Two women with Alaska connections will soon report for duty at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as members of the space agency’s newest astronaut candidate class.
Deniz Burnham, 36, who lives with her fiance in Wasilla, and Nichole Ayers, 32, who works on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, were selected along with eight other candidates out of a pool of over 12,000 applicants, NASA announced this week.
Ayers, who considers Colorado home, is the assistant director of operations for the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, according to NASA.
“As one of the few women currently flying the F-22 Raptor (a military fighter aircraft), Ayers led the first-ever all-woman F-22 formation in combat in 2019,” her NASA biography page says.
Burnham has lived in Alaska off and on for 10 years while working in the oil and gas industry, she said in an interview Tuesday. She’s worked on oil rigs around the Arctic, which is where she said she first developed the operational skills that helped her get to NASA.
Becoming an astronaut “was definitely a childhood dream,” Burnham said. “It takes a lifetime of effort, I feel like, to kind of reach this point.”
Burnham is a Navy lieutenant who serves in the Navy Reserves. She said she enjoys paragliding out of Hatcher Pass and also has a helicopter and airplane instrument ratings.
She’s a military child who graduated high school in California and was born at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Burnham interned with NASA while earning her master’s in mechanical engineering.
Her grandfather shared his love of astronomy and telescopes with Burnham while she was growing up. She got to see Mars and the rings of Saturn — the size of a pinky fingernail through the lens of a telescope — in her own backyard, she said.
Those early interactions with space set her on a path toward the lifelong goal of one day becoming an astronaut, she said.
In late October, Burnham saw a Houston area code flash up on an incoming call — not too uncommon for someone who works in the oil and gas industry, but the call came early in the morning. She had been waiting for the results of the NASA selection process for a long time, and the anticipation was building.
“You kind of try to imagine it, but you also want to protect your heart,” Burnham said. “I didn’t know if it was gonna be a yes or no.”
When Burnham answered, the chief of NASA’s astronauts was on the other end of the line. She held her breath as they asked if Burnham still wanted to work with NASA.
“It’s kind of surreal when you literally talk about something your whole life and then it happens,” Burnham said. “You’re just so, so grateful.”
She began to cry, soon alternating between laughter and tears. She was in California drilling with the Navy Reserves and had been staying with her mom, whom she celebrated with right away.
She also FaceTimed both of her grandparents, including her 94-year-old grandfather in Turkey.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Grandpa, they actually selected me!’ ” Burnham said. “It was pretty emotional. He was like, ‘Take me with you.’ ”
Burnham works for BPX Energy but is in the process of leaving her job, and Alaska, to move to Houston for two years of astronaut training, which begins in January. The recruits will train for space walks and maintenance on the International Space Station as well as work on robotics skills and Russian language skills, according to NASA.
After completing training, the candidates could be assigned a variety of missions, from working on the International Space Station to deep-space missions involving destinations such as the moon.