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Image: Astronaut Janice Voss
NASA
Astronaut Janice Voss, who died Feb. 6, 2012, at age 55, is pictured on the flight deck of the space shuttle Endeavour during the STS-99 mission in 2000.
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updated 2/8/2012 7:12:04 PM ET 2012-02-09T00:12:04

Astronaut Janice Voss, a veteran of five spaceflights and a former science director for a NASA exoplanet-hunting spacecraft, has died after a battle with cancer. She was 55.

"Just got the very sad news that U.S. astronaut Janice Voss passed away last night," the Association of Space Explorers, an international organization representing more than 350 individuals who have flown in space, wrote on Facebook. "Our thoughts go out to her family and friends."

NASA confirmed Voss' death in a statement issued on Tuesday, saying she had passed away overnight.

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Chosen by NASA for the astronaut corps in January 1990, Voss served as mission specialist on five space shuttle missions, including the only repeat flight in the shuttle program's 30-year history. She flew with the first commercial laboratory, rendezvoused with Russia's Mir space station and helped create the most complete digital topographic map of the Earth.

Five-time shuttle flier
Voss launched on her first and final missions aboard the shuttle Endeavour. As a member of the STS-57 crew in June 1993, she helped conduct biomedical and material science experiments in the first commercially-developed Spacehab module, a pressurized laboratory mounted in the orbiter's payload bay that more than doubled the work area for astronaut-tended activities.

In February 2000 Voss again launched on Endeavour, this time for NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. After deploying a nearly 200-foot mast, Voss and her crewmates worked around the clock in two shifts to map more than 47 million square-miles of the Earth's land surface. [ Shuttle's Best Science Missions ]

Voss' second flight to space marked the first time a space shuttle came within the vicinity of Russia's space station Mir. Flying on the shuttle Discovery, Voss and her STS-63 crewmates — including Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a U.S. spacecraft — rendezvoused with the Russian outpost to verify flight techniques, communications, and navigation and sensor aids. The February 1995 "Near-Mir" mission set the stage for the first shuttle-Mir docking later that year.

Voss' two other spaceflights, STS-83 and STS-94, were the only time in the shuttle program's history that an entire crew was launched twice to achieve the same mission. The crew's first attempt began with a liftoff on Columbia on April 4, 1997. Three days into the mission however, a problem with one of the orbiter's three power-generating fuel cells resulted in the flight being cut short and the crew members returning to Earth.

Three months later with Columbia back in working order, Voss and her six STS-83 crewmates launched again, this time as the STS-94 crew. During the successful 15-day flight, Voss and her fellow fliers worked inside a European Spacelab module, conducting experiments as part of the Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.

In total, Voss logged over 49 days in space, traveling 18.8 million miles while circling the Earth 779 times. Her five missions tied her with the record for the most spaceflights by a woman.

Four years after returning to Earth for a final time, Voss transferred from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., where she headed the science program for the agency's Kepler space observatory. Designed to search for Earth size planets orbiting distant stars, Kepler was launched in March 2009 and to date has confirmed 61 exoplanets and identified more than 2,000 planetary candidates.

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Voss left Ames in 2007 and most recently served as the payload lead in the astronaut office's space station branch at the Johnson Space Center.

"As the payload commander of two space shuttle missions, Janice was responsible for paving the way for experiments that we now perform on a daily basis on the International Space Station," chief astronaut Peggy Whitson said in the NASA statement.

"By improving the way scientists are able to analyze their data, and establishing the experimental methods and hardware necessary to perform these unique experiments, Janice and her crew ensured that our space station would be the site of discoveries that we haven't even imagined."

"During the last few years, Janice continued to lead our office's efforts to provide the best possible procedures to crews operating experiments on the station today," she said. "Even more than Janice's professional contributions, we will miss her positive outlook on the world and her determination to make all things better."

Path to space
A native of Rockford, Ill., Voss received her bachelor of science in engineering science from Purdue University in 1975, a master of science degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977 and 1987, respectively.

Voss' first work with NASA was during her undergraduate studies at Purdue. A member of Johnson Space Center's co-op program, she worked on computer simulations in the engineering and development directorate in the years leading up to the start of the shuttle-era. Voss returned to the Johnson in 1977 for a year, working as a crew trainer teaching entry guidance and navigation.

Before becoming an astronaut, Voss worked at the Orbital Sciences Corporation, supporting mission integration and flight operations for the Transfer Orbit Stage that launched the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite from the space shuttle in September 1993, and NASA's ill-fated Mars Observer from a Titan rocket in 1992.

A multiple recipient of NASA's Space Flight Medal, Voss donated her personal papers documenting her spaceflight career to Purdue Libraries' division of archives and special collections in 2009.

"Knowing that someone else got from here to there brightened many of my days at Purdue," Voss said at the time, referring to the university's earlier astronaut alums. "Maybe my papers will help someone else feel that they aren't that different from me."

"If I can do it, then so can they," Voss said.

Follow collectSPACE on Facebook and Twitter @ collectSPACE and editor Robert Pearlman @ robertpearlman. Copyright 2011 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Remembering astronaut Janice Voss

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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