- By Kerry Hannon
I never dreamed of being an astronaut. None of my girlfriends growing up in the Sixties did either. Maybe it’s because when we thought of astronauts, we associated the word with white men and Tang.
But the truth is women are astronauts — and have been since 1978, when NASA selected its first six female astronauts. Those pioneers included a surgeon, an electrical engineer, a physician, a biochemist and a physicist.
I bring this up because I was fortunate to get a sneak peak at a top-drawer documentary premiering on PBS stations on Tuesday October 14 — MAKERS: Women In Space. The show, produced by Michael Epstein and Sara Wolitzky and narrated by Jodie Foster, traces the history of women in the U.S. space program.
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It’s the latest in the critically acclaimed series, MAKERS: Women Who Make America, which has featured the American women’s movement as well as remarkable women in business, Hollywood, comedy, war and politics.
From Surgeon to Space Shuttle
After watching the eye-opening history lesson, I had a chance to interview Dr. Rhea Seddon, 66, a member of the first group of female astronauts at age 30 back in 1978 and who worked at NASA for nearly 20 years. Seddon, originally a surgeon, shared her five career tips for young women, below. (You can read about Seddon on her website.)
MAKERS: Women In Space starts with the 1957 kickoff of the U.S. space program, as the nation entered the Space Race with the Soviet Union to get a man to the moon. It turns out that even though women were determined to be physically prepared to become astronauts (testing included injecting water into their ears and holding them for hours in isolation tanks), they were rejected.
The reason? Women weren’t allowed to fly jets or join the military, which was a prerequisite. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1995 that Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a spacecraft.
The program includes interviews with Collins, as well as the classmates of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride: Seddon, Shannon Lucid and Kathryn Sullivan. You also hear from Mae Jemison, the first female African-American to become an astronaut and go into space, and Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station. Surprisingly, at least to me, you’ll hear from Nichelle Nicols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, who became the spokeswoman for NASA in the mid-1970s, as it actively began recruiting women and minorities.
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Despite the decades of handwringing about bringing women into the space age, assimilating them into the astronaut corps wasn’t all that tricky. One of NASA’s biggest challenges on this front, it seemed, was how women would go to the bathroom in space and what they’d do if they got their periods there.
Seddon flew on three Space Shuttle flights, logging over 722 hours in space. She was a mission specialist on flights in 1985 and 1991 and the payload commander in 1993. Today, she speaks to young women around the country about her career and doles out advice.
“I like to show young women that with hard work and persistence you can do pretty outstanding things,” Seddon told me.
Seddon’s dream of space travel began in 1957, when she was 10, and her father took her out in their backyard in Murfreesboro, Tenn. to watch the Soviet Sputnik satellite scoot across the sky. “It was awesome,” she recalled.
“After Sputnik, the government said that it was a national imperative that young people get more into engineering and science,” Seddon said. “To me, that meant me, too, although they were really talking about men.”
Seddon's 5 Career Lessons
Here are Seddon’s five career lessons for young women so they can reach for the stars (plus one from me):
1. Don’t be afraid of going first. “I was the first woman in my surgery residency, in the group of the first women astronauts, and the first pregnant astronaut. For me, there were certain barriers along the way, some of which I had to go around; others I figured out some other way to do them. I learned quickly that overcoming barriers means you have to be fearless.”
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2. Get the credentials for the job you want. “You have to make sure you meet the requirements to be accepted into the field that interests you. To become an astronaut, they were looking for people who had an advanced degree in science, math, or engineering. I also had to interview with other astronauts and NASA leaders because they were looking for personalities that would fit in with the group that was already there. Finally, I had to prove that I had a background as a risk taker. I had taken flying lessons and they regarded that as a good sign. You have to scope out the basic requirements for the job you want and what distinguishes you from all of the other people who have those requirements.”
3. Have a Plan B. “If I had not been accepted into the astronaut program, I had other career plans. I had been accepted for a couple of Ph.D. programs that involved clinical work as a physician. You have to have a back-up plan if something goes wrong.”
4. Get the help you need. “It takes a team if you are a woman and want to marry and raise a family. My husband, Robert Gibson, who was also an astronaut, was willing to share the [family] duties and was a great supporter and adviser. I didn’t ask for special favors when I was pregnant; my boss was a little stunned when I told him. But the only restriction was I couldn’t fly ejection seat airplanes any more until after the baby was born. I came back to work in six weeks.”
5. Expect that you will have lots of different careers. “I started out to be a nice southern wife and became a physician and then a surgeon and then an astronaut. Then I became a healthcare executive at Vanderbilt and then a business owner and now I’m a writer. I was able to take things I had learned in each of those careers and apply them to the next one. For example, at NASA, I learned teamwork and standardization of processes and was able to apply that to my healthcare business. Every time you find something interesting to get excited about, you gain confidence. You say, ‘I can do this.’ With the wisdom of age it’s easier to figure that out.”
My Career Tip
And here’s a bonus career tip from me after watching MAKERS: Women In Space:
Remember that there’s power in the behind-the-scenes jobs. The show features Poppy Northcutt, who began working at NASA as a 25-year old systems engineer — a computress, she was called. Northcutt was the only woman in the mission control support room throughout the Apollo flights. For Apollo 8, her job was to figure how get back to the earth from the moon. “I felt a lot of pressure because I was the only woman. There had never been a woman in the mission control room. You do have to worry that people are going to say, ‘Oh well, she couldn’t cut it,’ so other women can't come through this.”
As an aside, I recommend you check out the website MAKERS.com, which features a collection of inspiring videos with more than 250 women from Madeleine Albright (the first female Secretary of State) to Rachel McLish (the first female bodybuilding champion).
There’s a lot to be learned from these groundbreakers about flouting barriers, facing challenges and the rewards of following your dreams. Those are great life lessons for people of all ages, but particularly for your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.