MOUNT VERNON — Dr. Kathryn Sullivan took about 100 guests on a trip into outer space Thursday.
Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, thrilled guests at The Ohio State University Alumni Club meeting with her slide show and presentation on her days as an astronaut with the NASA space shuttle program.
“The fundamental rule of space flight is it really isn’t easy, because if it was, everyone would be doing it,” Sullivan said. “The other thing is, even if you do things slightly wrong, this thing (the shuttle) is a bomb.
“This ride is like being embedded in an earthquake. This is 4 million pounds of hardware being pushed off the planet by 7 million pounds of thrust. You’re doing 17,500 miles per hour after 8 1/2 minutes.”
Sullivan spent 13 years as an astronaut with NASA, served as an oceanography officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was president of COSI in Columbus. She serves as director for The Ohio State University’s Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy. She was in the first group selected to participate in the shuttle missions, joining NASA in 1978, then flying on the Challenger in 1984.
“Becoming an astronaut, I’ve always likened it a bit to earning the honor and distinction of representing your country as an Olympian. It’s a tremendous status. It’s a title people revere,” Sullivan said. “For many of us, it’s a group of people we watched growing up, were enamored with the life they were leading. I certainly, as a young girl watching all that, kind of dimly, honestly, marveled that some people got to have that kind of excitement and challenge of creating new things and drama and adventure of taking on such great adventures as their job. I was stunned to see that some people get to make their living by opening new frontiers, figuring out how to make amazing things work that no one’s ever done before.
“It was tremendous to get to join that cadre — the first group that was selected into the shuttle program in 1978. Then, to get your own tap on the shoulder and slotted in toward a flight you get to build, prepare for and do, is spectacular. It’s still a terribly small number of people who’ve ever flown in space. It’s only barely gone above 500.”
Sullivan showed off some pictures of her and the crew aboard the Challenger and described what it was like to eat, work and play in zero gravity.
“Nothing will stay put. You can’t just put something on a table. You have to be thoughtful where you put things,” said Sullivan. “I could spend all night and several days telling you all the wonderful things of zero gravity.
“The second most fun thing about being in space, other than playing with your food, is looking out the window. If you haven’t learned your geography before you go, you’ll be kicking yourself. You’re looking out the window, seeing things you can’t make sense of. Trying to figure out where places are.”
One of the interesting tidbits of flying at 17,000 miles per hour, Sullivan said, is you see 16 sunrises and sunsets during a 24-hour period. The shuttle travels around the Earth in just 90 minutes.
Sullivan also touched on the future of the space program, as Congress and the president are discussing different proposals, including the idea of switching the ownership from government to private sector firms.
“I think a lot of the commentary being rocketed around lately has been very uncareful. Not carefully listening and not thinking and often forgetting our civics lessons,” Sullivan said. “Rocketry and space flight are really difficult things. It’s extremely demanding. If you do one thing slightly wrong, you can blow people up.”
She is a huge proponent of continuing to explore the galaxy, whether it be government or private.
“I am a fan and a proponent of having a bold goal for human exploration of space. I believe we drive a broader, deeper swath of technology more ambitiously, more radically, if we set such a goal. There will be setbacks, there will be hurdles, there will be obstacles, there will be failed tests, there will be all sorts of things that turn into rallying cries for stopping this. The dividends come from sticking to it and realizing the technological goals that make such a quest possible. And the paybacks come as all of that expertise and all of the derivative devices flow back through our own society.
“You set a bold goal to go to Mars. You do not spend any of those dollars on Mars, you spend them here, on the minds and talents of the nation’s best science and engineering personnel. You spend it right here on new labs, on new devices, on new capabilities that with our innovative society, absolutely will be scavenged and harvested and fed back into countless other lines of innovation and benefits to our society.”
Teaching and learning, especially about things we don’t currently know, is a passion for Sullivan. She’s shown that in her work with COSI and at Battelle.
“I tend to give a couple of pieces of advice to students. If someone had tried to answer this question for me when I was in high school, the realm in which I’ve made my career and made a publicly known name, didn’t exist. It wasn’t open to women or African-Americans,” she said. “Trying too narrowly to aim to a specific title or a specific seat, I think can lead you astray. I would urge kids to look at fields or positions or roles that inspire them as I looked at the early astronauts and was inspired by the scale of adventure; and engineering, and how did they figure out to do that. I would look at that and ask yourself, ‘What talents do I see in myself that I think look like the things they might be doing.’ Build those, deepen and strengthen them every chance you get.
“The surest way to get to a grand destination you dream about is to approach every single day, in and out of school, as a chance to tap learning from the people in the world around you. Learn as much as you can and put excellent fingerprints on everything you do. From the simplest homework assignment to the science fair project or whatever it is, that is your handywork. So, aim for excellence, aim to continually be learning.
“What roles NASA has available, what fields are open, where the trends are when you are 18 or 20 or 30, nobody can predict absolutely for you today. But, I will predict for you today that people with broad and deep learning, with a passion for delivering their excellence, will always be in great demand and will always have access to some of the most challenging and exciting frontiers in human society. That, I will just about guarantee.”