Transcript: Kathy Sullivan: Spacewalker

Kathy Sullivan discusses her extraordinary NASA career and shares riveting stories of her time in space.
Get the Msnbc newsletter.

The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg

Kathy Sullivan: Spacewalker

Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I'm Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service. This week, The Oath ventures into orbit. My guest is Kathy Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space. An oceanographer by training and an explorer at heart, Kathy was selected into a new class of NASA astronauts in 1978, an exceedingly competitive and rigorous process that included the first six women ever admitted to the highly selective program. After years of intensive training and simulations, Kathy ultimately flew three missions for NASA on the space shuttle, including her 1984 spacewalk, and the 1990 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most advanced and important scientific achievements in the history of NASA. After leaving NASA, Kathy ran the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a crucial part of the Department of Commerce that houses among other agencies, the National Weather Service. Kathy Sullivan, welcome to The Oath.

Kathy Sullivan: Thanks. Good to be here.

Rosenberg: It's a real pleasure to have you on. Tell me where you grew up.

Sullivan: Six years in northern New Jersey, where my dad was in the early stages of his aerospace career. And then in 1958, we drove across the country and settled in Southern California, San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles.

Rosenberg: When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I know many people who shared that dream you became an astronaut. But that's not what you wanted to be when you were a little.

Sullivan: Well, I wanted to be lots of things, I think when I was little. But mainly, I didn't have labels for what I wanted to be. I had impulses that were very strong geographic impulses, what I would call them now. But curiosity about what's out there, what's like at the top of that hill, intense and insatiable curiosity around maps in the stories that they tell, you know, what I wanted was somehow to have all that stuff a part of my life. And what I didn't know was what kind of job label title meant--you got to do that.

Rosenberg: You didn't know what it was called. But you know which way you want.

Sullivan: I knew what I wanted it to be like, but I didn't know what you called it.

Rosenberg: You tell a story in your wonderful book: Handprints on Hubble, about being a seven-year old and planning a family trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Sullivan: Yeah, I think the first summer maybe the second that we were out there, and my dad had made a friend who was into trout fishing, which my father had gotten interested in. And so, it was decided the two families would rent a cabin together and head up in In the mountains, and I, I--this was probably some quick conversation at dinner one evening, we're going to go with the Parkers to like Sabrina. Okay, that sounds great. After dinner, I think it was went out to the car in the glovebox and got out the gas station map and unfolded it. And I already knew enough to solve thanks to my father, I'm sure, to look at the back where the names were all listed and find the name and find the two coordinates and find the letter and the number and you triangulate my way in and boom: there's the lake and boom, here's where we are. And I and this is before freeways were built in California. So there's a limited set of routes to get anywhere. And this had a very prominent interstate highway running right up that side of the mountain. So, I traced all that out was very proud of myself. And when we then left for the mountains, I don't remember how long the time was between my MapQuest and the departure, but we're driving away in the olden days pre bucket seats, my brother and I are in the backseat. Big bench seat car.

Rosenberg: Seat belts—

Sullivan: --no seat belts. No, my dad asked my mom to get the map out of the glovebox, and he knew the surface streets to get to the north end of our Valley, but then which road and on from there, and I pulled myself up on the back of their seat and pronounced that 395 will get us there. And they chuckled. That was so cute that she was trying to help as my mother's wrestling the map. And a few minutes later, she looks over my father with this shocked look on her face and says, “she's right.” Like, how did she do that?

Rosenberg: So, you had plotted the family trip, you just didn't share it with them yet.

Sullivan: I had just my own curiosity of where is that and traced back to say, Okay, well, I guess we'll probably do this. And then, you know, like seven year olds will do got distracted into 43 other things and it didn't come back to mind until the question came up as we were driving away.

Rosenberg: Of course, but I hope they listened to.

Sullivan: They did. Yeah, I think I was dubbed the navigator probably from that day forward.

Rosenberg: You write in your book that you were very close with your mother's mother, your maternal grandmother, and that she died when you were 12 and 1963. That turned your world upside down.

Sullivan: Yeah, it turned our family world upside down. She's the only one of my four grandparents I had any chance to get to know. Both grandfathers died long before my brother and I came along. My father's mother is a dim figure in my memory from probably an age as a toddler on the floor. I'm watching my slightly older brother, play with Nana. So, Pauline was the one I got to know not long after we moved to Southern California, she packed up from Jackson Heights, New York and came out and lived nearby for probably three to four years, I would guess the timeframe was. And it was delightful. I mean, to your grandma babysitting Nana babysitting, and his apartment was a few blocks away from where we lived for quite some time and in those early Southern California days, as a 7,8,9-year old you could blindly set off at the crack of dawn and come back at supper time and just wander and roam in the hills. And you know, it was great to have this extra way point where there were bound to be some nice cookies, a couple hugs—a fun lady to stop it and visit. So, it's a delightful memory from that, sort of, a classically perfect time to really be in love with the grandparent. And then on top of that, it's the only grandparent experience I had, given how our family went.

Rosenberg: But you lost her suddenly.

Sullivan: Yeah, it was quite a sudden matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months between a day at her apartment, where she was stricken and my mother, you know, scraped her up off the floor and summoned, I guess, the ambulance and we got her into hospital. She lived through that following Christmas and then passed away in March of the following year. And as a, you know, 12 or 13-year old has really been doted on by this delightful Nana--that was quite a loss. But took a couple months after that, I think for me to realize that however it all had worked on my mother herself--and I'm not, you know, not going to try to do speculative psychoanalysis here but--something really had ripped more fundamentally for my mother with that loss, and it catapulted her into bouts with depression, some damaging drinking that went on for many, many years. And the depression really never quite left her. I think it sort of got better and she regained good functionality, but she was a deeply tired soul. And that was all done, ever quite the same again,

Rosenberg: You end up going to the University of California at Santa Cruz, what did you study there?

Sullivan: I went there because they had an outstanding Russian language program and my game plan at the time, having already become fluent in French and right on the cusp of fluent German. But Russian was the, you know, strategically significant language of the day with the politics of the world at the time. And it had this crazy, Cyrillic alphabet, which just seemed an intriguing puzzle to learn how to solve

Rosenberg: A fascinating thing.

Sullivan: Fascinating thing. So that was going to be my next move was to get fluent in Russian. And again, I still didn't know what that meant I was going to do with all of this. In fact, college was where I only just began to take a deeper look and think about what, what do you do if these are the skills you have, you can speak multiple languages--you can teach them, you can read and analyze the literature in them, you can be a translator or an interpreter that could be an asset for being in the Foreign Service. But I was just so starting to think through what life might be like down those avenues while I enrolled in college.

Rosenberg: Have you thought about the Foreign Service?

Sullivan: You know, I thought about it, a tiny little bit, sparked completely by James Mitchell's book Caravans, which I think I'd read in about sixth grade. So, a very, very through vague and romanticized view of the kind of adventurous Life a foreign service officer might have. Not quite getting at the paperwork and back in the embassy dredge that any job like that probably entails as well. So, freshman year, I was just beginning to meet people that could help shed some light on those sorts of things. Other senior students around me were applying for foreign service and taking the exam, so I was beginning to get windows on what these avenues of life might be like, if in fact, my skill set was languages. But my general plan to max up on languages and switch quickly to Russian was subverted by my French advisor, who informed me I was required to take three science courses. But I have a plan and I've mapped things out. And you know, as God does when you say I have a plan, he just laughed and said, yeah, that's nice, you're taking three courses, and here I recommend these three, by the way, they're actually interesting. And they're well taught. Everyone's enjoyed them and gotten something out of them. And they're demonstrably not too hard for French majors and language majors to pass. So, get you across the campus and take these classes.

Rosenberg: And what were they?

Sullivan: The first one was an introductory course to marine biology, taught by professor named Todd Newberry, young-ish guy I guess he was probably early 30s at the time, he's teaching this--very passionate about his field and, you know, lots of weekend stints out in the tide pools and along the coast, getting the hands on up close look and the things that we were studying about. The only book he used for that course was not a textbook, but really a memoir comme research crew’s report by a Brit named Alistair Hardy, who got the chance when he was 26 years old to go on an extended voyage with the research, Royal research, of discovery. His book is it's about one third coming of age tale of this young British man from, sort of, nowhere having suddenly this great experience. And it's one third sailing travelogue. And then it's one third a, you know, intrigue of how do you do science? See, that was like a full painted portrait of the kind of life I had sort of been dreaming of, since reading Caravans and way back, when

Rosenberg: You just didn't have a name--

Sullivan--I didn't have a name for it. And so, you know, here's a guy standing in front of me in the lecture hall, and taking me out to the tide pools. And then here's a sort of larger Canvas, described in this book of the kind of life this is, and that was great. And then, a very forgettable theoretical math class or topology and shapes in between. And the third one was a general broad sweep oceanography course. So, the geology and the physics and the chemistry and a little bit of the biology again, taught by guy named Gary Griggs. And same thing, passionate, young, dynamic professor. And finally, as that course is nearing its end towards my final quarter of freshman year, I've checked the box on the science requirements. And what am I now going to do with this? Because I'm loving this stuff. every bit as much as I've ever loved my language studies.

Rosenberg: Were you surprised?

Sullivan: Delighted is more of the word. I mean, it was certainly unexpected. But I just blew right past any sort of surprise. It was into eagerness, I think the whole way through. And so, I think I was starting to kind of realize, you start figuring out what you're taking sophomore year. You're saying this was fun, and it's great, and I have, you know, something I'll read for my hobbies. And I'm going back to the Russian pathway, or what are you going to do here? And I really--I stood on that for a while, and realized that I didn't really know how to answer that because I, I knew I had like two classes, but I didn't really know what going down the road of Oceanography would mean. And so, one day, as our class was ending, I lingered behind a little bit and asked Gary Griggs--we've teased each other and remember, reminisce about this frequently that--because these were not very intelligently posed questions, they were very sincere questions, but not well put. I mean, I always said, I think I basically said, “I like that course. I like this course. What do you guys actually do?” I mean, that's about as smart as my question was, you know, the lesson for me from that day is there's a sincere question badly put, which really complex instance your questions are often really hard to put right--ask it of someone who will respond to the question underneath and not you know, not unduly penalize you, or laugh at your just make jokes about how badly you put it.

Rosenberg: Someone who's really listening,

Sullivan: Someone who's got the care and the compassion to respond to the human--that there's a deep human question here that came out badly--and we joke about now how badly it came out, but I promise you if he had laughed and snickered at my naive, klutzy way of asking it, I'm sure I would have been devastated and embarrassed and slunk back to the French department. But happily, I picked a guy like Gary Griggs, who would understand and appreciate the question underneath the clumsy words, and really respond generously and passionately to that. And instead of, as you well could have done, pointing out what, sort of, chasm exists between just barely 18-year old French major who didn't take the high school math and science pre-reqs and a professor, I mean, it's a massive chasm, you possibly imagine you could become like me? His attitude and his response was more like, oh, man, it is so fun on this side of the chasm, let me show you how to build a bridge.

Rosenberg: Come, follow me.

Sullivan: Come follow me, you'll love it

Rosenberg: And you loved it.

Sullivan: Never looked back.

Rosenberg: In fact, you went on to get a PhD in Oceanography at Dalhousie.

Sullivan: Yes.

Rosenberg: Did I pronounced that right?

Sullivan: Yeah, you did. Most people don't, well done.

Rosenberg: Tell me about that.

Sullivan: I had to figure it out by the end of my undergraduate that the geology and structure the sea floor was really what fascinated me. You know, the structure of the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean geologically, are quite different. So, you sort of, kind of, pick which class, which group of features and phenomena you want to try to understand and study. I had spent my third year of university on an exchange program in Bergen, Norway. And so, I really sort of, had the geology of the Atlantic sort of open up in front of me, plate tectonics was just really getting underway and getting established as a working model at that time. And it was all happening right off my doorstep from Bergen, Norway. I wanted to do the geology and geophysics of the oceans and I was more intrigued by the mid ocean ridges in the Atlantic and the way the continents--continental margins there. So, I was inclined towards Atlantic Ocean stuff, and I had graduate school offers on both the West Coast and the East Coast. But Dalhousie had a really good group of researchers.

Rosenberg: We should mention it's in Nova Scotia.

Sullivan: It’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia--a really good set of researchers and a very good collaboration with the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. That was at the time, Canada's only Oceanographic Institution. And I'd read a number of the papers that these people were putting out, their work seemed really interesting. One of my professors at Santa Cruz knew some of them and spoke well of them. You know, seemed a more interesting place to live. Grad school is kind of an experiment and living close more for four to five years and maybe move on from there, maybe end up saying, so it--just Nova Scotia was intriguing. The Atlantic was intriguing. The group was intriguing. And then, the icing on the cake was the professor who was going to bring me in his lab as a research student, offered me the chance to do some field work for him on a research trip between Greenland and Iceland, the summer that I was going to start with port calls in Reykjavik, Iceland. And Iceland is such an intriguing area geologically that I was already all in for Dalhousie, but then there's: “wait, I can go to Iceland. Yeah.”

Rosenberg: Just getting better.

Sullivan: Yep. Let's go.

Rosenberg: You wrote that you love going to sea and that you analogize successful research expeditions to a symphony. What do you mean by that?

Sullivan: I'm taking with the analogy of shuttle flights or research expeditions at sea to symphonies because some people, and they watch them from the outside, you know, it seems quite regimented, you know, very perfunctory blend your checklist, do everything just right. But research cruises and shuttle missions for that matter in my day, you know, they started with blank sheets of paper. And they--we're going to go up to the North Atlantic, we're going to try to figure out how “x” works. And then, you create the crews, you're not handed something to perform, you get a group of researchers or get a team together. And if that's what we're trying to do, that’s what we're trying to measure, this is what we're trying to understand. What gear do we need? Will it work at sea? Can we make it wire in with the ship? How do we need to operate it? How do we wire it to the lab--you actually create all those. You're writing the “how to do it,” and then, you actually go out to sea with all that gear and best label Plans, you've never fully survived contact with reality, the weather goes bad or something breaks down and you're always having to adapt and adjust and be creative again, to recapture the purpose that you were after in the first place. The analogy is just as struck me--as I think about a musician's and watch symphonies--that, you know, someone can post that score. So—

Rosenberg: --from a blank sheet of--

Sullivan: --from a blank sheet of paper, so imagine if you pick up an instrument--I've just these snippets of musical experience myself--it could be laborious to try to learn how to make your clarinet or flute do what the score on the page in front of you says--it's extraordinary. You get to where you have the skill to play masterful pieces, but if you wrote that score, you, you imagined it in your mind. You heard it, you layered all the instruments together, and then you're up on the podium conducting it. It's magical, this thing that was just an idea in your mind that got onto page, that got into the skilled hands of many other people to bring it to full fruition. There you go. And putting, putting missions together at sea in in space struck me as much the same kind of creative construct, and then to see it all play out and actually be in the middle of it, helping it go right, despite the broken string or the busted part, it's an exhilarating--it's a spectacular, fun experience.

Rosenberg: So, explorers like to explore you're doing this thing that you love. You studied oceanography. You're an oceanographer. Is that the bridge between ocean and space that explorers love to explore?

Sullivan: I think there are two parts to the bridge. The motivational part is that one, the exploration and the explorer’s curiosity. And for me, the particular point on that would be if you somehow survived the odds, this very slim odds of getting selected out of thousands of people who want to go, you'd get to see the earth with your own eyes, from that vantage point. And for a kiddo whose fascination really rooted in the earth from you know, when I was two feet tall, and that's just irresistible as motives go, but the other bridge, the more practical bridge, what I suspect is the bridge that NASA recognized, is the expeditionary experience, putting expeditions together. What's the objective? What's the plan? What do you need to do it? How do you make sure it works? thinking through several what ifs, so that when you're 500 miles offshore, even when this what if happens, you can still fix it. You can adapt, you can carry on and despite, you know, whatever the weather and other things throw at you, despite that, you'll come back with highly successful crews.

Rosenberg: I understand what sparked your interest. But when did it occur to you, Kathy, that you wanted to apply to be an astronaut?

It occurred to me when I saw one of NASA's ads in the back of a scientific journal. And the way they described it in that ad, rang the bell for me that these guys are building a very different, very exotic research ship. It's going to go vertical off the planet and way faster than any ship I've ever worked on before, but from a purpose point of view, that's basically what they're doing. They're gonna have this crazy cool new research ship--they're looking for people to help plan and pull together and then operate the expeditions. And that's what I loved about being an oceanographer--was that part in particular, of the endeavor?

Rosenberg: The odds of being selected as an astronaut are pretty small.

Sullivan: They were close to 9000 people that applied in our batch and 35 made it through

Rosenberg: Among the 35, are six women, the first woman ever selected, as astronauts by NASA.


And in your book, you write that they asked you a particular question during your interview. Simply: tell us about yourself, start in high school.

The interview was number of months prior to that: November of ‘77. Classically unstructured questions so this is a high stakes interview, you've gotten to the final couple hundred people, so you're close.

Were you nervous?

I will get nervous at moments like that beforehand and after hand, because somewhere in my mind, it is clear even just subconsciously, but right now the important thing is we need to do our best. You can be nervous or afraid before, you be nervous after, but right now, we need to be all in right now at this moment and give it your best. Walk out the door, collapse if you have to, but let's be on let's be here, let's really do this certainly aware that this is clearly the pivotal thing and the doctors and medics looking at you can take you off the list, and deem you not qualified. How you get on to the final list hinges mainly on this interview. So, we all, kind of, had surmised that if you're even being interviewed at that point, they've determined at the 99% level, you're a good person who could do this job, but now I only got 20 seats for 200 people. So, which 20 are going to make it? That's gonna hinge on the interview.

Chuck Rosenberg: And so the question they asked you tell us about yourself start in high school, what are they getting at?

I think what they're getting at and wanting to see with that unstructured question, when there's a lot riding on this moment. You know, it's a high stakes moment you care a lot about how it comes out. It's not clear what the ground rules are. It's not clear what the judging criteria are, none of that is known to you at all. So, now I'm gonna ask you this ginormous question. And I was 26, other people have lived 20 years more than I, asked you this ginormous question at a high stakes moment. And I'm gonna watch how you handle yourself. Can you quickly conceive of, sort of, a storyline of some sort that you've judged, has good likelihood of being germane to this moment in this audience, and lay that out? And do you seem to be able to stay aware of the audience around you and, sort of, paying attention to whether they're listening that your answers engaging them, you're losing them? I think they're kind of looking for those sorts of behavioral characteristics.

When I was a United States Attorney, and I was interviewing people for a very coveted position, the question I would always start with was, “tell me your story,” because I wanted to see what their narrative was, whether it was linear or thematic, how they thought about their lives, their advantages, their failures, what was the 45 second synopsis.

However long is significant too because we've all known plenty of people that I have my narrative, but it's by narrative and it's a very fulsome narrative and I'm insensitive to the circumstance. I'm insensitive to this moment, or use the phrase in the book that we use commonly around the astronaut court: “does this person stuck and transmit?” You know, once I have the mic, I'm just going and I lose all situational awareness around me. No sense of any other people.

Chuck Rosenberg: How did you learn you were selected to be an astronaut because that's a big deal, Kathy.

Yeah, it's a cold call early in the morning, it turns out. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the time, still in grad school at Dalhousie, and Halifax is on the Atlantic time zone. So, it's an hour ahead of East Coast U.S. And the 35 lucky folks who were going to be in our class, we're on a call sheet for our boss, boss. He of course the boss reserves the right to call and give the happy news and someone else was calling all the other people they knew when they were planning to put out a press release sometime that morning and wanted to be sure that no one who is going to be selected learned it by the press release dropping, they had some moments to be ready for what was going to turn out to be a remarkable media frenzy that I had no real way to anticipate. I want to say it was around seven in the morning, Halifax time. So 6am East Coast time, and I was sharing an apartment as you do when you're broke in grad school with your four other gals and rooms along the long hallway, one common phone, and the phone rang at seven in the morning, which we all sprang out of our doors because none of our school mates are up at that time. If that phone's ringing, it's probably some family call and it might well be bad news until--everyone's on very much on edge. I forget which of my roommates grabbed the phone and then turned and looked at me with not a devastated, Kathy's gonna be horrified look on her face, covering the mouthpiece, “it's someone from NASA.” Okay, but you it had been months since we had interviewed and I've been waiting back in writing my thesis, and I had not been spending every day sitting around wondering whether the phone would ring or which way this was going to go.

Rosenberg: And there was no reason to expect a call that day.

No, we'd been given no knowledge of what the timing might be. So, it was just out of the blue. And on the other end of the phone was a gentleman named George Abbey, an iconic figure in the human spaceflight world of NASA. He was the head of flight crew operations at the time. He's notorious for having a very low base, kind of droll voice. So, he starts in, “this is George Abbey, and well, wondering if you were still interested in coming to Houston and joining us as an astronaut.” And my first thought was, that's about as much excitement as if you're inviting me to bag groceries at the nearby market. I mean, wouldn't you— “sure, George? I'd be happy to. The answer will be yes.” Yeah, I probably exchange one or two other sentences. And then he said this was an equally funny moment to me at the time: “I'm sure you have many questions about salary and benefits, I'll pass you over to someone else.” I was grossing about $3,000 U.S. per year at that point and actually living quite comfortably on that. And I was really sure they were not going to pay me less. So--and I'd never had insurance or benefits--so I this was all great to me. Yeah, my answer is not at all depending on what comes after this.

Rosenberg: In other words, you had no questions about salaries,

Sullivan: No questions. There's no way it's going to be lower than this.

Rosenberg: When did the 35 new astronauts gather, and where?

Sullivan: They asked us to come down to Houston--that was the February 1978 event for a meeting everybody, and being presented publicly to the press

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you also take an oath of office?

Sullivan: Of course, you're going into the civil service position, so you swear the oath of service. They wanted to get us all together and do a little PR moment, announced the class, big news, big part of the drumroll to getting the shuttle up into the into the air, and then they also want to get us together as a batch so that all the administrivia, the HR, preparations for us to be on board could all get done in a batch, we were charged with reporting formally for duty in June. So, this was just get the prelims out of the way and do some publicity.

Rosenberg: And when you report in June, you're an astronaut candidate. You're not actually an astronaut yet.

Sullivan: The distinction in the outside world, you scarcely bother with, but has some important significance inside the office. What it really means--it's not a probationary period in the strict sense, they're not planning on washing half of you out and, you know, winnowing the group further down--but it is sort of boot camp grad school for astronauts. It's a supercharging you with a dose of graduate level education, condensed graduate level education in every facet of science, technology medicine that you could imagine, has any bearing on spaceflight. So, I was trained as an oceanographer and an earth scientist rounding me out. So, I've got some depth of knowledge of spacecraft engineering, spaceflight physiology, orbital mechanics, and taking the fighter pilot and rounding them out, in the medical doctor and rounding them out, and getting you up to speed on the flight qualifications and the T-38 jets and other basic things like that, and helping you learn the agency, because even if you're the newest astronaut on the planet, you're already one of NASA's best ambassadors. So, let's be sure you have a good foundation of all of the science and engineering broadly, and that you've been trooped around to the different NASA centers and become acquainted with what all the different parts of NASA do.

Chuck Rosenberg: I imagine it's both exhilarating and intimidating to be around these 34 other people all extraordinarily accomplished, like you were, but from different walks of life with a different set of experiences than you had,

Sullivan: You know, it's a bunch of one percenters. Everyone in that group is used to being the one percenter in whatever class or workplace they're in, and now they're in a pool that's all one percenters and it's a pretty competitive pool. You are colleagues, but you're also peer competitors, everyone's eager for the first flight, in the best flight, in the early flight. And again, the ground rules for that competition. How are we being evaluated? What factors will go into who's selected for which flight? All black box none, none unknown, lots of speculation over beers, you know, no grading sheet, no rubric out there. So, you could know for sure how this is all working.

What you're really describing as part of the training is that astronauts are generalists and system operators are not specialists.

I was not hired as an astronaut to continue doing my oceanography from space. I was hired to help take payloads cargoes experiments that needed to get into outer space to work or to--or to be conducted and on behalf of the teams that had built those, take them into orbit, operate them bring back the data or the equipment.

Chuck Rosenberg: Glad you mentioned teams because you emphasized in your book, I think, over and over that it really is a team. You use the word “team” a lot when you talk about your time as an astronaut.

It absolutely is a team sport. An astronaut in a nice blue flight suit has a lot of a lot of responsibility, is an iconic figure. It's one of the figures that the teams all gravitate around. But in fact, astronauts have no managerial control over anybody but themselves. So, you have a lot of influence and authority by influence, but not by direct control. But you, in your role as an astronaut, one of the key things you're doing is playing that catalytic role of helping make sure the pieces are coming together, the unknowns are being probed carefully, the risks are being evaluated carefully--sort of, part of that catalyst right in the middle of it all.

Chuck Rosenberg: In fact, the first sentence of your book, “the only thing we truly do alone, that's at the start of a good idea.”

I don't remember where that came from, or how it got coined into quite those words, but it's something I believe deeply.

Chuck Rosenberg: After a year, you graduate from being an astronaut candidate to being an astronaut. What happens at that point? What do you start to do in order to train to go into space?

It's an interesting progression. When we got our little silver pin that said we had finished our prep school as it were, and we now we're astronauts--

Rosenberg: And by the way, you don't get a gold pen until you actually go up.

That's right. So, it's silver, then we'll stop calling you AsCans. And technically what that means is you are now considered eligible for a flight assignment. But when we made that transition, there were still, as it turns out, two more years before the shuttle would fly at all. And then, we were in line behind folks who had been in the office for a long time waiting their turn. So, what do we do in those intervening years, which turned out to be 1979 to 1983? And the answer is something NASA calls “technical assignments.” So, for 12, 14, 16 months, or so, each of us would be plunked into some part of the working machinery of the Space Shuttle Program. You might be working in a simulator that's tailored to software verification, you might be working with one of the crews that would assign to the earliest flights, as they get the checklists for those flights refined and verified and validated and sorted out. The crew members have that are going to fly need to be in the simulator honing their actual on orbit skills and the follow up to get what they learned into the checklist, or to get the change made--that follow up needs to be in someone else's hands. That would be a technical assignment. There are countless different things to do. So, over that three or four-year period, we would be rotated on a 12 to 18-month cycle, thrown into the swimming pool, learn this whole part of the world rapidly, be effective, work on it, and right about when you're getting comfortable, they pluck you out and stick you in another one. I liken it to starting your path towards the top of a company by working in the mailroom and then in shared services and then in HR and then an engineering support, so that by the time you're running a business unit or are in charge of the company, you've got a much deeper understanding of what the mechanics that you're counting on really take to work

Chuck Rosenberg: And so, for different shuttle missions before you actually flew on one, you would have different assignments right support each one

Sullivan: Right. It might be the next flight or one or two downstream. There's also a long list of cargoes that are being planned. For flights that are maybe two years, or three years out. Another technical assignment might be, go work with the group that's building the XYZ satellite. They intend for it to be deployed with the robotic arm, or they intend for spacewalking astronauts to be able to do X and Y and Z to it. You go be their, basically, their design consultant and technical adviser and make sure they understand the shuttle and the realities of working in a spacesuit. So, you go through that continuous tumbler of different jobs. That's technical assignment is basically the wading pool for getting plucked out and put, by name, onto a particular flight. And when that happens, the whole new syllabus starts, that begins with your basic knowledge of the fundamentals of how space shuttle systems work, and over 12--at least a 12-month span, sometimes longer--your training sessions little bits of book work but mainly simulation training sessions, deepen and sharpen your knowledge from the general state of the electrical system works like this, to the particulars that are exact to your mission. On your flight, this electrical bus will be connected to that device with that fuse. And you have how many ways to keep it running if the fuse goes.

Chuck Rosenberg: NASA numbers their flights, and you tell a story about having a particular assignment for STS-3. What was STS-3?

Sullivan: So, “STS” stood for “space transportation system,” the shuttle, think of it like equivalent to the Navy's USS in front of all of their vessels. So “STS” meant on the shuttle as well as the external--it was the whole system that would get a shuttle to and from orbit--we began with just a sequential -1-2-3. You might lay them out in a nice linear sequence from say 1 to 10 or 12. But if something went wrong with the cargo that was meant to be a number 6, and needed to be delayed, you’d maybe end up with 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,9,5. At one point, the NASA higher ups decided: that's just gonna end up being way too confusing—you know, we’re not gonna understand that we laid them out this way. And now it's all been jumbled. So, a new system was devised, that was alleged would be simpler and clearer, but I think just compounded the problem by times three. We're not gonna give you a number, we're gonna give you a code--my first flight was STS-41-G— “4” will tell you what space shuttle it's going to be, Columbia da da da…”1” would tell you whether it was launching from the East Coast or the West Coast because it was envisioned Vandenberg would become a shuttle launch site. And the alphabetic letter would tell you when we laid out the flights for that year initially, where were you in the sequence “abcdefg.” And then, when things start scrambling around, since no one could figure out the code for the beginning, they wouldn't worry about why they were all scrambled around.

Chuck Rosenberg: But early on, they just did it numerically, ordinally.

Sullivan: They—absolutely, just ordinally through STS-10.

Rosenberg: But STS-3, had a story, which I think is important because it's a story of failure, which we all have, because you were asked, in this particular case, to be responsible for the shuttle cockpits checklist

Sullivan: In the countdown, leading up to a shuttle launch. And as it happens at a moment that very often fell in the deep, dark middle of the night. The task was for two astronauts, not the crew, but two astronauts on technical assignments to get in the cockpit, and work with the launch control center to go through every single switch and circuit breaker in the entire cockpit, that's probably fifteen or sixteen hundred gadgets, and confirm that each and every one of them was in the position it ought to be for liftoff, that the asset checklist and all of the procedures presume that every switch is just like this.

Rosenberg: And that has to be done manually.

Sullivan: It's got to be done manually, and it's got to be a 100%, one for one match for what the crew is expecting and what's in their checklists. And because things are going to go really fast once you like those rockets, so I was in the cockpit that night before STS-3 launch with Lauren Shriver, we were the two folks tapped to do this. And the procedure for getting all these steps done in the countdown was still pretty rough. It was early days in the shuttle program, and you'd find an error or something unexpected in the procedure, an engineer would see something on their console, they didn't expect it, everything would come to a halt. While everybody figured that out and made sure that everything was ready to carry on again, that will happen notoriously during the switch lists. So, you've got two of us and engineering tech in the cockpit. It's the middle of the night. We're partway through this and one of these big halts comes up. And we're just trying to stay awake, and not get drowsy, and not fall asleep--and we did get very, very drowsy. So, the next thing finally after a long delay, the voice of launch control comes up, and asks for another switch position. And it's one of the ones in the area of the cockpit I'm working. So, I stumble up and arouse myself and go to push the button and answer: “hey, got it. Wait a minute, give me a second.” An odd bit of trivia: we would do most of the switch list with the microphone button that would clip to our shirts and just connected only to the launch control center. The pause had come right after we shifted over to test the communication system on the space shuttle itself. So now, the button to push to talk on the microphone was on the control stick of the shuttle. And that's because two buttons, one like where a trigger would be, is the comms button and one on the top, little beady-y hat kind of button--well, every airplane I've ever flown had and the ones I've been in for 1500 hours the T-38 have the same two switches in the T-38. The trigger one under your index finger is, is useless it doesn't do anything. And the communications, little red one on top, I grabbed the control stick and I start pushing the little red button that's gonna open up my microphone. Even as I'm pushing it, some part of my brain is saying this is unusually stiff, but I push it. And the next thing I know, the whole cockpit lights up like a Christmas tree, and I realize the reason the switch was too stiff is because that red button on the space shuttle is the one that kills the main computers and tell us the backup computer to take over. This is the mega emergency switch. All four of your normal computers have gone insane. You want to kill them right away and let the other guy take you home--that's the switch I had just pushed.

Rosenberg: Also known as the wrong switch

Sullivan: Also known as the wrong switch. So, I'm mortified. I figure I've probably just destroyed my career with a stupid move, gone. The good news is completely reversible. You just needed to be sure that you confess because if the world was left to imagine maybe there's a software flaw inside the computers that did this when we didn't want it to, that we would ground the whole fleet until we figured that out. So, I really had no choice but to confess, tell the control center: “No, no, no, it's a cockpit their software is fine, this is not a gremlin, this is not an anomaly, this is a ‘boo boo’.” And we went laboriously back through all the steps to get back to where we needed to be. Finally, we were relieved to leave the cockpit, went back to the control center and talk everybody through it again, to be sure they really understood it's all good, and then went off to you meet my fate, which I fretted about for a long time.

Rosenberg: I understand that the launch control team handled it well. They gave you a gift.

Sullivan: They did. There's--the shuttle lifted off on time, everything fine the next day. And you would always have a post launch party, everyone's worked really hard. I dreaded going to that party, but figured any ribbing I was going to get was gonna start there, and you're better facing it than running from it. So yeah, I didn't expect the gift, but they quickly made a small metal box that had two red buttons on it. One labeled “this switch” and the other one labeled “not that switch,” and presented it with the giggle. They knew that this was far from the only oopsie that had ever happened in switch list and far, far from the only upset and asteroid had ever done. But, you know, I was convinced it was the biggest oopsie ever known to man.

Rosenberg: You were mortified.

Sullivan: I was mortified. Yeah.

Rosenberg: But actually, not long thereafter, you do get assigned to your first shuttle.

Sullivan: Yes, it was not all that long afterward. STS-41-G with a lot of earth science experiments on it, which was right up my alley, and probably a significant factor. I was the only geologists in the bunch at that point. So probably a significant factor in why I was slotted into that flight.

Rosenberg: Kathy, this is from a description of a different mission. But I love the way you capture the sensation of liftoff. You wrote in your book: “I closed my eyes and took in the sounds and sensations of a space shuttle launch for the first two minutes and 15 seconds. The ride was turbulent and loud like being in a wild combination of earthquake, rock concert, and fighter jet. The vibrations were almost bone rattling, the thrust pushing upward through my back strong and constant. I felt the thrust tailing off, heard the mission pilot report that the solid rockets were burning out as expected, and then heard the thump that announced they had been jettisoned. Now the ride seemed quiet and as smooth as an electric train. The push against my back continued as the main engines accelerated us toward orbital velocity. When the engines cut off six minutes later, the lightness in my limbs and the checklists floating at the end of their tethers confirmed that I was back in orbit. I felt instantly at home.”

Sullivan: It's a great ride.

Rosenberg: On that mission you performed, and it's a clunky term, and an extra vehicular activity.

Sullivan: That's why we call it an EVA.

Rosenberg: Right, spacewalk.

Sullivan: Yep.

Rosenberg: And you became the first American woman ever to walk in space. How do you train for spacewalk?

Sullivan: The primary way you train for spacewalk is underwater. There's a batch of real shuttle spacewalking spacesuits that have been earmarked for the water tank, they're never going to actually fly in space. But they're the real garment. And you take the real electronics off of the front and the back and you replace them with shapes that mimic the bulk that you will have in the suit.

Rosenberg: That's your class three space.

Sullivan: Yes, it's called a class three spacesuit. It's a training spacesuit. So, you get in that suit, you seal it all up just like you would for a real spacewalk, so you're basically now in a bubble of air. And if we just threw you in a water tank, you would, even though the suits quite heavy, you would just float. We mount weights on the suit in different places, so that you can be made exactly neutrally buoyant. If scuba divers took you underwater, and let go of you, you wouldn't drift upward and you wouldn't sink down and you also wouldn't tip or roll on directions. And if you get that way out really nicely done, then your ability to maneuver around underwater, where we have full size models or mock ups, we call them, of the Hubble telescope or of the shuttle cargo bay nowadays of the Space Station. So, you have a full-size model of it. And you're neutrally buoyant, you can maneuver around on that, as close to the way you'll be able to move in zero gravity as it's possible to simulate.

Rosenberg: Although you wrote that no simulation is perfect. Every simulation is flawed or deceptive in some way.

Sullivan: Yeah, I mean, it's a ground rule, you have to know when you're relying on a simulation training. It's very, very, very, very good. There's, there is truly no better way to get your mind and body familiar with what's likely to happen and we're going to need to concentrate on and how you're going to have to move. So, there's no better way but it is not a perfect way. And I'll give you an example: you always tether your tools on a spacewalk. There are a couple little hooks at different places the suit--you hook on to the tool and you hook the tool, to say your wrist, the gauntlet of your glove, and in zero gravity, if that tethers a foot long. In zero gravity, every time you move your hand motion of your arm, is going to impel that tool and it's going to be wafting around, usually sort of languidly on the end of that tether. In the pool, it's going to be dangling straight down from your wrist, in the pool, it's going to be tending, they got you weighed out perfectly, but then they hand you a five-pound tool. That tool, as you move along, it's going to be trying to tip your body continually. So those are small imperfections in the simulation that you need to think about—well, you know, this tipping factor won't be there in the real world because the tipping is caused by the tool, but conversely, you need to think about--this happened to a friend of mine--he would goof around a little bit in the tank. When he wanted to put a new tool on a tether. He would swing it so that the tether sort of washed it up through the water. And at the top of that arc, he would snag it with his tether little bit of ballet with the tether. And he did that when he was in orbit on a real spacewalk. But in orbit, there wasn't the resistance of the water the loop swung up just like it was supposed to and he went for it with the tether hook. The loop floated into the tether, rebounded off the back of the hook and was out outside the hook before he stepped close, so his timing was off. And suddenly, his tool was floating away. And little things like that would surprise you and, and what you want to do was keep them so small that they were little things you chuckled about and not big things that really messed something up.

Rosenberg: October 11, 1984, Kathy, that's the day you hear from Mission Control Challenger Euston, you’re a go free VA, meaning your spacewalk, you’re a go.

Sullivan: Yeah, it's a, it's a long way getting to that point. It's takes about four hours, suiting up and checking things to reach that point and that that signal was the final switch that enables the emergency oxygen supply. So, you're in the airlock suits are all sealed up the airlock sealed up, got a little bit of air left in the airlock, it's not quite completely dumped out, and everybody goes on the ground does their final checks that all is good. And you do that final adjustment on your suit. So, you've got an emergency oxygen supply and then you do the final dumping of the air from the airlock, crank open the hatch and swim on out into the void.

Rosenberg: Although you were so mission focused, you wrote in your book, “mission commander Crippen said, ‘Take a moment to look at the earth and appreciate where you are.’ I obediently pivoted my body away from the orbiter to look around. I was dangling from the handrail of a spaceship, hundreds of miles above the Earth, which was gliding by below at 17,500 miles per hour, a burst of clashing thoughts flashed through my mind. I was in this absolutely extraordinary place, keenly aware of how deadly the environment outside my suit was. It being there seemed perfectly natural, and I felt utterly comfortable.”

Sullivan: Yeah, Dave Leestma, he was my spacewalking buddy, we had trained to do the experiment--that was the main reason we're going out. We had trained to get that down very tight on timeline. The way the flight was originally planned, the spacewalk was going to be pretty early, like around day three in this 10-day flight. And while we were outside in the cargo bay, this large remote sensing radar that we had on board would have to shut down. It put out so much power that the radiative energy might interfere with the computers on our spacesuits. Well, it was the top priority payload. So, Dave and I were very drilled in, you need to get out and do it, and get back because you're costing this primary payload time. So, we had this really honed to a fine tee. And our boss Bob Crippen, he knew that very well. The mission commander.

Rosenberg: Mission commander.

Sullivan: He knew that very well. This was his, you know, third flight experience guy, and so he could see us just going out there just like we were in the water tank, all very familiar, we've done this before. And you wanted to make sure at the very start that we just looked around and took in the fact that there are no scuba divers here. There are no support divers, this thing of there is not the surface of the water. It's the earth you just take a moment. It was great moment--when we had like two moments in the whole--I had two moments in the whole time to really just absorb the site that was one of them. And a little later in the, in the flow of things, whereas moving from one point to another, we had to pause things for a moment for an IMAX film scene. So, those are the only two small snippets of time I was really able to just sort of taken where I was.

Rosenberg: Must have been breathtaking.

Sullivan: It's amazing. Yeah.

Rosenberg: You flew a second time to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope, I think one of the most interesting missions NASA has ever undertaken. Tell us a little bit about Hubble and about that mission.

Sullivan: Oh, Hubble is an--it's an amazing machine--that the root of the idea goes remarkably far back in time to really barely after world war two before there even was a space age, and the design itself, of this variable complex machine that was designed from the outset to be maintainable by spacewalking astronauts, which sort of an amazing enough thing to say in its own right. But that idea was formulated in the early 60s, there had been two spacewalks ever done and both had been near disasters. And yet, here's a team of engineers imagining a telescope the size of the school bus that you'll--space suited astronauts will--maintain and repair and upgrade over time. And then we got the assignment on our crew, STS-31 crew to be the lucky folks that deliver it to orbit and started on its mission life. But our work was preceded and Bruce McCandless and I got to be a part of five years-worth of the work that helped make sure that vague notion of--maintain Hubble in orbit really was backed up with the tools and the equipment and the knowledge needed to do it.

Rosenberg: Not just the size of a school bus, but with 400,000 parts and 26,000 miles of wiring and then the idea was that it would be maintained not by returning it to earth and working on it there, but in space, in orbit.

Sullivan: Yeah. But the evolution of that idea had a couple of stages. The initial version of it was, the scientific instruments would be changeable in orbit and things you knew were likely to fail, like batteries or tape recorders, fairly limited list. We'll do those things in orbit. So, make sure they're easy, sort of, plug and play instruments on guide rails, handles for astronauts and spacesuits to be able to work with, you know, bolts that are easy to get out, do all that, make sure that's present on this fairly limited list. And about every five years, we will bring the telescope down and do the harder stuff. That was the first idea about maintaining it, and that idea, I learned, through my research, and was surprised to learn, that idea lasted until the early 80s. That idea was banking on the shuttle being so inexpensive to fly and flying so often, that it would be easy to do, and the shuttle fell short, on those delivering on that. So, by the early 80s, suddenly the Hubble guys look at all the other electronics on the telescope and realize, holy cow. Now, all these things have to be maintainable in orbit as well because if this thing ever comes back to Earth, it's going to end up in a museum, not back in orbit. So, it was an interesting challenge over those five years to try to retrofitted improve all the boxes on Hubble to make almost everything on the telescope maintainable.

Rosenberg: And over time, though--Hubble had a rocky start, which we'll talk about in a minute--Hubble got better and better and better: more reliable, more precise, really a remarkable feat of engineering.

Sullivan: What's coming up on having looped and provided twice its lifetime of observations, and improving. It gets better with age. Yeah, it's true in spades with Hubble.

Rosenberg: But there was a rocky start.

Sullivan: Hubble has about an eight-foot diameter, primary mirror. It's actually a donut. There's a hole in the middle of it. So, this big mirror catches all the light that comes and the front focuses the light on a smaller mirror that's about two feet diameter. And that smaller mirror shoots the beam of light down through the doughnut hole to where all the instruments have their receptors, their ports. The large mirror was fashioned to the wrong shape by a dimension that's about a 40th, the thickness of a page in a hardcover book, it's a teeny amount, but it's an amount that should be doable for an astronomy grade telescope. And the trick for how to fix it ended up rooting right back in that maintenance capability. It was not a matter of how do we fix the mirror. The first insight the engineers came up with was, there's no way we're going to fix the mirror. The trick is, how do we fix the light? So, I've got eight feet worth of bad light that's going up to the second mirror and coming out, I got to find a way to get into that light beam and fix it and the recognition was, we're getting into the light beam is exactly what the scientific instruments, before big phone booth size retreats. Greater size instruments, they sit corner to corner at the very bottom end of the telescope and they reach into that light beam, take one of them out, put a box in the same size, replace it with the box the same size, that instead of having scientific receptors, has the optical elements, the lenses or the mirrors, in Hubble's case, that can intercept the bad light and bounce it around to correct it into good light, because although the mirror guys screwed up, they screwed up very, very precisely, until you could do the math to calculate which mirrors of what shape and what size would turn the bad light back into good light.

Rosenberg: And I think that was the key, right, that the failure was a precise failure. So, there was a way to fix it

Sullivan: That’s right. The bad news is you screwed up. And the good news is you did it very precisely.

Rosenberg: And then over time, of course, as you said it's outlived its expected life and returned results, data, with precision that we never anticipated.

Sullivan: Never imagined.

Rosenberg: Hubble helped us understand the age of the universe. The rate at which it's expanding, the presence of black holes in the center of virtually all galaxies.

Sullivan: It's been amazing in how it's let us look back in time and gain a deeper understanding of the cosmos. And one of my favorite things--we actually used a piece of it on the cover of the book--one of the observing campaigns was called the Hubble Deep Field, and then the Ultra Deep Field. And this began with astronomers looking at the night sky, as they knew it, from their existing instruments on mountaintops, and identifying some empty patches. Are they really empty, I wonder if they're really empty? Let's aim Hubble at some of these empty patches and let it stare. Maybe it's full of stuff that's just too dim for the instruments we currently have to see it. So, they let Hubble stare at these deep field patches. And it produced images that are just it. Looks like some little girl’s glitter bottle spilled onto the film. There's glorious specs and spots of light everywhere. And if you look really closely, specs and spots are not stars. Every one of the specs in spots is a galaxy. I mean, hundreds and thousands of galaxies Everywhere you look.

Rosenberg: NASA, I believe has these photos on its website. And they are absolutely breathtaking.

Sullivan: They're just stunning.

Rosenberg: And so much of that is the work of Hubble

Sullivan: Above the atmosphere able to look in the ultraviolet, which you can't do from Earth at all. Now, with the corrected optics quite precise, and then right at the precision that was charged with meeting in the first place.

Rosenberg: In your wonderful book, you use a great quote from James Odom. Who is James Odom, and what was his quote?

Sullivan: Jim Odom played a very significant role running the Hubble program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for a number of years that I was working on the program. And it's a wonderful quote. I was thrilled when I found it in my research, he said--trying to do--and I'm probably not exactly right and repeating it here, but “trying to do astronomy from the earth is like birdwatch, From the bottom of a lake, all you're gonna see is wavy, distorted, vague representations of what a bird really is, as you look through the, the turbulent dust and everything else of the layer of water that you've got above you. And the atmosphere is, in a sense, a layer of water, it's got particles in it, it's got turbulence. It warps the light, it scatters light.”

Rosenberg: In fact, Hubble was put into orbit twice as high as most satellites, which means that when you deployed Hubble, you had a spectacular view of the Earth

Sullivan: It is twice as high as most shuttle payloads, that's for sure. 332 nautical miles, I think, was our final altitude when we got to orbit. And that's to get it far, far above the atmosphere. But mainly, because Hubble, how does Hubble position itself? How does it hold still? It doesn't have rocket thrusters, they would, they would spit stuff out, that would end up coating the mirror. So, Hubble has gyroscopes, number of gyroscopes, that spin and uses the torque from those gyros. And then momentum in those gyros to slowly move itself. It doesn't move fast if you have an old style analog watch, the fastest Hubble can move is about the speed that your minute hand moves around the dial, but it can hold very precise positions and it can hold very still without, you know, vibrations and rumblings,

Rosenberg: Kathy, your third and final flight, STS-45, was in March of 1992. And there's a passage in your book that really struck me, two days prior to lift off, so this would have been on March 22, 1992. You and your father took a long walk together, and you're write, “just as we had done before each of my prior flights, though it was never said aloud, we both knew that this was our quote unquote, ‘just in case walk,’ the moments, words, and hugs, he would cling to just in case his baby girl, that was you, never came back.”

Sullivan: Yeah. So, it's a lot for families to do. It's always easier to be the person doing something to watch someone you love doing something that's high stakes or risky. And it's very hard on families to stand there and know that their loved one is writing bombs for a living.

Rosenberg: And in fact, you saw that. You lost colleagues and friends to a tragedy in the space program.

Sullivan: Yes, I was still in the program at the time of the Challenger accident, and it's a devastating blow to everyone. Obviously, none more so than the families whose loved ones did not come home. But everyone's world turns upside down. And it's just deep, deep sadness for long, long timeframe getting past something like that.

Chuck Rosenberg: Who are your colleagues that you lost in the Challenger disaster?

Sullivan: Well, four of the challenger crew were my classmates, mission commander Dick Scobee, Mission Specialist, Judith Resnik, and Ron McNair, and Ellison Onizuka. Dick’s number two, his pilot was Mike Smith--he was one of my favorite guys from the class one notch jr to us. And then, of course, famously, that was the flight that was carrying Christa McAuliffe, the first—meant, meant to be the first teacher in space. And also, Greg Jarvis, an aerospace engineer, from one of the companies that had a satellite on the flight.

Rosenberg: That must have been a very difficult time for NASA and for the men and women who worked on the program.

Sullivan: It was a truly horrible time with a very long and sad aftermath.

Rosenberg: I'm glad you spoke of them. And I think everyone understands that the risk that explorers take can be extraordinary at time, but that there is a benefit at the end.

Sullivan: I believe so.

Rosenberg: Later in your career, Kathy, when you left NASA, you served as the head of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. Tell us about NOAA.

Sullivan: NOAA is a really great underappreciated agency in our federal government. It's, you know, it's the it's the sea and sky, ocean’s atmosphere my title as administrator was also undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. its roots go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who established the survey of the coast and I think was 1807 or there abouts to provide nautical charts for this new young nation that was so dependent on maritime commerce. And then, through the rest of the 1800s, at one point, a weather service was established originally in the army Signal Corps, eventually pulled out of the army and set up on its own as the Weather Bureau. And, like Jefferson surveyed the coast, the, the origins of the weather service are also very commerce and safety oriented. Transcontinental railroad, farm settlement of the Central Plains, farmers and ranchers out in Upper Midwest, needing to have weather information to keep their herd safe, to avenge their crops, to keep the railroads running. Then again, a little later in the 1800s, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries is established because at that time, the problem was, there was more protein supply readily available in the country's oceans than we were using and the population needed it. In 1970, President Nixon signed an act into law that pulled those pieces: survey the coast, weather, fisheries, and some others under one umbrella and called it NOAA. You know, Earth systems science had evolved to the point by that stage in 1970, that was realized you got to you got to put these pieces together if you're going to get the deep understanding of how the weather works, how climate works, how fisheries work, because they all interact with each other. You got the weather guys over here and the fish guys over here, they don't even know how to talk to each other, much less what the common scientific questions are. And so, NOAA now, is all those things under one roof, the National Weather Service, marine fisheries, still the nautical charting bunch, a research arm, the weather satellites, the country's operational weather satellites, those are actually NOAA satellites, not NASA satellites,

Rosenberg: Our ability, for instance, to predict weather has gotten better and better and better, which means, in addition to public safety, positive effects for commerce and agriculture, makes life easier for a lot of people.

Sullivan: Weather data really pervade much more of our daily life than we ever think about--your point on commerce, just one little case in point--big box retailer gets from a from a private sector enterprise that takes no data. They get a tailored forecast on a weekly basis. I think it comes to them on Tuesday, that gets driven down into store by store and product code by product code. I mean, gets to the weather psychology--this coming up weekend is going to be the first warm weekend of the spring, move all these products over here, they're going to sell themselves, put these things on your end cap, don't spend any money on advertising for this, really, sort of, driving the commercial efficiency of their retail operation based on the weather and how people respond to the weather.

Rosenberg: Thanks to the National Weather Service

Sullivan: Thanks to the National Weather Service and NOAA

Rosenberg: Fascinating. Do you look up at the heavens and marvel that you were there?

Sullivan: I do. I'd love to see the space station go overhead. And remember that that little bright dot has half a dozen people in it. I don't know as many of them as well now, I’m that far removed. But it makes me think back to one particular time that I was in orbit, and we were crossing the line, it's called The Terminator, between the day-lit side of the earth, and the dark side of the earth. Space shuttle and station go around basically an hour and a half. So, if you're an astronaut, you get 16 sunrises and 16 sentences in a day, not just one each. But I was crossing from the day-lit side to the night side, and we're high enough up that we're still we're still illuminated by the sun, a fair distance over the dark side of the earth. And the shoe drops, it clicked me as I looked down, now the lights on the earth, and I realized we're still bathed in sunlight. Somebody down there, some little kid down there might right now be looking up and pointing up and saying “mommy look a satellite,” and he's pointing at me--I'm that satellite. And so, whenever I see the station go over, I think back to that moment and how amazing it was to realize I'm the satellite going over somebody's head.

Rosenberg: Kathy Sullivan, thank you so much for spending some time with us and as well for your extraordinary service to our country.

Sullivan: Thank you. Service has been a pleasure. And this has been a fun conversation. Thanks.

Rosenberg: Thanks to Kathy Sullivan and the wonderful folks at brainstorm media in Columbus, Ohio for hosting our podcast. Kathy is an explorer and a pioneer, an oceanographer, and a scientist, an astronaut, and an American hero. Selected as one of the first female astronauts in NASA history, Kathy flew three missions on the space shuttle and became, in 1984, the first American woman to walk in space. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a five-star rating on whatever app you use to listen, and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple podcast, Spotify, Tune In, and every major listening app as well as slash the earth. If you're listening on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art of the podcast, you'll find our episode notes including some details you might have missed. If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at that's all one word: And though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read each one of them and that I appreciate it. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo. With Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. They are a wonderful team and I am fortunate to work with them. Olivia Cruiser provided excellent production support, as always, our associate producer is Allison Bailey. And Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.