Ocean Engineer Heading From Deep Sea to Deep Space

Jun 12, 2017

Loral O'Hara, a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is one of twelve new NASA astronaut candidates.
Credit Courtesy of NASA / Public Domain

NASA's new class of astronaut candidates will likely have a shot at being among the first humans to visit Mars. That, plus media coverage of commercial space flight and a major social media push, may have contributed to a record 18,300 applicants. In the end, twelve were selected, including Loral O'Hara, a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (for two more months).

Plenty of kids say they want to be an astronaut when they grow up, but O'Hara has actually been working toward that goal most of her life. She grew up in the Houston area, with Johnson Space Center just down the road. She went to NASA Academy (remember the movie Space Academy?), and has degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Aerospace Engineering - literally, rocket science.

So, what's she been doing in Woods Hole since 2009?

"I've always had a great sense of adventure and a desire for exploration," O'Hara said. "I got to grad school and realized that I really wanted to be out there more, on the frontier, wherever that happened to be."

O'Hara says coming to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution felt, in some ways, like coming home. In her several years here, she has worked on some of the Institution's best-known underwater vehicles - the human occupied submersible, Alvin, and it's remotely operated cousin, Jason, among others.

Her work earned her a trip to the bottom of the ocean during the testing of Alvin after its overhaul several years ago.

"We were a mile deep, at our deepest point," O'Hara recalled. "We dropped weights, shut off all the lights and started the ascent. And very distinctly, I just remember looking out the window the whole way up - a couple hours - just looking out and seeing all the bioluminescence, just sea creatures lighting up all over the place."

At the time, O'Hara says, that seemed like the closest she'd been to being in space. Now, she's one step closer to the real deal. And, maybe one day, Mars.