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Former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham: preparation and hard work were keys to success

She became the third African-American woman to travel into space. Now retired from NASA, Joan Higginbotham continues to blaze new career paths.

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On December 6, 2006, Joan Higginbotham became the third African-American woman to travel into space. From liftoff to touchdown, she spent a total of 12 days, 20 hours, and 45 minutes aboard the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station, which orbits about 249 miles above the earth.

Higginbotham’s journey from a Chicago schoolgirl to a NASA astronaut was not always predictable, but it exemplified the sweet rewards that come from hard work and determination.

In the Q&A below, Higginbotham, my stepmother, talks about her history-making adventure. She also talks about the challenges, in light of the difficulties faced by other black women who contributed to space travel, such as those depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

Q. In your journey with NASA, did you face challenges similar to those depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures?”

Yes, there were people who doubted my abilities because of my race and/or gender, as well as put me under a microscope more than it did my colleagues. Everything I said and did was scrutinized to the nth degree. I had to prove myself over and over again.

Q. What advice do you have for women striving in a male-dominated industry?

Women tend to underestimate their abilities and are the first to give credit to everyone but themselves. We need to have more confidence in our abilities and not mistake that confidence for arrogance.

Q. What lessons did you learn from the NASA application process, the preparation, the extraordinary launch?

Application process – perseverance; most people don’t get selected the 1st time and need to apply multiple times. Preparation – study, prepare and be extremely organized.  Launch – work hard but enjoy the ride.

Watch Discovery take off on December 6, 2006. It was a night launch that Higginbotham was aboard.

Q. Let’s talk about the actual mission, which involved rewiring the space station’s power system to allow for future construction. How complex was that mission?

Very.  There was a lot of electrical re-wiring that had to be done; so on two different days, we completely turned off the power on half of the space station so the crew performing the rewiring wouldn’t get electrocuted. Luckily, both times we turned the power back on, it worked like a charm.

There were also five rookies (first-time fliers on the shuttle) on a crew of seven. Everyone thought having that many inexperienced crew members on board was a recipe for disaster, but everyone performed like champions.

Q. Describe life in space.

Floating is an art, and not quite as easy as it seems. To get from one place to another, you have to push off of a surface. If you push too hard, you will go flying into another surface.

If you don’t push hard enough, you’ll end up in the middle of the space shuttle trying to gain enough momentum to get to another surface. We sleep in sleeping bags that we tie to the ceiling, walls, or floor, lest we end up somewhere different in the morning than where we went to sleep. Our food is specially prepared to be “sticky” so it doesn’t readily float away when we snip open the packets of food.

Our straws have pinchers, so that after we sip our drinks, the liquid doesn’t continue to travel up and out of the straw.

Q. The crew you traveled with on Discovery was quite diverse. How was it working with so many different ethnic groups?

Phenomenal. We were a mini United Nations – two African Americans, a native-born Brit who became an American citizen, a Norwegian, someone of Russian/Korean descent, and someone whose parents hailed from India… With all the nationalities and at least five languages, we showed that yes, we CAN all get along.

Q. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Colombia was 16 minutes away from completing its 28th mission when it exploded over Texas. You lost three colleagues on that mission. Describe the emotional toll following that tragedy.

The grief and sense of loss was overwhelming. On a personal level, three of my classmates (who began astronaut training with me) were on that flight and perished. We spent so much time together; they were like family.

So, I lost three siblings that day. At NASA, the sense of loss was also accompanied by a sense of failure. Something went wrong, and no one caught the error before it cost seven people their lives.

Q. Did you have any apprehensions following the explosion?

No. I really feel that when it’s your time to depart the earth, you will, regardless of where you are. I’ve had more close calls on I-77 than I’ve ever had on the shuttle.

Q. What are your hopes for the future of NASA?

I hope that someone in the private industry develops a space-faring vehicle soon, since NASA decided to stop flying the space shuttle, leaving America without its own space vehicle. It would also be nice to have additional funding for NASA. Currently, NASA’s budget is less than 0.1% of the national budget.

Q. What’s next for Joan Higginbotham?

My career path has taken me from electrical engineer to rocket scientist to astronaut to running a malaria program in Equatorial Guinea, Africa, to sourcing products from all over the world.  Every career change has been totally different from the previous career, so the answer to this question is… stay tuned.


Four facts about Joan Higginbotham:

• High School: Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1982

• College: Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1987

• Graduate School: Masters of Management from Florida Institute of Technology, 1992, and Masters in Space Systems from Florida Institute of Technology, 1996.

• Organizations: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; Gulf Coast Apollo Chapter of the Links, Inc.; Association of Space Explorers ( ASE); and board member of Sickle Cell Association of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Kayla S. Mitchell is a rising junior at North Carolina A&T State University, where she is pursuing a degree in multimedia journalism with a minor in fashion.

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