Kathryn D. Sullivan

Collection Name

NASA Oral Histories


The interviews in this collection were selected from NASA's Oral History Program, which contains interviews with aerospace legends, analyses of key events, aerospace chronologies, and more. The interviews included here are those that relate specifically to NOAA's mission.

For more information and to explore the larger collection, visit NASA's Oral Histories.

Date of Interview

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan is a distinguished American geologist and a former NASA astronaut. Born on October 3, 1951, in Paterson, New Jersey, she became the first American woman to walk in space on October 11, 1984, during the Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-41-G. Sullivan's academic background includes a bachelor's degree in Earth sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sullivan was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978 and became an astronaut in August 1979 after completing a rigorous training and evaluation period. Throughout her career at NASA, she flew on three Space Shuttle missions and logged 532 hours in space. Her contributions to the Hubble Space Telescope deployment and her work on the Shuttle Imaging Radar system are notable achievements. After her tenure at NASA, Sullivan served as the Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and later as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. She has been recognized for her contributions to science and exploration, being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2023, the National Women's Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Sullivan's legacy extends beyond her space missions, as she has been a role model for women in STEM and an advocate for science education and exploration.

Scope and Content Note
May 10, 2007: This interview with Kathryn D. Sullivan provides a comprehensive overview of her journey from a childhood interest in space to becoming one of the first female astronauts. Sullivan recounts her early fascination with space exploration, influenced by her father's passion for flying, and her initial college major in languages before a pivotal switch to science prompted by a French literature professor. She details her discovery of oceanography in college, leading to a career in science and her subsequent decision to apply to NASA's astronaut program. Sullivan describes the rigorous application and interview process for becoming a mission specialist, including her unfamiliarity with the Space Shuttle and her experiences during the interview week in Houston. She reflects on the challenges faced by the first female astronauts, such as media scrutiny and adapting to a male-dominated environment, while emphasizing the unity and mutual support among the women. Her narrative includes technical aspects of her work at NASA, such as involvement in the Space Shuttle program, evaluating spacesuits, and participating in mission development. Sullivan also shares her historic spacewalk experience, the competition among female astronauts, and the media's focus on her achievements relative to Sally Ride's. Throughout the interview, Sullivan discusses the broader societal changes that have allowed for increased opportunities for women in aviation and space exploration and the impact of her and her colleagues' presence on inspiring future generations.

September 11, 2007: This interview with Kathryn D. Sullivan provides a comprehensive overview of her experiences as an astronaut, particularly focusing on her training, preparation, and participation in the STS-41G space flight. Sullivan details the crew composition and the mission timeline, emphasizing her role as a mission specialist with a primary focus on Earth sciences and radar investigations. She reflects on the internal debates at NASA concerning the responsibilities of mission specialists in managing complex scientific payloads. Sullivan shares insights into her involvement with developing payload checklists and procedures, recounting an incident with a malfunction procedure during a mission. She also addresses the broader astronaut corps' reactions to the inclusion of payload specialists on space missions. The interview captures Sullivan's interactions with payload specialists and the logistical and interpersonal challenges posed by integrating two additional members into the mission crew. She recounts the anticipation and routines leading up to the launch day, including her personal feelings and the intense experience of the launch itself, followed by the immediate transition to mission tasks upon reaching orbit. Sullivan describes the initial day in space, focusing on the operational aspects, such as configuring the Orbiter and troubleshooting malfunctions, while also mentioning the discomfort of being observed by a writer for a book project. Finally, the interview touches on the dynamics within the crew and their collective response to a book that was written about their space mission. Sullivan reflects on her evolving perspective on the book, from initial reservations to a more appreciative stance twenty-two years later, and discusses the complexities of privacy and personal boundaries in the context of being documented in a public narrative.

March 12, 2008: This oral history interview with Kathryn D. Sullivan provides a comprehensive account of her experiences as an astronaut, including her preparation for and execution of the first spacewalk by a female astronaut. Sullivan recounts the technical challenges and the excitement surrounding the historic event, as well as her work on various space missions. She describes in detail the tasks performed during spacewalks, such as repairing a disabled motor on the Ku-band assembly and the surreal feeling of working in zero gravity. Sullivan's narrative includes her experiences with the Space Shuttle Challenger, from the anticipation of flight and diplomatic engagements, including a call from President Reagan to the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. She discusses her involvement in the investigation and the creation of the Challenger Center Program as a living memorial. Her role in the National Commission on Space, contributions to the Paine and Ride Reports, and preparations for the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission are also covered. The interview touches on Sullivan's personal reflections on space exploration, her decision to join the Navy Reserve, and the impact of the Challenger accident on the astronaut corps and space community. Additionally, she shares insights into the dynamics of flight crew coordination, the challenges of spaceflight, and the evolution of training methods. The content also includes Sullivan's experiences at formal events, such as a White House dinner, and her thoughts on the historical and cultural aspects of her journey as an astronaut.

May 28, 2008: This interview with Kathryn D. Sullivan covers her involvement in significant NASA missions and her subsequent roles outside of the space agency. Sullivan reflects on Charlie Bolden's nomination as NASA administrator and the final Hubble servicing mission, emphasizing the importance of maintaining extravehicular activity (EVA) and Space Shuttle capabilities for future missions. She shares insights into the challenges of spacewalks, the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the innovative solutions to its initial problems, including her role as payload commander for a Spacelab mission. Sullivan recounts her personal story involving astronaut Megan McArthur and a pin she designed, taken on the STS-125 mission. She discusses the dynamics of smaller crews, gender equality in space, and the complexities of photographing in space. The interview also covers her decision to join NOAA as chief scientist, her involvement in global climate change research, and her tenure as CEO of COSI and at Ohio State University. Additionally, Sullivan talks about her time in the Navy Reserve, her receipt of the Lone Sailor Award, and other honors. She highlights the significance of women's networks and mentorship in her career, her work on developing female toiletry kits for space, and her reflections on the feminist movement's impact on her opportunities. The interview encapsulates Sullivan's contributions to space missions, her leadership style, and her interactions with notable space industry figures.

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