How Kathryn Sullivan Became The First American Woman To Walk In Space

A pioneering NASA astronaut is now working to save the Earth’s environment.cHow Kathryn Sullivan Became The First American Woman To Walk In Space

Astronauts-in-training are warned in advance that roughly half of a crew will suffer nausea in space due to the effects of zero gravity. The other half, happily, will remain nausea-free. Kathryn Sullivan wasn’t sure which category she would fall into until the Space Shuttle Challenger launched on Oct. 5, 1984. “The engines cut off,” she recalls, “and the very first thought through my mind was, ‘This is way too much fun to get sick over.’ ”

How Kathryn Sullivan Became The First American Woman To Walk In Space

America’s First Spacewalking Woman: Kathryn D. Sullivan | National Air and Space Museum

The mission lasted eight days, and on the sixth, Dr. Sullivan performed a three-hour extravehicular activity (or EVA, in NASA parlance) alongside David Leestma, thereby becoming the first American woman to walk in space. She would return to the heavens in April 1990, as part of the crew that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, and again in March 1992 for a NASA research mission—adventures that she recounts in her new memoir, “Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention.” If her life had taken a slightly different turn, however, she might have spent her career thousands of feet below Earth’s surface rather than hundreds of miles above it.

Dr. Sullivan’s lifetime of exploration started with maps. As a child, she would disappear to her room with any kind of map that she could get her hands on. “I’d do random dives,” says Dr. Sullivan, now 68. “A really rich map or world atlas is multiple layers of stories—what kinds of people live there, what kinds of animals, what sort of landscape.” She loved creating maps too, plotting routes for family trips. Her parents were “like co-explorers” with her and her brother, she says. “They were brilliant at making us feel we were peers in exploring something rather than always being pronouncers of wisdom.”

With the vague idea that languages would be the best ticket to an adventurous life, Dr. Sullivan set out to the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study Russian. But the university’s science requirements landed her in geology and oceanography courses, and she found herself captivated by the enthusiasm of her professors and the excitement of going out into the field. Deciding that earth sciences—not languages—held the key to a life of inquiry and adventure, she switched majors. Next came a Ph.D. in geology and expeditions to study the floors of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. She describes a successful research expedition as being akin to a symphony: The pre-trip planning is like writing a score, weaving together the science, the ship and the sea, and then the expedition brings the notes to life in performance.

“How do you think ahead, how do you plan, how do you get the equipment organized? Then nothing ever goes exactly as planned, and how do you deal with that? How do you keep thinking and adjusting and responding as life deals out cards which you’re not expecting?” she says. “I loved that stuff.”

As she was nearing the end of her Ph.D., her brother, a corporate-jet pilot, tossed out a crazy idea: NASA was developing a new kind of spaceship and looking to recruit an array of scientists—including, for the first time, women. She dismissed the suggestion as silly, but while reading over the recruitment ad, it dawned on her that what NASA was building was a research ship—“a very different and wildly faster vessel than any I had ever worked on, to be sure, but a research ship nonetheless.” Could the skills that she had developed exploring the ocean floor translate to exploring another unknown realm?

By November 1977, she was sitting for an interview before a panel of NASA scientists and astronauts. “Tell us about yourself. Start with high school,” she recalls the lead interviewer saying. Dr. Sullivan decided to play it straight. “Something I knew from going out to sea—I really want to know who you are. I don’t want to discover four weeks out on an expedition that I can’t trust you, that you’re a charlatan. So I wasn’t going to fake it. If I’m not who you think fits, fine. This is who I am.”

The interview was followed by an array of physical and psychological tests. (“Privacy and dignity went out the window,” she writes in her memoir.) A few months later, she was joining NASA’s new class of astronauts, who called themselves the “35 new guys”—29 men and six women.

NASA had growing pains trying to accommodate women in a system built for men. “You could sense moments when you walked in a room of all men, and the only woman who had walked in before was a secretary,” says Dr. Sullivan. Many of the snags were technical—hangars that had been built with no expectation of hosting female crew members, suits that didn’t quite fit. Some of those problems have, notoriously, persisted. This March, NASA had to scrap its first all-female spacewalk for want of two spacesuits that fit women. The walk happened in October. “It’s an amusing, small sign of some forward progress and how slow this kind of progress always is,” says Dr. Sullivan.

What has stayed with her over the years is the view of Earth from space. “To get up there and be able to see the whole Tibetan plateau at once, thousands of miles wide—it was suddenly like, ‘I get it!’ ” she says. “I had this sense of comprehension of the whole that’s very hard to get when you’re learning it piece by piece. But when the curtain opens and you see it all in front of you, that was very cool.”

Dr. Sullivan has used her extraterrestrial adventures in the service of her original fascination: environmental issues on Earth. After retiring from NASA in 1993, she went on to positions in academia and policy-making, including serving in 2013-17 as both the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

“We need people who can take the power of the space perspective and ensure that it connects to real issues on Earth—how we live better with our environment, how we protect ourselves from natural disasters,” she says. “When you step back and look at the whole, you can make wiser decisions.”

She hasn’t given up hope, though, for one last mission. John Glenn returned to space when he was 77, she notes, arguing that he could provide biometric data on aging. “You did one old guy, you gotta do one old gal,” says Dr. Sullivan. “Why not? Maybe a little stint on the moon. A girl can dream.” How Kathryn Sullivan Became,How Kathryn Sullivan Became,How Kathryn Sullivan Became,How Kathryn Sullivan Became,How Kathryn Sullivan Became



 

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