Talking to Sharon McDougle really makes you feel like you too were there when history was being made. The retired NASA technician worked during the Space Shuttle Era. As chief of the Crew Escape Equipment, she managed more than 25 people in charge of suiting up the astronauts and making sure the equipment was all working correctly. They were also the people that had to physically strap the astronauts into the space shuttle before launch and help the crew when they landed back on Earth.
If you are into space exploration history, chances are you have already seen a picture of McDougle, strapping in Astronaut Mae Jemison ahead of her historic flight aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992. Now, you get to find out more about that moment and McDougle's trailblazing work at NASA and beyond.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do?
Of course! I am a former Space Shuttle Crew Escape Equipment (CEE) Suit Technician/Crew Chief/Manager. I was responsible for processing the orange launch/entry suit assemblies worn by astronauts which included everything – from their suit, helmet, gloves, liquid cooling garments, communications cap, boots, harness assembly, and ancillary equipment such as survival equipment. I suited up the astronauts for their training events, for launch activities, and recovered them upon landing.
What did it take to get to be a Crew Escape Equipment (CEE) suit technician?
It took a lot of hard work! To be a CEE Suit Technician all you really need is basic mechanical skills and to be trainable. Most of the training to be a suit technician is OJT (on-the-job training). But it helped that I had previous experience working with pressure suits from my time in the Air Force.
You certainly made history when suiting up Dr Jemison for her first flight, but you also made history becoming the first female and first Black Crew Chief in CEE, and then becoming the first Black and first woman manager of the CEE processing department. Tell us a bit about your career progression at NASA.
I joined the NASA family in 1990 working in the Space Shuttle Crew Escape Equipment (CEE) department as a suit technician responsible for processing the orange space suits. I was the only Black technician when I began my career. In 1994 I was promoted to the position of Crew Chief making me the first woman and first Black CEE Crew Chief. In this position I was responsible for leading a team of technicians to suit up astronaut crews. I had the honor of leading the first and only all-woman suit tech crew.
In 2004 I became the only woman and only Black person promoted to the position of Manager of the CEE department. I managed the team responsible for suiting up and strapping the astronauts into the space shuttle for launch and recovering the crew upon landing. I held this position until the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. I continued working until 2012 to help close-out the program, ending an illustrious 22-year career with our nation’s space program. I achieved all of this without having a college degree.
But, I began my aerospace career in the Air Force as an Aerospace Physiology Specialist responsible for suiting up and strapping in the SR-71 and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft pilots for high-altitude operations. I also worked with the hypobaric and hyperbaric chambers.
You have written a book for children called Suit Up for Launch with Shay! Can you tell us about the motivation behind this work?
The motivation behind the book is that I've always wanted to write a children's book. I absolutely love reading to children, dressing up in costumes, and seeing their little faces light up when I'm reading to them. So, I decided to stop putting it off and write my book. I had such a cool job, and most people didn't even know about it, so I wanted to share it with the masses. Suit Up for Launch with Shay! was very easy for me to write because it's what I talked about all the time when I'd visit schools and community events to discuss my career.
I want children to be inspired by our nation's space program. I want to make them aware of another career option and let them know that being an astronaut is not the only way to work with and contribute to the space program. In my book, they will learn all about the orange astronaut spacesuit - why it's orange, how they put it on, the different layers, and much more. I also want our babies to see that Black people work with the space program in various positions/career fields.
What advice do you have for younger people who want to follow a similar career path as you?
My advice is if they know what they want to do start planning toward that career path as soon as possible. Reach out to someone in the field you'd like to pursue to be your mentor. Always present your best self and don't be afraid to speak up and ask questions. And don't be afraid to try something new - if you find that you don't like it, you can change your mind - don't be afraid to fail. Everyone doesn't have the funds to go to college or just doesn’t aspire to attend college. There are other options such as the military, trade schools, and certification programs. Please don't feel less than or you're not good enough if you decide college is not the path you want to take. You can still be successful without a degree. And if you ever find yourself feeling some type of way, please know that your current situation is not your final destination.