Q&A With the First American Woman to Travel to Space and UCSC Alumna


Kathryn Sullivan graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences, and went on to be the first American woman to walk in space. She traveled on three missions throughout her time as a staff scientist for NASA. In her career, she has also been the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Sullivan sat down with a reporter from City on a Hill Press to talk about her time at UCSC and as an astronaut for NASA.

Dr. Sullivan, a pioneering astronaut and UCSC alumna returns to Santa Cruz to share her experiences.

Georgia Sheppard: What was it like being in a male-dominated field at that time?

Sullivan:It wasn’t anything new to be working in a predominantly male environment. Intelligence, dedication, energy, courage, compassion, those are just not things that are male or female. They are human qualities. I think that was the ethos in our family from growing up. [It] was pretty egalitarian — you are an individual, you can be interested in anything that you are interested in, it’s legitimate to be interested in anything that you are interested, it’s legitimate to pursue it, no one gets to edit your interests. […] All of us who were strange were first granted the presumptions that we were worthy of being astronauts. And our classmates, the people who picked on us, the men in our class, I never detected any doubt that [they thought,] ‘You snuck your way in,’ ‘You slept your way in here,’ or ‘You bullshitted your way in here.’ So we were among our peers, taken as fully credible and then very quickly, like anything else, people start watching your track record and your performance and before very long that’s what you have to stand on.

G.S.: So you did deal with discrimination at some points?

Sullivan: I worked hard, proved my stuff […] so I had, all things considered, compared to countless other stories I know of women in different fields, I had an easy time. But [in] the NASA experience we were very well supported by our classmates and by our peers and if you got someone who threw an elbow at you verbally or chewed on you or roughed you up a little bit, that was the general NASA climate. You challenge each other on everything all the time, because the answers really matter, the best right answers really matter. You aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time worrying about how you feel about this.

G.S.: In your three missions, were you doing experiments in space?

Sullivan: So every mission would have some operations assigned to it. Like any big organization, you would have a calendar of who’s asked you to do what on the space shuttle. You would look at the technical factors of which things could combine where and that would become a mission. And then you would assign three mission specialists to that mission and they with their commander would sort of divvy up who’s going to do what. […] Let’s say we have a satellite to deploy and some experiments to operate, on each of those things you would look at the skill mixes and what the tasks [were] and you would assign somebody to be the lead, the primary responsible party, and somebody to be the back up. […]So my flights involved all of those things, deploying satellites, operating experiments and doing space walks.

G.S.: I can imagine that astronaut training is very intense?

Sullivan: It’s not so physically intense, it’s drinking from a fire hose, the range of subjects that you are expected to gain a substantial competency in. Of course there are specific skill sets of whatever you are assigned to do, space walks, robotic arm operations, things like that. There are some pieces that are physically demanding when you are doing what we call egress training, which is [if] the shuttle crash lands, it breaks the landing gear and crash lands somewhere. You are all okay but the door isn’t going to open, there is no one there to get you out. In your 95 pounds worth of equipment, how do you get out of the vehicle? And, literally, in the space shuttle case [the answer is to]rappel out down the side of it. So you put on 95 pounds of gear and go into a very realistic model of the shuttle that is designed to help you practice that, coming up on the back of the seats and pushing the overhead window out, pushing yourself out of the seats and rappelling down.

That’s physically demanding, you are going to be sweating like crazy. Training in the suit for spacewalks is physically demanding. You are inside a hard structure, it needs to be tightly fitting, you will absolutely get bruised just getting in and out of it, you will smash your fingers on the ends of the glove and you will wear out your hands because you are mainly using your hands to move from place to place to attach a tether, remove a tether, to drive a tool. So imagine taking one of those hands strength gizmos you find at a fitness store and continually pumping both hands for 8 hours. For most of your time, the main reason you need to be well-conditioned is the pace of the training, the pace of the calendar, the pace of the things you are involved in.

G.S.: I can’t imagine walking in space, that sounds like a dream.

Sullivan: Well, walk is the wrong verb. Around the space shuttle or the space station, you are sort of floating. It’s more like swimming around a jungle gym than walking. The 12 guys who landed on the moon walked in space, we swam in space.

G.S.: Can you describe the feeling of being out in space for the first time?

Sullivan: Yeah, zero gravity is just great fun. It’s the freedom of movement of scuba diving in your short sleeves in open air, no cumbersome gear. It really is magically delightful to be able to move massive objects around with your fingertips. [There are] very fun things you can do —playing with your food, making schools of Pepperidge Farms goldfish, playing with balls of water that just drift around the cockpit. That’s super fun and looking out the window is endlessly fascinating.

G.S.: Can you recall any other good memory from UCSC that you are particularly fond of?

Sullivan: A good friend of mine senior year, we both went into the physical chemistry for earth sciences [class]. He had at least had freshman calculus, I had not […] I think [I spent] every Wednesday night for like 6 hours at the little kitchen table at the place I was living in over on Ocean Avenue slogging through the problem set and trying to get it done. And we both did [pass].

[Also] we did just so many great field trips. Ely Silver gave me the opportunity to go out to sea as a senior.

I had always wanted to go on a junior year abroad program, but, having just started in geology my sophomore year, [I] sort of needed to play catch-up. [… ] Essentially my adviser told me not to let my schooling get in the way of my education and just go to Norway. […] I went over to Bergen, Norway for basically a year.