Astronaut Nicole Stott laughs as she floats weightlessly on the International Space Station.
Nicole Stott -- known then by her maiden name, Nikki Passono -- appears in an early yearbook from Clearwater.
Astronaut Nicole Stott shows off a training mock-up of the space shuttle at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
This photo of Tampa Bay was snapped by Nicole Stott from the window of the International Space Station.
Astronaut Nicole Stott smiles during her interview with 10 Connects reporter Grayson Kamm.
Astronaut Nicole Stott turns a weightless somersault aboard the International Space Station.
Astronaut Nicole Stott and 10 Connects reporter Grayson Kamm walk through Houston's training version of the International Space Station.
Download Nicole Stott's amazing photo of Tampa Bay as your desktop wallpaper!
Houston, Texas -- Nicole Stott's smile and enthusiasm are so down-to-earth, it's hard to believe just months ago she was hurtling around the earth.
Here's the thing: she still can't believe it, either.
A long way from home
"A couple months ago, I was in space. And now I'm back on the planet again. That's the weirdness of it," Stott said, surrounded by giant training equipment in Houston, Texas.
Stott spent three months circling the planet late last year. And that wondrous, weightless adventure in space took her so far from where her journey began.
As a kid in Clearwater, Nikki Passono was enchanted with flying. It was a fascination brought on by her beloved dad.
"We were always hanging out at the little, local Clearwater Air Park on the weekends, while he either built airplanes, worked on them with his friends, or was taking us flying," Stott said.
At Clearwater High School, teachers steered her toward serious stuff like math and science. And she loved it.
"I never would have thought that I would have been good at that at all," Stott admitted. "And these people saw something that I didn't see, and encouraged me."
After college, Stott landed what she thought was the job of her dreams. She went to work with the space shuttle ground crew at Kennedy Space Center.
But like just like her teachers years before, the Kennedy Space Center colleagues of now-married Nicole Stott pushed her. They convinced her to reach for the stars.
In 2000, Nicole Stott landed a job literally beyond her wildest dreams -- astronaut.
From repairing space shuttles to flying in them
"You know, I watched the moon landing when I was growing up, but from that point on, for me, it was really, 'Wow, this is way cool -- but it's not a possibility.' I mean, I never really thought of it as a possibility," she said.
Stott is now a veteran NASA astronaut, training in Houston for her second spaceflight. I interviewed her there, inside one of the massive training buildings full of simulated spaceships at Johnson Space Center.
It was Stott's first-ever sit-down interview with a reporter from her hometown.
"I would say at least, probably 60 percent of our time is in some kind of simulator in some way," she said as we stood in a replica of a space shuttle cockpit that she has trained in for years.
Her most recent assignment took her to the International Space Station for three months.
"You look for the places that are familiar to you. And, of course, Tampa Bay is to me," she said. "And you just cannot describe it. Pictures don't do it. Video doesn't do it."
"It's incredible. It's this glowing, living -- thing."
"And you can't imagine that anybody would want to be doing anything other than taking care of this place."
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Snapping astonishing photos of the planet below was one way to keep her mind off what Stott called the hardest part of her mission: being away from her husband and seven-year-old son, Roman.
"It would be the perfect experience if you could have your family up there with you," she said.
Here in Houston, it's not unusual to have a parent go off to space. But it is still difficult, every time, for that parent to get ready to be apart from their child.
Stott coped with phone calls home every night, weekly video chats, and jewelry. "We had our little bracelets that we shared," she explained, holding up and jiggling the yellow rubber bracelet that's still around her right wrist.
Roman had one on the ground, and his mother had a matching one in space. "It says 'Mommy loves Roman' on it," Stott said. "So he knew any time he saw me on orbit that I would have this on."
"Just kind of a cool connection."
You won't see any pictures of little Roman because Stott has chosen to keep her family out of the glare of the space program's spotlight.
As close to space as you can get on the ground
Inside this monstrous training center, Stott and I walked between life-size re-creations of space shuttles, Russian spaceships, and more -- and I followed her into an amazing place.
We ducked through a square hatch into Houston's training version of the International Space Station. This is a full-size and ultra-realistic mock-up of the place where Stott spent those three months away from home.
"The computer I worked on was right here, my little workstation. And, so this is where my crew compartment was," she said as we walked.
Stott showed me the labs where she worked on experiments in orbit, the computers she used for the day-to-day maintenance that keeps the space station running, as well as the location of, umm, other key facilities.
"... this is where the potty is."
"There's like three walls that stick out here," she said, using her arms to project imaginary walls in the air, "and this is where the potty is."
"We have a little refrigerator up here now, which is very nice," Stott said, pointing to an overhead rack that's impossible to reach in this life-size mock-up of the space station, but would be a cinch to rummage through in the real, weightless station soaring more than 200 miles above the earth.
As we moved between labs and airlocks, I was honestly surprised.
The space station is remarkably -- forgive the pun -- spacious inside.
"Is this bigger than the house you grew up in in Clearwater?" I asked.
"I think so, yeah," she laughed. "I think so."
But Stott's only private area onboard the space station was pretty confining. She showed off what, in orbit, were her personal quarters.
The padded cubby was as big as a medium-sized closet. In space, her sleeping bag was attached to one of the walls and held her in like a cocoon so she didn't float away as she snoozed.
"Sleeping bag on the wall in here, and then just some assortment of personal items: pictures, clothes," she said.
Training for the final flight
Nicole Stott is one of NASA's rising stars. And she'll get to return to the real space station at least one more time.
She's been chosen to fly on what's scheduled to be the final space shuttle flight ever. It's set to launch by the end of this year.
It's a mission she's taking on like each one that's come before: with a lot of dedication, and just a little disbelief.
Part of this lively, passionate pilot from Clearwater still can't entirely convince herself this is real.
"Honestly, I have to pinch myself every day to believe that I've had this opportunity... and these kinds of things can happen," she insisted.
"It's amazing," she said, followed by one more fun, sincere laugh.
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This stunning shot was snapped from the window of the International Space Station more than 200 miles above Tampa Bay by hometown astronaut Nicole Stott.
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Connect with 10 Connects multi-media journalist Grayson Kamm on Twitter as @graysonkamm, on his Facebook page, or by e-mail at this link.
Grayson Kamm, 10 Connects