Johnson Space Center
Return to Johnson Space Center home page Return to Johnson Space Center home page

March: Women's History Month

Women have played a significant role in JSC’s endeavors since the beginning and in a variety of ways. For instance, 8 of the 36 people transferred from Langley Research Center to the Space Task Group, the predecessor to the Manned Spacecraft Center, were women.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the JSC History Office commemorates the contributions of some of the Center’s trailblazing women and invites you to read their transcripts and to learn more about other women who contributed to NASA's success.

Anne L. Accola, Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters
Engineer, Training/Simulation Supervisor, Mission Integration Manager
March 16 & 17, 2005

It was odd for a girl
I guess I was the right age to be caught up in the Sputnik craze. I was in seventh grade when Sputnik was launched. It was such a shock for the country, and President Eisenhower told all of us school kids we needed to study math and science to catch up to the Russians. Then I started following all of the U.S. activities from a relatively small town in Colorado. Greeley is where I grew up, and it was about 35 or 40 thousand people then.

In 1960 I got caught up with President John F. Kennedy and—you know, to the Moon by the end of this decade. I was just fascinated by it and watched everything I could on TV. I put my mother in charge of watching it when I was at school, which involved coming home at lunch and finding out that it hadn’t launched or it had gone up and toppled into the ocean or blown up or something back in those days. Then when they started the actual manned flights, I just really got excited and thought that that’s where I wanted to work.

It was odd for a girl. In fact, the State Teachers College was in Greeley, and I got tremendous pressure to go there and become a teacher, because all women could be was teachers or nurses. But I didn’t. I went to Colorado State University where my father had graduated. It was thirty miles away.

I wanted to be around the action
They didn’t have an aeronautical engineering curriculum there, and I’m not sure I would have understood enough to even get into that, anyway, so I majored in mathematics. The department, though, was sort of the repository of a collection of things at the time. The head of the department had an interest in astronomy, so the astronomy classes at the university were taught in the math department. It also housed statistics and computer science, so it was broader than what you might think of as math.

I kept my interest up in space the whole time. I took all the astronomy classes that were offered and I sent in an application for federal employment to the Johnson Space Center. That was where I wanted to work, and I wanted to be around the action.

I got an offer from the Dispersion Analysis Section. Marlowe Cassetti was the branch chief. I talked to him on the phone. Frankly, I didn’t understand what the job was, but it was where I wanted to work, and that was the offer I had, so I took it.

Read Anne Accola's Oral History transcripts

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Mary L. Cleave, Johnson Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Headquarters
Astronaut, SeaWIFs Program Manager, Earth Science Deputy Association Administrator
March 5, 2002

I was crazy about airplanes

I was interested in airplanes before space. I started flying when I was fourteen. No one’s really sure why I was so crazy about airplanes when I was a little kid, but I was crazy about airplanes. Nobody else in my family flew except for my mother’s brother, who was a pilot that was killed in World War II, so I didn’t even know him. They always had his picture up on the mantle of my grandmother’s house.

So I don’t know how I made this connection, but anyway, I started making model airplanes and took my first flying lesson at fourteen. My parents said if I wanted to fly, I’d have to make the money to do it, and so I gave baton-twirling lessons and babysat a lot, and got the money and went ahead and took my first lesson.

Then after that, they realized I was really serious about it, and I was really lucky I had an old retired Army Air Corps test pilot who was my instructor pilot, and he was nice and told my parents that I had an ability to do this, because I didn’t have any cross training. I had no idea how to drive a car. He said, “This is the first person I’ve ever had in an airplane that doesn’t have anything to forget about driving mechanics; her whole interaction is with an airplane.”

And so they were nice and said if I made the money, they’d match me. So I went through and soloed when I was 16, got my solo license and then got my private license when I was 17. Since I lived in New York City, you had to be 18 to drive a car, so there was a period of time where I was legal to fly people before I was legal to drive people, which is a very bizarre thing.

Spaceflight was great, but it was gravy
When I went to undergraduate school, I thought I wanted to be an airline stewardess, but in those days, you had to be 5’4” to be an airline stewardess, and I was 5’2”, so in 1969 when I graduated from college, I was rejected as an airline stewardess. In 1979 when I graduated from college with my Ph.D., I applied [for the astronaut corps] and ended up going down to Houston.

So that’s what happened in that decade for women. Affirmative action made a huge difference, and I was right on the leading edge of it. My interest was airplanes, and, in fact, when I found out there was a possibility of flying in T-38s, I really thought that was neat because I never thought I’d get to fly in a high-performance jet. So, for me, spaceflight was great, but it was gravy on top of getting to fly in great airplanes.

Read Mary Cleave's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Jeanne L. Crews, Johnson Space Center
Aeronautical Engineer
August 6, 2007

We were absolutely blown away
My father was an Air Force pilot, and I was always interested in how things work and science, and I love all sorts of science. When I was about eight, I looked up at the stars and was fascinated by them. I guess I thought, well, I’d be an astronomer. I just didn’t know. I loved all of the sciences.

My parents were wonderful. If I liked astronomy, I’d get a telescope. If I liked looking at water to see what’s in it, I would get a microscope, whatever I wanted. So they really encouraged me. I think that’s one of the basic things, and they never said, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” That was wonderful.

When we finally started into the space race with the Russians, I remember seeing Sputnik and saying, “Oh, boy.” So then I decided, “I want to be an astronaut.” I didn’t realize at that time that they were all going to be test pilots.

I went ahead and got my degree. I was at the University of Texas majoring in engineering—aeronautical, at the time. They didn’t have the aerospace program then. It was just being developed. They had a test at the very beginning for all the freshmen majoring in engineering, and I was in the top 10 people taking the test, and they asked us if we’d like to be guinea pigs for an experimental engineering science program, and I said yes, not knowing what I was getting into.

Well, we found out, the 10 of us. It’s funny now, but we were absolutely blown away. They had us in, I think, in “P. Chem.,” which is physical chemistry, which we’d barely had freshman chemistry. They threw us in there with all these graduate students—we were freshmen, second-semester freshmen—and we were trying to pass that. Well, we were all failing, of course, so they had to get us off to the side and give us some help in it. They just crammed us with a whole bunch of stuff; they were experimenting, of course.

So that’s how I got into engineering science. It wasn’t any plan. In fact, it was just developed, I think. I don’t even know if it existed anywhere else but at the University of Texas. So that was an interesting—and I went four years there.

They didn’t know what to do with me
I was anxious to get on with my career and try to be an astronaut, so I went my last year at the University of Florida. I took a lot of graduate courses, and I got my degree there. So that was more in—I don’t think they call it “engineering science” there; I think it was just aerospace engineering.

Then I hired in at NASA, September 1964. I was one of the first women engineers there. They didn’t know what to do with me. They really didn’t know what to do with me. They had interviewed me out at KSC, and that was funny. They really didn’t know what to do with me. In those days people smoked. They had one kid following me around with a little ash tray. [Laughs] They just didn’t know. “There’s a woman. What are we doing?”

Read Jeanne Crews' Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Bonnie J. Dunbar, Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters
Flight Controller, Astronaut, Life and Microgravity Sciences Deputy Associate Administrator
December 22, 2004, January 20, 2005, March 23, 2005, September 14, 2005

Good grades were mandatory
My parents homesteaded in Washington State in 1948. I was the oldest of four kids, and it was expected that I would go to school and study hard. They didn’t have any expectations about what I would be, but homework was mandatory. Good grades were mandatory. Reading was mandatory.

The first set of books my mother ever bought was this set of encyclopedias, and they were in the living room, and when we finally got a TV, and I was about eight, I think, if there was any question about what we were seeing, we would look it up in the encyclopedia. Or if I asked my parents a question, they’d say, “Well, we don’t know, but look it up in the encyclopedia.” Not only did you have to look it up, you had to read it to the rest of the family, and it was fun. So reading was mandatory to be able to participate in this game.

The questions were unbounded
One of those early shows that I used to come home from school and watch was Flash Gordon, and Flash Gordon was exploring the universe. There were no special effects. If you look at these programs today, I think you can even see the wires holding the little spaceships as they fly through space.

But then actually when I was eight, Sputnik was launched, and I remember that my parents took me out and we looked for Sputnik. I’m pretty sure we saw it, because eastern Washington has clear night skies, especially in that time of year, October. The Milky Way, when I was growing up, was a band of white across the night sky. You knew that was the Milky Way. And I just became completely engrossed in space and stars and H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and any book about space I found in our very small rural school, I read.

So it was kind of natural for me. It was what sparked my interest. It was exciting, and the questions were unbounded. What was out there? What did these places look like? Even though I finally learned in high school that people thought we were the only solar system in the universe that had planets, I personally didn’t believe it, and so it was no surprise to me that we started discovering other planets in other solar systems.

So that’s the genesis of it, and it propelled me through engineering. It never occurred to me not to want to do it or to be discouraged by those who thought that I shouldn’t do it, because I came from my own family culture that said, “This is the United States of America.”

My father used to say—he was a Marine in World War II in the South Pacific—“I fought for my sons and my daughters to be able to become what they want to become if they wanted to work hard enough to do it.” So in my mind, that was the American ideal. And in my mind, what I wanted to do, where I felt my place in the world was, was helping to explore space.

Read Bonnie Dunbar's Oral History transcripts

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Anna L. Fisher, Johnson Space Center
February 17, 2009

Maybe someday there’ll be a Space Station
I was always interested in science and math, just because that was what I was good at. I tended to be kind of shy, so I wasn’t somebody who wanted to go into theater or anything like that. I just always gravitated toward science and math.

My father was in the military. I’m an Army brat, so we moved every two or three years. When I was in seventh grade, I remember we were stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We were out at PE class, and our teacher had a little transistor radio. We were listening to Alan Shepard’s first flight. That was when I first really thought, “Wow, I would love to go do something like that.” But of course all the astronauts at that time were male. They were all fighter pilots. For whatever reason, it never even entered my mind to consider trying to go to pilot training. That wasn’t something that I had access to or that entered my imagination.

But I did think about, “Maybe someday there’ll be a Space Station.” I started thinking a little bit about medicine but not in a realistic way. I did not read a lot of science fiction, because I had this thing when I was growing up that I only liked to read books that had a female lead character. There weren’t a lot of books with female lead characters that were in science fiction novels.

She didn’t laugh at me
I got interested in science and math. Then as I got older and started focusing more realistically on medicine, I was a volunteer at Harbor General Hospital because my best friend’s mother was a nurse there, which is one of the county hospitals in Los Angeles. Back then they had us developing film for X-rays. I’m not sure if you’d be allowed to do that anymore today, but that’s what we were doing. We were in the darkroom. I remember telling her, “I’d really like to be an astronaut.” She’s the only person I ever even said the words out loud too.

She was a good friend. She didn’t laugh at me.

Read Anna Fisher's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Shirley H. Hinson, Langley Research Center, Johnson Space Center
Space Task Group, Mathematician/Engineer
May 2, 2000

I majored in math because it was easy
I went to college, started in September of 1955. I graduated in May of ‘58, which was two years and nine months, with a degree in math and a minor in science. I lacked one hour in having a double major. The main reason I majored in math was because it was easy. I mean, why do you major in things? The other reason is I decided that if I married someone locally and I got stuck in a little dinky town, I could always teach math. But if not, maybe I could get out of Franklin County [North Carolina] and go somewhere and work for real.

So the week before I graduated, my professor asked me would I like to have a teaching fellowship. I probably didn’t even know what a teaching fellowship was, but I said, “What is it?” and he told me that I could teach one class each quarter, and they would pay me to get my master’s. So I said, “Let me go home and ask Daddy.”

So after I graduated, I asked Daddy, “If I need any money, can you help me through school one more year?”

He said, “If that’s what you want.”

So I went back to school one more year, and I ended up getting my master’s in 1959. There were three people that had graduated from that math department that had gone to work at a place called Langley Research Center. So I wrote to ask them for an application blank. I filled out an application, and they wrote me back and told me I was hired and that I could come to work on June 30th. So that’s how I started work at NASA.

My daddy was so proud of me, he couldn’t see straight. I was the first girl—I had three sisters, no brothers, and I was the first one that had graduated from college, and he was very proud.
They asked if I minded moving to Greenbelt, Maryland, and I said, “No.” They said, “Well, we will assign you then to the Space Task Group," because we were supposed to move to Greenbelt, Maryland. That’s where the Space Task Group was going, before Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson came along. And I’m thankful because I like Texas a whole lot.

Really a great job
I had no car. I did find a new roommate through the placement area at Langley, and I was living with a girl who was working at the Unitary Plan wind tunnel. And I found a ride to work with people that were working on my side of the field. Space Task Group was on one side of the field, and Langley Research Center was on the other side of the field. I just found rides to work and fell right into a great job, really a great job.

The first thing I did was I walked into a room with about four other girls, or women, there. I think two of them had majored in math in college, and two of them were math aides. And then we had a little computer. This "little computer" was the size of a refrigerator. It was a Bendix G15, single instruction. That was my first experience with a computer, and we were given a Freidan calculator. I had had a Monroe. I had never had a Freidan before, so I didn’t know to run that, and they were different.

I learned a lot on the job
From there, they started bringing us these trajectories about this thick to plot, and just started working then. I think the first program I ever did was to transfer rotational velocity to inertial velocity and vice versa.

Some of my classes in school, I knew what I was doing, but I was not familiar with orbital mechanics. I had to learn that on the job. I learned a lot on the job. I did have one professor in college who always was saying, “When you go to work, you will need this.” So there was a lot that I knew, but the largeness of it—I’d never been next to an airplane before I went to Langley. I had never seen an airplane on the ground before I went to Langley. So it was a change for a little girl from North Carolina. But I had a good time.

Read Shirley Hinson's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Dorothy B. "Dottie" Lee, Langley Research Center, Johnson Space Center
Space Task Group, Aerospace Engineer, Aerothermodynamics Engineer
November 10, 1999

That word didn't exist when I was a child
I was interested in astrophysics. That word didn't exist when I was a child. But I read George Gamow and other astrophysicists, and I knew that we were going to go to the Moon when I was 10 years old. That was in 1937. No one outside of Buck Rogers or what have you had stories of those tales in those days.

I was recruited, while in college, to go to work for NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics], and then it became a reality by virtue of just being at the right place at the right time, which is the story of my life. My entire life has been lucky, and I've always been at the right place at the right time.

I had playmates, but I did a lot of reading because I was an only child. So I just read a great deal. I wasn't aware that I was unique, but I haven't met anyone else who read Gamow and the rest of them when they were a child.

We had the exciting opportunities to launch vehicles
Math was very easy for me, just happened to be the easiest subject, and that's the reason I majored in math. Then when we were recruited—I say "we." There were several girls—I was from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College—who went to work for NACA at Langley, and again I was put in the best division there. It was called PARD, Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. We had the exciting opportunities to launch vehicles, to test different configurations, and how those configurations would ultimately design spacecraft by virtue of the shape of the nose. We went from cones to blunt bodies. You see today your different vehicles are all blunt bodies. So I was right there and enjoyed it. It was fun.

Of course, today, NASA recruits all over the country, but back in 1948, which is when I graduated from college, and there were not many gals, we were hired as "computers." Computers didn't exist, you understand. We had calculators. They gave us civil service exams, and I was fortunate enough to pass the exam at a couple of grades higher than I was hired in, so I got raises.

I thought he was being funny
But the thing that I would like to tell has something to do with Dr. Max Faget. Working as a computer, later we were classified as mathematicians. One day my project was to solve a triple integral for an engineer, so it didn't require using my calculator. I could just do it at my desk. Max's secretary was going to get married, so I was asked to be his secretary for two weeks while she was on her honeymoon. Well, we shared the same office, and I don't know how to type, still. I would answer the phone, distribute the mail, and work my triple integral. I did this for two weeks.

We all were friends. There were 100 people in this particular division, but we would party and get together frequently, so we knew each other well. This Friday, the end of my two weeks, Max said, "Dottie, how would you like to work for me all the time?"

I thought he was being funny, because I don't type, and I knew that this was the last day and Shirley was returning Monday. I said, "Sure," in a very flip way.

He gets up, goes downstairs to talk to the division chief, and he returns and he says, "Dottie, you start working for me Monday."

Well, I looked at him like, "All right," you know. So they found me a desk, and I was put with some engineers who were beautiful and taught me how to be an engineer. I learned on the job.
Brilliant men have touched my life throughout my career, and I couldn't help but win and do well because these people did guide me and continued to guide me even when I got here in Texas. But that was when I went to work for Max Faget. It was just a marvelous experience.

Read Dottie Lee's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Dee O'Hara, Johnson Space Center, Ames Research Center
Staff Nurse (Mercury Program), Medical Operations Division Manager, Ames Human Research Center Manager
April 23, 2002

It was a good decision on my part
There was a Career Day at high school. I guess most high schools have Career Days, and a nurse from Providence Hospital came, and she looked very smart in her uniform, and I thought, well, why not try that. I did, and it was a good decision on my part. I became a nurse, and after I graduated, I worked as a surgical nurse at the University of Oregon Medical School.

I had kind of a bad back, so standing at the operating table all day was tough. So I decided, well, maybe I'd go try something else, and then I worked for three diagnosticians in Portland, Oregon, and learned how to do lab work and X-rays. Back then, you did everything as a nurse.

Nice girls don't do that
My roommate came home one day and she said, "Let's join the Air Force and see the world."
I said, "No, I don’t think so. Nice girls don't do that." We're talking several centuries ago, you see. Anyway, we mulled it over for a while and thought, well, why not? It's a way to travel and to do something different.

So we went downtown Portland and walked into the recruiting office and said, "Well, here we are. Where do we sign?" Of course, the recruiter was a bit stunned at that point, because females just didn’t walk in off the street and ask to join the Air Force.

We then went to officers' training at Maxwell Air Force Base, and my classmate, Jackie, went off to Mobile, Alabama, and I went to Patrick Air Force Base. This was in May of 1959.

Oh, boy, what have I done?
The first seven astronauts were selected in April of ‘59, and in November of ‘59, I was working in the labor and delivery room at the hospital there at Patrick, working nights. I had a message the next morning that the “old man,” meaning the commander of the hospital, wanted to see me when I got off duty the next morning. Well, naturally, I was terrified, because I'd only been there six months and I knew that when you went to see Colonel Knauf, it was for two reasons: one, you were in trouble; or, two, it was for a promotion. Well, I knew it was not for a promotion because I'd only been there six months. So I kept thinking, oh, boy, what have I done? I didn’t remember harming anybody or harming a baby.

I gave morning report the next morning and went to his office, and here sat his exec officer, the chief nurse, and all these people. I really was terrified because I didn't know why exactly I was there. I literally sat on the edge of the seat.

Anyway, he started talking about Mercury, and I thought, well, there's a planet Mercury and there's mercury in a thermometer, and then he mentioned astronauts. That, of course, didn't mean anything to me. I didn't know what they were. He mentioned NASA, and I thought he was saying Nassau, because of the island of Nassau. I had just been there, and I thought, "How did the heck did he know I was down there?" Anyway, I was quite confused.

He turned and said to me, "Well, do you want the job?" I kind of turned around, because I didn't think he was talking to me. He said, "Well, you haven't heard a word I've said, have you?"

I said, "No, sir."

And he said, "Well, do you want the job or not?"

I didn’t know what else to say, so I said, "Well, I guess so," absolutely not knowing at all what I had committed myself to. Of course, the chief nurse, who was there, was furious with me afterwards, because she was losing me out of the hospital. Also, she thought NASA was crazy because they were to going to be putting a man on the top of a rocket.

Anyway, that's how it started. So in January of 1960, I went out to Cape Canaveral, as it was known then, and set up the aeromed lab. It was the beginning, and that’s how it happened.

Read Dee O'Hara's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Rhea Seddon, Johnson Space Center
May 20 & 21, 2010, May 9 & 10, 2011

It never occurred to me

I don’t think I followed the space program really any closer than most of the kids my age growing up. It was exciting. It was in the news. I can remember that we stopped classes to watch TV. I can remember just being fascinated by the whole thing. I kind of got to see the beginning of it, because we went out and watched Sputnik at night. I was old enough to understand what was going on when Sputnik launched. So I think I followed it the way other kids did.

I was not one of those people who suddenly became focused on space. I was a little girl growing up in a small Southern town, taking piano lessons and ballet lessons, and assuming that I would be like my mother and be a nice wife in a nice home someday.

It never occurred to me that that would be a potential career or would be something that was open to me at the time, but I thought it was incredibly exciting. As I say, it was one of those defining moments of my generation. In that respect I followed it reasonably closely.

It was beyond his imagining
The buildup to Apollo 11, the fact that it was a competition with the Russians, the fact that there was so much news not only about the rocket ships but about the people, it was just incredibly exciting. I’m sure everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing the night that they landed on the Moon.

My father had taken me and some friends up to a lake to go water-skiing. We spent several days. We all sat that night, exhausted from being out in the sun all day, and stayed up all night watching the Moon landing. It was incredible to me. My father, it was beyond his imagining. I just remember it, again, as something that would be remembered forever, and something that so many people here on Earth were following.

The tension and hoping that it would go well, understanding how new and different it was to do something like this. I think people had worried about horrible things that could happen. We were all aware of that. The fact that it went off, to my view and that of my friends, flawlessly—I’m sure there were little glitches along the way, and you read back about how they were just about out of fuel—but that wasn’t obvious to any of us. It looked like it was just perfect and beautiful.

There were people there
It was awesome, because we could go out that evening and look at the Moon, and have the awe and wonder that there were people there. I have the remembrance of thinking this was the beginning of space exploration off this planet. I think we all had big dreams about what we would be capable of doing if we could do that. I think that all of us expected that success to be followed by even greater leaps, radically, because we were obviously the foremost spacefaring nation on Earth, and we would continue to do things like that.

After Sputnik there was of course all the concern that the young people of our country were behind in science and engineering, so there was a big push to improve what we taught children of all ages. I went to a three-room eight-grade parochial school. Believe it or not, I can’t remember ever having any science before the seventh grade.

I think the problem was that the nuns didn’t have any background in it. They couldn’t teach it, and they had to bring in a lay teacher from the community. I don’t remember how often she came, maybe a couple days a week, maybe one day a week, and taught the seventh and eighth graders—probably sixth, seventh and eighth, because sixth, seventh and eighth were in one classroom—science.

That was my first exposure to science, and perhaps because it was new and exciting, and it was a national imperative, I got excited about it. When people ask me, “When did you get interested in space,” I had to think back about that.

Read Rhea Seddon's Oral History transcripts

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Katherine D. Sullivan, Johnson Space Center
May 10, 2007, September 11, 2007, March 12, 2008, May 28, 2009

It was something dramatic
Sputnik happened when I was six; in fact, one day after my sixth birthday. I was born on October 3rd, so I’m almost a Sputnik baby. My father is an aerospace engineer. My brother, from as early as any of us can remember, wanted to fly. So there was a background in our family and an appetite on my dad’s part towards all things space, and like all little kids you follow your parents’ interests to some degree.

I remember going out on the front lawn with my dad—we lived in New Jersey at the time—to see if we could see this thing going overhead. My actual understanding, of course, of what was going on was tiny, but it was something dramatic. It was something that intrigued Dad. It was, “Come on, let’s go see;” so, of course, you go running out to see. That event stands out.

Airplanes are suddenly all around
We moved to California when I was six. My dad was in aerospace, and he could recognize that the impetus and the gravity of all that was going to move west. Someone from his company had gone out before to one of the small California startups and had right away seen a place where my dad’s skills would fit and started lobbying him to come out. We moved out to the San Fernando Valley in 1958, and that made a big change in how close we were to the aerospace activities in the 1960s.

Airplanes are suddenly all around. Where he works is right near Van Nuys Airport. Before very long he’s linked up with guys that like to go fishing and flying. One guy in particular liked to fly to the better fishing grounds in the little Cessnas and Pipers that the company flying club had. So before very long my dad’s joined the flying club, and everything aviation and aerospace is coming closer into our world through the family channel.

Amazing adventure afoot
At the same time, NASA is founded. Life magazine arrives every week, and National Geographic issues are arriving every month with these breathtaking, amazing stories about the new space frontier, the seven astronauts, Sputnik, and what it all means. It was fabulous. I ate all of that stuff up. Every single issue of Life and of National Geographic in the early sixties seemed to have a really entrancing story about who are these guys, what they are going to do, and what is spaceflight like. Right next door to it or a page or few later there would be some story about aquanauts, because that was also the era of Conshelf III (Continental Shelf projects) and a project that tried to drill all the way down to the mantle of the Earth, the Moho Project.

I just was fascinated by all of those things. Nothing in my thinking at that time was oriented towards job or career. I was just absorbing them as grand adventures that were happening out there that were of a huge scale and amazing. I was curious about what they were doing. I was curious about how they did it. I was curious about, “What are each of these people like?” Not “how do I become one of them,” but just “who are these people? How interesting. What are they doing?”

I think that general sense of amazing adventure afoot in the world and getting glimpses of it was really what entranced me, and I think that at some deep level this set a strong sense of wanting to be part of such adventures. There are people who get to do these amazing adventures, and that clearly would be really cool. Just that feeling of what must it be like to be a part of things like this was very compelling and very moving.

It was like being in it
I followed, once the space program really got going, Alan Shepard’s flight and later John Glenn’s and then the whole sequence. I was mesmerized by all of those. I would change my schedule, finish my homework, do whatever it took to be able to be by the television and watch what was going on. I was avidly reading everything in the newspapers and everything in Life, Look, and the National Geographic. It’s interesting. Our whole family found that interesting, but I don’t recall all four of us sitting around the television watching the lunar landing.

I’m struck by so many people who remember being in their school class or sitting with their whole family. I remember sitting on the floor in our den probably about two feet away from the TV screen, watching the landing, and listening to what was going on. Of course, they didn’t have real great video right at that moment, so they were cutting back and forth to mission control. I remember just sitting there scanning the TV, listening intently, and trying to really understand, “What’s going on here” to really make sense of it. It wasn’t like being a spectator. It was like being in it.

I remember when Buzz Aldrin—it must have been Buzz, not that I knew that at the time—called out from on the spacecraft, “Contact light.” I thought, “What was that?” It’s 1969, so I’m 17, and I remember realizing just in this instant that, “Oh, wow, these guys aren’t down yet, and this guy just said, ‘Contact light.’” That means he can tell something about how close to the ground they are. How cool is that? These guys have curb feelers on the spacecraft to know when they’re near the surface. That little tiny engineering insight just kind of snapped into focus and was a real interesting kind of, “Ooh, that’s cool. I understand a piece of how this all is happening.”

Read Kathy Sullivan's Oral History transcript

Read about other women who contributed to NASA's success

Return to JSC Oral History Website

Go to NASA home Go to JSC home

Curator: JSC Web Team | Responsible NASA Official: Lynnette Madison | Updated 7/16/2010
Privacy Policy and Important Notices

Information JSC History Portal