Best of ODP: Interview with Kathy Sullivan, First Woman to Walk in Space

This interview first appeared earlier this year, in honor of Women’s History Month.  I (Monica) had the pleasure of working with Kathy at NOAA during the Obama Administration.  With the 50th Anniversary of the NASA moon landing and spacewalk that we celebrated just a few weeks ago, this interview came to mind as a highlight of our exclusive reporting this year.

Kathy Sullivan was a crew member on three Space Shuttle missions, she was the first American woman to walk in space, and she served as the most recent Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

ODP:  Last week, NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain took a walk (unfortunately separately) in space.  You were the first woman to do that.  Can you describe for our readers how it felt?

KS:  It feels more like scuba diving than like walking, because you’re using your hands to move around on the shuttle or station. You don’t feel any sense of up or down, nor any sense of speed, despite the fact that you’re hundreds of miles above the Earth and zooming along at a brisk 17,500 miles per hour. It is really something to see the Earth from that vantage point without any window frame.

ODP:  How important to our country is a vibrant space exploration program? 
KS: Space exploration makes very important technological and intangible contributions to our country. Bold exploration goals force scientists and engineers to confront and solve problems of a variety and scale unmatched by any other goal I can think of. For example, the demands of the Apollo program drove the start of digital computing. The cascade of benefits that have flowed from that boosted the U.S. economy and made life on Earth better for billions of people. On the intangible side, space exploration showcases our country’s strength and values to allies and foes alike, inspires young people to learn and set bold goals for themselves and gives Americans a point of shared pride.
ODP:  As Administrator of NOAA, you sought to build up the agency’s role in environmental data collection, monitoring, and analysis.  Why was that a priority?

KS:  NOAA is charged by the Congress with keeping a finger on the pulse of our home planet – Earth – and translating the data into practical information that can help American citizens, communities and businesses stay safe and thrive economically. We live on a very dynamic planet and, increasingly, need richly-detailed information. Providing that requires the repetitive collection of huge amounts of data.

ODP:  You have had an incredible career as an astronaut and NOAA Administrator.  How important is STEM education to developing the next generation of leaders like you?

KS:  A solid grounding in the STEM subjects and, as importantly, the analytical and observational habits of mind that underpin them, is of vital importance to ALL citizens of the 21st century, not just leaders.

ODP:  We just finished women’s history month and you made history.  What advice do you have for young women who want to break barriers as you did? 

KS:  Dare to dream big, work hard and ignore the voices (including the one in your head) that say “you can’t,” “you shouldn’t” or “you don’t really matter.”

Thanks so much, Kathy!  Inspiring words for all of us citizens of the 21st century!

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