Monthly Archives: January 2012

My Lifelong Love Affair with NASA

Standing with coworkers in front of the Orion test spacecraft. Photo by Anna Hintz.

This week, I joined the Mars mission (no alien wisecracks, please).  My name is on the Orion test spacecraft—the full scale prototype that actually tested the landing methods used upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere. 

 NASA made one-of-three scheduled stops atScience MuseumOklahomaon Jan 25 so that visitors could view the Orion as it travels from the testing site at White Sands, New Mexico to its destination at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   

 A Historic Autograph

I went to see the capsule with co-workers from the zoo—we walked the short distance to theScienceMuseumOklahoma, and had uninterrupted time to view Orion before the museum opened to the public.  According to the spokesperson traveling with the test module, adding our signatures to the metal panels of the capsule provides inspiration to NASA, the engineering crews and the astronauts working on the project. 

 For good measure, I added the names of my two favorite little guys, Cooper and Brayden, who will soon be old enough to watch live footage of Orion’s mission as it unfolds in history.     

 The first unmanned mission into orbital space is scheduled for 2014.  If all goes well, astronauts will then travel farther into the solar system than ever before, with the goal of eventually landing humans on Mars.

My autograph on the Orion test spacecraft panel. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Back When I Trained Young Astronauts…

I have a special fondness for space exploration.  During college, I taught classes at the Air Space Museum of Oklahoma (then housed at the Omniplex).  I even had a brief career working for NASA, when I wrote teaching curriculum for their Young Astronauts program.  I was immersed in space travel for years; watching children’s eyes light up at the idea of becoming astronauts some day.  My favorite lesson was about the inventions that came about to combat zero-gravity in space—items that now benefit us every day, such as Velcro, bar coding, ear thermometers, ski boots, and cordless tools.

 Of course, I also remember the horror of seeing the spaceship Challenger explode before my eyes, as I watched the live broadcast from my 7th grade classroom.     

Contact with Mars

Even now, space exploration creeps back into my life when I least expect it.  In 2009, Distinctly Oklahoma magazine asked me to write an article celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the moon landing.  I researched seven Oklahomans who were critical to the space industry; men and women who were test pilots, engineers and astronauts.

 I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Donna Shirley, who managed the Mars Exploration mission, in which the Sojourner robot transmitted the first pictures from Mars’ surface in 1997.    

 Shirley and I shared little in common—she was a daredevil pilot prior to her NASA career, and I don’t even like going down a slide.  But we both have the same taste in reading, loving author Laurie King and Carolyn Hart (who is another Oklahoman I interviewed). Carolyn Hart, text only; Carolyn Hart, Oklahoma’s Agatha Christie

 In her book, Managing Martians, Shirley said, “The generation that had grown up watching Star Trek and Star Wars hadn’t seen a planetary landing in its lifetime.  Even if my feet weren’t going to make their mark on Martian soil, Sojourner’s tracks would be the next best thing.”  

 Although Shirley is now retired, she too, watches as NASA takes its next step toward Mars exploration.  That step will be viewed by a new generation of space hopefuls, such as Cooper and Brayden.  Although they are too young to understand that now, I hope that someday they will feel proud to have their names signed onto the test capsule that will likely be displayed in some museum—a show of support for the next “giant leap for mankind.”

 Further information and video from NASA is available at


Here’s the opening excerpt from “Fly Me To The Moon and Mars” by Amy Dee Stephen, published in Distinctly Oklahoma, July 2009 (I think it’s one of my best pieces):

It’s surprising that the television show Leave it to Beaver survived, because it debuted the same night the Space Age began.  While freckle-faced Beaver worried about expulsion from school, Americans faced a much larger threat. 

That night, Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite into space.  Radios across the globe picked up the transmitted beep…beep…beep of Sputnik 1; a pulsing proclamation that Russia, “the enemy,” was more technologically advanced than the United States…  Oklahoma Astronauts; Oklahoma Astronauts, text only             

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Baby Chimp Survives and Thrives

Sweet Baby Siri. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens

Baby Siri had a rough start to life; malnourished and missing one arm.  She is now thriving.  I was fortunate to photograph Siri on the last day of her hand-raising.  This article is republished, with permission, from ZooSounds, Winter 2011.  ~Amy

Siri the Survivor

By Amy Dee Stephens

             The scene at Sunset Zoo went something like this:

            “Congratulations, she’s a healthy.” 

            “Whew,” responded the primate staff.

            “Whew” because they only realized that the mother chimpanzee was pregnant about 6-weeks before delivery.  This was not a faulty oversight…it was shock!  No one dreamed the 56-year-old female was still of child-bearing age.

            The mother was very attentive, protective and nursed regularly.  But seven months later, it was clear that something was wrong.  Siri was still tiny.  Testing revealed that the mother’s milk lacked the nutrients of a younger female, and Siri was starving.

            After diet modifications failed, Sunset Zoo asked the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan for help.  Oklahoma City Zoo was selected as the facility equipped to accommodate Siri’s needs. Just two years ago, the Great EscApe team successfully hand-raised and introduced baby Zoe to their troop. 

       “We are building our reputation as a surrogate facility,” said Robin Newby, Great Escape keeper.  “Chimp dynamics can be difficult, but our troop already proved that they can accept a baby.”

            When Siri arrived inOklahoma City, she was 8-months-old and just 3 ½ pounds.  Genetic tests, donated by Harvard, revealed the surprising news that other than malnutrition and lack of muscle mass, her organs were working fine and she had no mental disabilities. 

            For the next four months, Siri had 24-hour care.  Staff and volunteers initially had one focus—feed that baby! 

            It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  Siri had no interest in food; staff described it as an aversion to eating.  A feeding tube helped her get calories, but the challenge was to teach Siri how to feed herself.

            “She didn’t know why she had no interest in food,” said Newby.  “We made ‘happy food vocals.’ It’s like a high-pitched hoot that chimps make when they’re eating.  We did that and ate lots of fruit in front of her, trying to get her excited about food.  That’s how she finally learned what ‘hungry’ meant.”   

            To complicate matters more, a troop member unintentionally injured Siri.  Siri reached toward a chimp through a 2-inch gap in the mesh that separated her from the adult chimps.  A female grabbed Siri’s arm and it detached at the elbow.

            “Siri had no muscle mass,” said Newby.  “A normal infant wouldn’t have been seriously injured, but this baby was too malnourished.  Siri’s a fighter.  She survived the injury and just got stronger.”     

Siri photo by Amy Dee Stephens

           As Siri’s strength improved, the staff began physical therapy to help her overcome her missing forearm.  Climbing on a jungle gym made of PVC pipe and ropes helped Siri build muscles, balance, and learn to rely more on her feet.      

            Teaching Siri independence proved to be the hardest feat for staff, however. 

“In the wild, baby chimps are never put on the ground or left alone, but a surrogate mother would not hold her all the time. Siri needed to be okay with being on own her own sometimes,” said Newby.  “We started walking away from her some during our daily routine; and she didn’t appreciate it. We had to use tough love, because it was hard to hear her whimpering for us, but we knew this was what she needed to become the best chimp she could be.”   

            When it was time for Siri to meet her new chimp family, staff again had to practice tough love.  Introducing chimps is risky in a regular situation, but trusting tiny Siri with an adult was nerve-racking for the staff.  Fortunately, they knew the troop well enough to have several backup plans. 

            Chimp introductions begin with one member at a time.  If all goes well, the two chimps spend time together to build up trust, and then another chimp is added into the mix. 

           The primate staff had three female chimps in mind who might make a good surrogate mother for Siri.  Introductions to Cindy and Abby went fine, but neither seemed to show interest in nurturing an infant.  The third female, Kito, went right over to comfort Siri.  Newby said she had “the baby instinct.”  Ironically, Kito was the very female who injured Siri’s arm in an effort to reach her through the window.                 

            Since then, other troop members, including Mwami, the dominant male, have met Siri. Despite some of the usual “family politics,” the introductions have gone well and eventually all eight chimps will be on exhibit together.     

            Zoe and Siri play so actively together that most people don’t even notice Siri’s missing limb.  Three times each day, Siri drinks a bottle of infant formula through a customized mesh hole at the building.  She is never expected to be large chimp because of her early nutritional delay, but staff are proud to say that she is independent, playful and acting like a normal chimp.  

            “Working with animals is a lot about psychology,” said Newby.  “We have to be very in tune with our animals, and anticipate what their reactions might be to a situation.  We felt confident that Siri would blend well with our troop and that the chimps would help her adjust.”



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The Wonderful Thing About Four Baby Tigers

Tigers Cover Story by Amy Dee Stephens

Baby tigers–four of them–are active new residents at the Oklahoma City Zoo.  This article, reprinted with permission, shares the story of their birth and “toddler” stage.  ~Amy   

The Wonderful Thing About Tigers

Four frolicking balls of fur exploded onto the scene of CatForestthis fall.  Tiger cubs, Leonidus, Leeloo, Lola and Lucy pounce, roll, stretch, and explore…providing visitors an action-packed experience. 

But the scene was quite different when these four cubs entered the world.  Calm and peaceful best describe their first days. 

New Momma Tiger

“About ten days before we expected the mother, Suriya, to deliver, we moved her indoors to a special birthing stall,” said Jonathan Reding, Cat Forest/Lion Overlook Supervisor.

The birthing stall is in a quiet corridor away from the main flow of traffic.  Keepers put burlap around the room so that Suriya would have complete privacy, except, that is, for a surveillance camera monitoring her every move.

The goal for this first-time mom was to allow her to rely on her natural birthing behaviors, without human aid, unless necessary. 

Tigers have a track record of being difficult to breed.  For three years, the keepers kept diligent records in an attempt to pair Suriya with the male, Raguna.  Timing was crucial since the rare, week-long window of opportunity only comes once every three months.    

As part of the Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP), the zoo had already determined a birth plan based on research and input from other professionals.  Oklahoma City Zoo had another point in its favor—a staff with over five years experience at successfully breeding other cat species such as lions and snow leopards.

On the morning of July 9th, a pleasant sight greeted the cat keepers.  Camera monitors showed Suriya interacting with two cubs.  She exhibited good mothering skills: licking, cleaning, nursing.  All was well, so the staff followed their plan to stay away. 

Quad Squad!

What a surprise when a third cub arrived an hour later.  And then a fourth another hour after that! 









“It’s rare for tigers to have four cubs; most have two or three,” said Reding.  “What’s even more rare is that all four survived.”

These four tigers are an incredible contribution to the tiger species.  Only 250 are left in the wild, and 66 live in accredited zoos.  Now, the zoo population is up to 71! 

Fortunately, Suriya exhibited such good mothering skills that the keepers avoided all interactions with her and the cubs for over a week.  Then, the noise of daily routine was added back in, and eventually the burlap was removed.

“Suriya has a strong preference for female keepers,” said Erin Holman, Cat Keeper. “I’m the only full-time female on the cat staff, so I started going back into the hallway to perform cleaning routines.”

After ten days, Holman offered Suriya food in a nearby stall, and the tiger followed her trained routine.  She voluntarily shifted next door, allowing a gate to be closed between herself and her cubs. 

“We had worried about that, because she does things on her own terms, but she shifted with no problem,” said Reding.  “It shows her trust level with the staff.” 

Into the Public Eye

Veterinarians were able to do a well-baby check and take the newborns’ first weights, which were between four and five pounds.  Since the cubs continued to do well after several months, the staff began preparations for the tigers to go on exhibit for the public by early fall. 

“First, we had to let it cool down outside,” said Reding.  “We also needed to make sure the cubs were big enough to move safely in the yard without injuring themselves on logs or drop offs.”

The first few days in the outdoor yard, the cubs jumped at every odd noise or visitor calling to them.  Now, the four-month-old cubs are immune to zoo traffic.  They perch confidently on their favorite overlook, keeping an instinctive eye out for prey as they pounce, roll, stretch and explore. 

 Then, it’s time for a cat nap.

“It’s play, play, play, but they are still babies, so they need lots of sleep,” said Reding.

According to Holman, the cubs’ most active period is in the morning between 9:00 and 10:30.  Each tiger has a unique stripe pattern, but to visitors, their personalities are the most obvious thing about them. 

Leonidus, the only male, is very laid back and gentle.  He takes after his father and is expected to be a very large male.  Leeloo is Leonidus’ running buddy.  She is feisty and plays hard.  Lucy has her mother’s personality, cautious and defensive.  Lola is cautious at first, but then becomes adventurous. 

What is in the future for these tigers?  The cubs will likely remain at the zoo for two years until the Tiger SSP decides where they should be dispersed.  Since Raguno and Suriya’s genetics are well represented, Raguno will eventually leave to breed at another facility. 

“For our staff, the tigers were our most anticipated birth in five years,” said Reding.  “They are critically endangered, they are a key species for zoos, and everyone loves them.”

 And that’s the wonderful thing about tigers.

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