National Hispanic Heritage Month: Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, Astronaut

In 2018, Serena Maria Auñón-Chancellor became only the second woman of Hispanic descent to fly into outer space. (Ellen Ochoa, who is of Mexican descent, made her first spaceflight in 1993.)  Auñón-Chancellor (she pronounces Auñón as ON-un) was born in Indianapolis in 1976. Her father, Dr. Jorge Auñón, is a Cuban exile who arrived in the United States in 1960.

As she confirmed during a 2009 interview, Auñón-Chancellor was still a child when she first developed a strong interest in becoming an astronaut. “I knew when I saw my first shuttle launch as a kid in elementary school,” she explained. “Let’s face it, the Shuttle is a wonderfully complex and beautiful vehicle. It’s hard not to be inspired by its sheer power.”

Auñón-Chancellor earned a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University in 1997 and an M.D. from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2001. She completed a three-year residency in internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston in 2004, and an additional year as chief resident in UTMB’s internal medicine department in 2005.

The following year, Auñón-Chancellor first worked at NASA. She served as a flight surgeon on a contractual basis. Her assignments included spending more than nine months in Russia to help provide medical oversight and assistance for astronauts preparing to travel into space for service on the International Space Station (ISS). The activities that Auñón-Chancellor helped out with included water survival training for these astronauts. She later noted, “It was a great time to learn what an astronaut’s life would be like while training for long-duration missions aboard ISS.”

Auñón-Chancellor also continued moving forward in her educational goals throughout this period. In 2007, she completed an aerospace medicine residency and earned a master of public health (M.P.H.) at UTMB.

Auñón-Chancellor’s contributions at NASA also included serving as deputy surgeon for the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour mission STS-127 in 2009. That same year, she was selected as one of 14 members of NASA’s 20th astronaut class. “I actually screamed inside my car . . . good thing it’s fairly soundproof!” she recalled about her excitement over being selected as an astronaut candidate.

During the next 28 months, Auñón-Chancellor underwent all types of intensive training for her potential role as an astronaut. As a key part of her survival training, she spent two months in Antarctica as a member of an ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites). ANSMET is an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, and Auñón-Chancellor and others searching for meteorites on that 2010-11 expedition spent most of their time living on ice 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers) from the South Pole.

After graduating from her training as an astronaut, Auñón-Chancellor participated in space exploration simulation missions officially known as the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). In 2012, she piloted the submarine vehicle DeepWorker 2000 as part of the NEEMO 16 underwater exploration mission off Key West. Three years later, Auñón-Chancellor was one of the aquanauts involved in the NEEMO 20 underwater mission. During this mission, Auñón-Chancellor and her fellow crew members simulated time delays associated with transmitting commands between controllers on Earth and astronauts on Mars.

Auñón-Chancellor’s own opportunity for space travel began as a member of Expedition 56 in 2018. She served as flight engineer for this expedition to the ISS, and she – along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst of Germany and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev – launched aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz MS-09 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Republic of Kazakhstan on June 6, 2018. During the next several months at the ISS, Auñón-Chancellor helped conduct hundreds of scientific experiments. Auñón-Chancellor, Gerst, and Prokopyev returned to Earth onboard MS-09 as part of Expedition 57 on December 20. As a result of these expeditions, Auñón-Chancellor spent a total of 196 days, 17 hours, and 49 minutes in space.

Auñón-Chancellor has been the recipient of several honors. These include the Julian E. Ward Memorial Award from the Aerospace Medical Association for her clinical care efforts on behalf of her fellow astronauts.

For more information on Serena Maria Auñón-Chancellor, please check out https://www.nasa.gov/astronauts/biographies/serena-m-aunon-chancellor/biography.

A video about Auñón-Chancellor is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xiScHgbsd8.

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