Spokane Astronaut

Lt. Col. Anne McClain

Something remarkable happened this week. Remarkable, because it was so unremarkable. Our local newspaper, The Seattle Times, printed an article about the latest rocket to head to the Space Station and touted the astronaut from Spokane, Washington who was on board.

There is more, but before I get to that, let me put this in perspective. When the space program began in the early 1960’s, thirteen women went through the same training as the men who were potential astronauts. The women met the standards and sometimes outperformed the men. When the final decision was made about who would get to fly in the new spacecraft, it was decided that only test pilots could fly in space. The seven men chosen had all been test pilots in the armed services.

Women in the military at that time, could only serve in flight simulation training and air traffic control, or as flight attendants. They could not pilot military aircraft, in spite of their demonstrated services during the World Wars. This meant that the women were excluded from test pilot positions and deemed ineligible to become astronauts.

It was not 1978 that women were admitted to the program, and not until 1983 that Sally Ride became the First Woman to fly into space. Other women followed, including Mae Jemison, the First Black Woman to become an astronaut in 1992, Eileen Collins who was the First Woman to pilot the Space Shuttle, in 1995, and Peggy Whitson, the First American Woman astronaut to command the International Space Station in 2007.

This past August, the names of the nine astronauts who will fly into space aboard Space X and Boeing spaceships were announced. Two were women, so it is no longer considered wise to leave women out altogether, although they are still in the minority.

When I saw the article about the Spokane astronaut the other day, I thought, “Oh, a local guy.”

The article begins, “The first Russian rocket to fly with people aboard since a harrowing failure two months ago blasted off Monday morning in a successful return to flight, carrying a Spokane astronaut. Lt. Col. Anne McClain was among. . .”

“Wait! The astronaut’s a woman?”

I re-read the headline: “Spokane astronaut reaches space station aboard Russian craft.” It didn’t say woman. I read the whole article. The word “woman” does not appear once. The article talks about how she always wanted to be an astronaut, how a math teacher had inspired her, how she went to West Point and became a NASA astronaut in 2013.

The article mentioned Col. McClain’s math teacher, who was present at Houston during takeoff. The math teacher is also a woman, but I know this only because she, like the astronaut, has a woman’s name. The paper used the pronoun “she” and the adjective “her,” but never pointed out the astronaut’s or the teacher’s gender. Even the quote from a student at her former high school said, “It’s really inspiring to see someone who dreamed of becoming an astronaut become one.” Once again, no reference to gender, neither the speaker’s nor the astronaut’s.

I often say that I look forward to the day when we will no longer have to denote “First Women” as such, because women’s full participation in society will be the norm. I’m feeling hopeful after reading this article.

A Musical with a First Woman

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 12.33.01 PMLast night I saw the musical “Come from Away” about the people of Gander and the passengers (7,000 people in all) whose 38 planes were grounded in Newfoundland on 9/11. The musical, written by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, was a joint production of the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It had extended full-house runs in both La Jolla and Seattle.

With a dozen actors playing multiple roles, on a single-set stage with a wonderful band of Newfoundlander musicians, the story is fast-paced. Because we all know what is happening from the beginning of the play, although the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, and the passengers, do not, I found myself crying from beginning to end. Hearing people’s personal stories (and the play is based on interviews with the citizens of Gander and the passengers) makes the tragedy feel immediate and poignant. The play and music are packed with powerful images from when the passengers don borrowed clothes, and wonder who they are or have become, to when they return to “normal” but find everything different.

A central figure in the story is the airline pilot Beverly Bass. Her solo, “Me and the Sky” is a recitation of what it takes to become a First Woman. She begins with her childhood dream to be a pilot, her persistence in following her path, and her final achievement in becoming the First Woman to become a captain of an airline crew at American Airlines.

For me, the most heart-stretching part of the play was the section simply titled, “Prayer.” One young man has been dreaming of a song and begins to sing it. It is the Christian stalwart, “Make me a channel of your peace.” The song is performed in harmony, as a round, a wonderful reimagining of the original melody but it becomes even more powerful when a Jewish rabbi begins to sing in his own tradition, while Muslim passengers kneel to bow and pray.

The play is filled with moments of hope. If you find yourself in need of inspiration and this musical comes to a city near you, hasten to obtain tickets. It will make you laugh, cry, applaud. You won’t “come away” humming the tunes but you might want to dance a jig in celebration of the possibilities for humankind.

Christa McAuliffe – Teacher, Astronaut

Christa McAuliffe’s birthday was September 2nd. It seems appropriate to include her here as the school year begins.

CHRISTA MCAULIFFEChrista McAuliffe’s First Woman To. . .achievement was made possible by President Ronald Reagan when he decided that the first civilian in space should be a teacher. As he put it, they are “America’s finest.” The application was requested by 45,000 teachers, but only 11,000 completed the lengthy form. From that group the number was reduced to ten who then trained and competed for the slot.

Christa McAuliffe’s proposal for her program in space was not the most ambitious among the applicants. It was, in fact, rather simple. She would keep a journal of her adventure and share it. While preparing a class for her high school students on the American Woman, she was inspired by the personal journals of women who pioneered the West. She believed that, as a pioneer in space, she should preserve this tradition. She was convinced that social history is enriched by “diaries, travel accounts and personal letters.” According to her mother, Christa believed that “history wasn’t made by presidents and kings and politicians and wars, that it was common man that really had the big part of history.” Just as she encouraged her students to interview their parents and grandparents about their lives, she wanted to preserve her own life for her children.

Field trips and speakers from outside were always part of her classes and she saw the journey into space as the ultimate field trip. On January 28, 1986, she was launched into space. McAuliffe had always believed in dreams. She was convinced that even a C student could become a poet. Her poem was cut short that day when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into the launch.

Stunned students, watching on televisions in their classrooms and auditoriums across the country, learned a different lesson than the one she had wanted to teach that day. Their teachers must have struggled with the words to comfort and explain, but then teachers have always been skilled at helping children through difficulties. Not all of them are awarded with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, as was Christa McAuliffe, but many of them are as courageous.

Afterword: Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe’s backup for the space ride on Challenger, stayed with the space program and flew to the International Space Station aboard Endeavour in 2007.


In spite of the lengthy commercials, this video is worth the time: http://www.biography.com/people/christa-mcauliffe-9390406


Kathryn Sullivan – Space Walker

KATHRYN SULLIVAN          Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. This recognition came from her work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she is now Administrator as well as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences and a Ph.D. in geology, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan was selected as one of the first women astronauts. In addition to being the first woman to walk in space, she was also on the mission that deployed the Hubble telescope. During her three shuttle missions, she logged over 532 hours in space.

During her space missions she conducted scientific experiments, combining her love of flying with her academic background. An accomplished oceanographer, Dr. Sullivan has a wide range of expertise. She has worked on mapping services, satellites, space weather, ocean observations, fisheries biology, satellite instrumentation, marine biodiversity, and climate change.

When President Obama nominated her for her current Under Secretary position, she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate, a rarity in today’s usually partisan Congress. In the article about her in Time magazine John Glenn, former astronaut, and United States Senator, said, “Kathy is not just an ivory-tower scientist. She is “one of the smartest people around when it comes to earth sciences.” Because of the increase in weather changes in our world, he proclaims her the “right person for the right job at the right time.”

Dr. Sullivan is a woman of both air and water. Her achievements in both fields have been recognized with many awards, but perhaps the best example of her wide-ranging abilities came in 2004. In that year, she was entered into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and received the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award.


for descriptions of her NASA space missions: http://www.astronautix.com/astros/sullivan.htm

for more on her work at NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov/sullivan.html

for more on the Time 100: http://time.com/time100-2014/

Eileen Collins, Space Shuttle Pilot and Commander

Eileen Collins did not tumble into her endeavors as a  first woman; she arrived there because of her own determination. Her love of flying and commitment to her own education resulted in her historic feats.

EILEEN COLLINS, youngerCol. Collins was infected with flying at an early age. Born in Elmira, New York, the “soaring capital” of the United States, she grew up watching gliders fly off Harris Hill. During high school she worked at a pizza parlor to save up the $1,000 she needed for private flying lessons.

Her parents could not afford to pay for her higher education but she was as determined to continue her education as to learn to fly, so she worked her way through Corning Community College, studying science. After earning a scholarship to Syracuse University she completed bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and economics. Later she earned two master’s degrees including one from Stanford.

Even at the age of nine, she dreamed of going into space. When she was accepted into the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training School, she was one of four (chosen from a pool of 120 women) to be admitted. After her training, she became the first woman to serve as a flight instructor and the second woman to be accepted for Test Pilot School. She also taught mathematics at the Air Force Academy.

While attending test pilot training, she was selected for the space program. As an astronaut she initially worked on engineering support and later in Mission Control. After paying her dues, she began to fly in space and was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir. Later she was the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft when NASA deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. She also walked in space.

After her space shuttle flight that docked with Mir, Col. Collins received the Harmon Trophy, an annual award for achievements in space. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in her home state of New York, where flying first captured her imagination.


Gugliotta, Guy. “Rocket Woman: A Commander’s Rise in the Ranks.” Seattle Times (July 6, 2005): p. A3.

Manier, Jeremy. “Shuttle Leader: Low-Key, Persistent, Unflappable.” Chicago Tribune (July 11, 2005).

Podesta, Jane Sims, Anne-Marie O’Neill, and Laurel Calkins. “Command Performance: Astronaut Eileen Collins.” People (May 11, 1998): p. 225.

Stone, Brad. “Space Travel: Great Space Coaster?” Newsweek (June 28, 2004): p. 12.

Thomas, Cathy Booth. “Mom Will Be Away for a While.” Time (April 18, 2005): p. 20.


What obstacles hamper the determination you need to achieve your dream?