert, the most barren desert in the world, from Argentina to Chile, maneuvering around volcanoes and salt lakes.

Shimmying into a neoprene wetsuit, gloves and boots to brave the cold waters of Cape Cod, searching for waves to ride — and avoiding sharks sharing the surf.

Hunkering down in a 25-foot sailboat, a boat that wasn’t exactly suited for a liveaboard lifestyle with quarters so tight standing wasn't possible, for four consecutive summers in Cape Cod. The first of which didn't even include someone aboard who knew how to sail.

Loral O’Hara is an adventurer in every sense. 

She seeks out unique and daring opportunities and finds herself oddly comfortable, at peace even, in uncomfortable situations.

“In order to go cool places and explore and see new things, generally, it often involves being a little bit uncomfortable,” O’Hara said during an interview in October 2019, while at Purdue for its astronaut reunion. “I like doing hard things in challenging environments.”

What’s next could be the most stunning opportunity yet.

On Jan. 10, 2020, O’Hara graduated from NASA’s astronaut candidate program to its astronaut corps and is eligible for spaceflight. She could experience spacewalking outside the International Space Station with a sparkling, picturesque Earth in view, could practice bounding and leaping in low gravity on the Moon as part of an Artemis mission, could even ultimately visit planets no other human has.

“I’m really excited,” the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics alumna said in a phone interview Friday, hours after the graduation ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Just going to the different environments I’ve gotten to go to all over Earth has been pretty amazing. Getting to see so many unique places and special places on Earth, I can’t wait to see them again from the vantage of space. One of the things I’m looking forward to, if I’m ever on Space Station, is looking down and getting to reflect on all the different places I’ve been and the people I’ve met there and who I know are still there and getting that perspective.”

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O'Hara graduated Jan. 10 from NASA's astronaut candidate program. (Photo: NASA)

During Friday’s ceremony, the first public graduation the agency has hosted, astronauts in the class were presented with silver pins. They’ll receive gold ones once they’ve flown in space. As each of the 13 astronauts walked the stage to receive a pin — getting handshakes and, even, a high five from NASA administrators — another member of the class offered insight into the graduate. It turned out to be the favorite part of the day for many of the astronauts, O’Hara said.

Frank Rubio, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, spoke about O’Hara.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to do some really tough training with her,” Rubio said during the ceremony, which was livestreamed on NASA’s website. “I can tell you she is incredibly smart, strong, tough and nails, and she can run any of us into the ground. Intellectually and physically, she’s as good as it gets.

“But what you really need to know about Loral is she’s kind, she’s caring and she laughs and smiles very easily. She has a heart of gold, and she’s an incredible teammate.”

O’Hara was all smiles during the ceremony, giving a thumbs up and waving to a crowd that included parents Steve and Cindy, brother Paul and his fiancé Anna, sister Caroline and her boyfriend Casey, and one of her best friends, Kakani.

Looking into the audience at that group made O’Hara emotional, she said.

She was thankful that, more than once, during the ceremony newly minted astronauts took the opportunity to thank family and friends who supported them, the ones who know them best, the ones who knew them when they first had a dream that many consider impossible to achieve. And, truly, the odds aren’t great: NASA received a record number of applicants, more than 18,000, for the most recent class.

But, from the beginning, O’Hara has had a firm support system in Sugar Land, Texas, where she grew up, less than 50 miles from JSC.

“They’ve just always been there for all of the big things in my life and also through the ups and downs,” O’Hara said Friday. “They’ve just always supported me and reminded me that if things are going poorly, they’re not always going to go poorly and cheered me up along the way. And celebrated with me, that’s for sure.”

This day was the perfect culmination for O’Hara: She has been an astronaut-in-training nearly her entire life. For as long as she can remember, certainly since a second-grade project delivered tomato plant seeds to JSC to be flown in space, she’s wanted to be an astronaut.

When she visited Purdue, considering the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics for graduate school after receiving a bachelor’s from the University of Kansas, she still was resolved. She told a professor the first day she met him she would become an astronaut.

There wasn’t a trace of arrogance in the statement, AAE Professor William Anderson said. It was simply fact: She would accomplish the goal.

Even though he’d heard so many students say it before, this time, Anderson believed it. And he took O’Hara as one of his master’s students, studying primarily at Maurice J. Zucrow Labs.

Less than 10 years after finishing her master’s work in AAE, O’Hara made good on her objective.

The third time O’Hara applied to NASA’s astronaut program, she was accepted. The class was announced June 7, 2017. O’Hara’s reaction?

“Whoa, what just happened?” she said, laughing. “I knew everything was about to change.”

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O'Hara was a frequent visitor to NASA's Neutral Bouyancy Lab, a pool that holds more than six million gallons of water to allow astronauts to train for spacewalks. (Photo: Teresa Walker/Purdue)

Upon reporting to NASA for training in August 2017, O’Hara and the “Turtles,” the group name for the class, were immersed in essential, specific training. They flew T-38 jets at 500 mph. They were deployed to the wilderness in Maine, undergoing survival training with the military. They spent hours upon hours underwater at NASA’s 6.2-million-gallon pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, an environment that provides training for space walks. They learned about the systems on the ISS, about the tools used to repair it during space walks. They learned to speak Russian.

All vital pieces toward dropping the “candidate” label, all valuable experience gained.

For O’Hara, though, the knowledge acquired wasn’t necessarily the most essential piece of the training.

“By far the best part of the last two-and-a-half years has been getting to know my classmates, learning both with them and from them,” O’Hara said of the group that included 10 other NASA astronauts and two from the Canadian Space Agency. “We came in from all different kinds of backgrounds, all flavors of military and civilian, to basically a completely new environment. It’s been a really exciting journey together.”

Her experiences as a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) certainly offered unique preparation, too. It was 2013 when she did that dive northeast of San Nicolas Island in a channel about 50 miles west of Los Angeles, exploring one of the world’s most extreme environments deep underwater. It was part of a series of dives dedicated to recertification of Alvin, the human occupied vehicle that enables in-situ data collection and observation of deep ocean environments. Alvin underwent an extensive upgrade from 2009-2013, of which O’Hara played a considerable engineering role on mechanical system design, systems engineering and Naval certification.

At WHOI, she found the “the perfect combination,” able to satisfy both her desire to solve complex engineering problems and also that itch for exploration. She was eager to visit some of the most remote places in the world, including Antarctica — because the idea of spending six months in darkness was intriguing to O’Hara.

Then NASA called, and a new adventure began.

O’Hara doesn’t quite know what lies ahead. For now, she’ll continue to work in the Astronaut Office, learning and developing new skills, until receiving her first spaceflight assignment. She doesn’t know when that will be, but she’s already been busy working in mission control as a “CAPCOM,” an astronaut who communicates with the crew on orbit.

“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy here at NASA right now for all the different programs that are happening. So right now we’re all pretty caught up in that and the excitement of that and the idea of going back to the Moon. I don’t know if it will really feel like waiting (for a flight assignment) because there’s so much work to be done between now and then.”