One of NASA's most famous astronauts, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, has resigned from the space agency. She achieved arguably the highest profile of any currently-serving astronaut* when she dropped her tools into an independent orbit about the Earth during a spacewalk last November.
Stefanyshyn-Piper became a mission-specialist astronaut in 1998, having previously served as a diving and salvage officer in the US Navy. She holds an advanced degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.
After qualifying as an astronaut Stefanyshyn-Piper flew as space shuttle crew twice, in 2006 and 2008. It was during the latter trip, mission STS-126 aboard the shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station (ISS), that her famous mishap occurred. While Stefanyshyn-Piper was trying to clean up grease inadvertently spurted from her grease gun, her $100,000 toolbag drifted out of her reach and sailed off into space.
The embarrassed astronaut subsequently described the incident as "very disheartening", adding: "There's still the psychological thing of knowing that we made a mistake and having to live through that. It was hardest coming back in and having to face everybody else."
The orbiting toolbag was for some time a favourite among amateur sky-watchers, but finally re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up last month.
According to a NASA statement released yesterday, 46-year-old Stefanyshyn-Piper is a "veteran" astronaut, and the space agency is sorry to be losing her.
"Heide has been an outstanding astronaut, contributing significantly to the space shuttle and space station programs," according to Steve Lindsey, chief of the Astronaut Office. "In particular, her superb leadership as lead spacewalker during the STS-126 mission resulted in restoring full power generation capability to the International Space Station. She will be missed."
Captain Stefanyshyn-Piper has now returned to US Navy service. However it seems likely that she may never be allowed to forget her last mission as an astronaut. ®
*At least since the departure of lovestruck pepper-spray trenchcoat wig-scuffle pampernaut Lisa Nowak.