One of NASA’s pioneering women astronauts has given a talk to inspire girls interested in science, and specifically space exploration. Susan Kilrain returned the shuttle safely after a potentially dangerous fuel cell failure, so she has a powerful story – but there is considerable irony in her telling it in a place that only allowed women to drive four years ago.
As a child, Kilrain told her family she wanted to become an astronaut at a time when many doubted NASA would ever send a woman to space. The first American woman astronaut, Sally Ride, didn’t launch until 1983 twenty-one years after John Glenn’s flight. Two women cosmonauts had flown before her, but Kilrain’s gender was still a major obstacle in the mid-80s when she was looking for a path to fulfill her childhood dream.
Having made it into space twice and even become the youngest person to pilot a space shuttle, Kilrain has a book titled An Unlikely Astronaut coming out this year and now gives talks to inspire a future generation of astronauts. Her most recent talk is attracting attention both for the content, and the place where it was given – King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive places for women on Earth.
The talk was given at KAUST Space Camp, an event to inspire 12- to 15-year-old students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics programs with an eye to a career in space.
Kilrain came to NASA in 1994 with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and after time as a Navy pilot. Despite these impeccable credentials and Ride’s precedent, she says; “There were many biases along the way.” However, she adds; “I just decided the airplane does not know the gender of the person sitting in the seat.”
Things have “changed drastically” since then in terms of respect for women engineers, Kilrain said, but there is; “Still a little work to do,”.
KAUST has been responsible for some impressive research, but as Saudi Arabia’s flagship university, the nation’s record in regard to women’s rights affects its international reputation. The interviewer makes sure to point out that the number of women in science is increasing in Saudi Arabia and 38 percent of KAUST’s students are female.
The challenges Kilrain, (then known as Susan Still) had to overcome were technical as well as social. On her first flight into space, the Challenger Shuttle’s Fuel Cell #2 started malfunctioning in a way that indicated it might explode if not shut down. With the other two fuel cells operating, there was no immediate danger, but the mission was cut short for safety reasons. Kilrain landed the shuttle successfully, and three months later flew a replacement mission that carried out the experiments intended for the original. On both flights, she was one of two women in a crew of seven.
Despite Kilrain’s breezy assurance that; “If I can do it anyone can do it”, she had some preparation. Her father was a doctor who founded America’s largest burn center, so science was a natural path. On the other hand, having eight brothers and no sisters certainly acclimatized her to working in male-dominated environments. That proved useful in her years as a Navy fighter pilot where she realized; “I was going to be an outsider.”
Kilrain now sees her role as encouraging children to believe they can achieve their dreams, particularly those who come from backgrounds that make it likely others will tell them they can’t. Her eldest daughter has recently been accepted as a Navy pilot, making her one of many who will find the process easier because of Kilrain and others who forged the path.
[H/T Space.com ]