Kathy Sullivan

by Raquel Diaz-Sprague

Reprinted with permission from
the Association for Women in Science
This article originally appeared in AWIS Magazine,
Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer 2005
From the Stars, Down to Earth:

A Conversation With Kathy Sullivan

AWIS: You certainly established rapport with the students today. How do you explain your connection with kids?

SULLIVAN: I give a lot of talks to kids. Kids are fun. I meet all kinds of kids and talk to them at their level. The kinds of questions you get vary with the different age groups. Kids are smart and aware. At whatever stage they are, they are always trying to figure out their world.

AWIS: Can you share any anecdote about working with kids?

SULLIVAN: I once went to give a talk to a class and the organizers got the whole high school in the gym. The kids, like any typical seniors, were sitting on the floor and some were acting out. After they introduced me, the first thing I said was ---- You can’t fool me ---- the only reason I got applause from you is because you have gotten out of class to come here. They laughed and I had their attention.

AWIS: Do you consider yourself a kid at heart?

SULLIVAN: I relate well to kids. I am neither parent nor a teacher. I am interested in helping them understand science and space concepts and developing their interest in those areas.

AWIS: How did your interest in space exploration begin?

SULLIVAN: I was always interested in exploring. Maps and landscapes appeal to me and I have always had a desire to explore. When I was growing up, we as a nation were involved in two grand adventures: the space program and underwater exploration. I was fascinated by both. I discovered ocean sciences as a college undergraduate, when I was compelled to take a science course as part of the general requirements.

AWIS: How were you chosen as an astronaut?

SULLIVAN: I applied to it and got the nod. It was a rigorous and competitive selection process. When I was selected for the mission and later selected also for a “space walk” or Extravehicular Activity (EVA) I felt a sense of pride and of tremendous responsibility.

AWIS: Even with the best preparation, things can go terribly wrong in space travel. Were you ever afraid of not making it back to earth?

SULLIVAN: My dad and my brother have always been very supportive. Being single, I didn’t have a spouse or little ones to worry about. I was never deeply afraid but I was well aware of the risks involved and made a decision to go ahead.

AWIS: What is it like up there in space?

SULLIVAN: You get a grand, spectacular, profoundly inspirational view of earth from orbit. Like a vast ocean, space is terribly dramatic, profoundly human and rather intellectual.

AWIS: You, an oceanographer, and Sally Ride, a physicist, were together on the space shuttle STS-41G which launched on October 1984 ---- were there any critics? What is your reaction to statements like “women have less intrinsic aptitude for science”?

SULLIVAN: A lot of people have opinions. I don’t worry much about them. I don’t feel the need to yell and scream. I suspect someone was trying to be provocative and went a bit overboard with his off the cuff remarks. Who cares what he says? Sure, when you develop a skill and take it as far as you can go, strange stuff comes with it. You’ll find some bogus appreciation that comes with the territory as well as some unfounded negative opinions.

AWIS: What is it like to be the CEO of a science museum? What are the challenges?

SULLIVAN: Nonprofits are not easy to run. We have to run them like a small business, because we are in a sense a small business. Yet it is a bit harder than a small business. We are overall a relatively small enterprise and run on a very lean staff. We all work very hard to serve the visiting public and have got some recognition for our work.

AWIS: You talked to the girls about being “citizens of the planet.” Please explain.

SULLIVAN: We tend to forget that we all live on a small, beautiful and wonderful planet. With regards to pollution, we tend to care about our own country or region and want to make sure that its environment is protected. Sometimes we have a more cavalier attitude about the rest of the country or the planet. But we do have the obligation to be stewards of the entire planet. We are not renting it ---- it is our planet. We can not treat our planet as we would a rental property or a rental car.

AWIS: What would you like to be remembered for, say 100 years from now?

SULLIVAN: If anybody remembers me 100 years from now, hopefully they will say, “She left some worthwhile fingerprints on NASA, on the space shuttle, with your girls for Women in Science Day, at COSI, with kids everywhere.” If anybody remembers me 100 years from now.

BIOGRAPHY

Astronaut, scientist, and educator. Kathryn D. Sullivan, PhD, has dedicated her life to science. Since 1996, Dr. Sullivan has served as President and CEO of the Central Ohio Science Institute (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Sullivan, a specialist in deep-sea geology, has been Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At NOAA, she oversaw a broad portfolio of research and technology programs in such diverse areas as fisheries biology, climate and global change, satellite instrumentation and marine biodiversity.

Dr. Sullivan is a former astronaut and veteran of three space shuttle missions, who has logged 532 hours in space. On her first spaceflight, on board Challenger in 1984, she was the lead astronaut for a series of earth remote sensing experiments, and became the first American woman to walk in space. On Discovery in 1990, after her leading role (1985-1990), she was payload commander for the ATLAS-1 earth and atmospheric sciences Spacelab mission. For this mission, she led a four-person scientific crew through all aspects of training, mission preparation, and flight operations.

Dr. Sullivan led the design of the original Challenger Center program model which is now in service at more than 30 Challenger Learning Centers in the US and Canada. She also has served as an advisor for numerous exhibit and multiple-media projects under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, WGBH, WNET, and others. In 1999, Dr. Sullivan served as co-host of the JASON Project, a live telecast expedition that took students and teachers to both outer space and inner space through NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and NOAA's Aquarius Underwater Laboratory of the Florida Keys.

Dr. Sullivan has received six NASA medals for Space Flight, Exceptional Service, and Outstanding Leadership. In 1999, COSI and Dr. Sullivan were presented with the Ohio Museum Association's Institutional Excellence Award and its Distinguished Museum Professional Award. Currently, Dr. Sullivan is a Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve. She also serves on the Pew Oceans Commission and the boards of numerous corporations and scientific institutions, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Association of Science-Technology Centers. She is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, member of the Association of Space Explorers, the Explorers Club (Lowell Thomas Medalist), and the Society of Women Geographers (Gold Medalist).

A graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. Sullivan holds several honorary doctorates. She earned her PhD from Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, specializing in deep-sea research.

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Related Links

Association for Women in Science (AWIS) - is dedicated to achieving equity and full participation for women in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.
Women in Science Day - is sponsored by the Association for Women in Science in Central Ohio to honor outstanding women in science who are dedicated to mentoring other women.
NASA Human Space Flight - Follow the progress of NASA's newest astronaut candidates and find out about past and future space missions, what it is like living in space, the history of the space program and more.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - Explore the ocean realm and learn about the many programs and services sponsored by the NOAA.

Author Info

Former astronaut Kathryn (Kathy) Sullivan was the keynote speaker at the 20th Women in Science Day in Columbus, Ohio, on March 10, 2005 at Ohio State University. Her talk “From Starfish to Stars: Adventures in Grand Frontiers” captured the attention of over 300 junior high and high school girls and their teachers. The girls were fascinated by Dr. Sullivan’s talk about her experiences as the first American woman to walk in space. She skillfully handled the girls’ questions and gracefully obliged every request for autographs and photos. Dozens of girls lined up to get into group pictures taken with Dr. Sullivan. AWIS columnist Raquel Diaz-Sprague, Director of the Women in Science Day program, spoke to Sullivan after her talk and over the phone afterwards.