Thursday, July 15, 2010

'Kalpana and I were avid readers'

On a recent visit to Pune, astronaut Joan Higginbotham shares her experiences of working at NASA, being in space for hours, and exchanging books with the late Indian astronaut

"As a child, I never aspired to become an astronaut," says Joan Higginbotham, the third Afro-American woman to travel into space. Higginbotham visited Pune as a part of her India tour to promote astronomy studies. She has worked closely with the iconic Indian-origin astronaut, Sunita Williams and has also trained with the late Kalpana Chawla.

For Higginbotham, becoming an astronaut wasn't a dream. It was fate that made her one. "I am an engineer and started my career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a shuttle launcher in 1987," says Higginbotham, who actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches during her nine-year tenure at the Kennedy Space Centre. She recalls that her boss was the one who suggested that she should become an astronaut. "I got selected as an astronaut in 1996 in my second attempt," she says.

Higginbotham logged over 308 hours in space during her mission with the crew of STS-116, which included Sunita Williams. "I was also selected for the STS-126 mission in the year 2008, but I didn't become a part as I retired in 2007," says Higginbotham, who now works as a manager-CSR with the USA-based Marathon Oil Corporation.

Recalling one of her experiences at her 11-year career as an astronaut, she says, "Once I was told to fly a jet plane and I had no prior experience of doing the same. I ended up riding it like a roller coaster. I did learn to fly a jet plane, but in a hard way!"

Higginbotham has also closely worked with Indian astronaut the late Kalpana Chawla. "Kalpana and I trained together several times. We both were avid readers and Kalpana gave me some books to read." She adds that her favourite book so far tilted Red Tent, was suggested by Chawla to her.

"Sunita and I flew together on the STS-116 mission. When you are in space, there is no gender discrimination. We all work as a team and there is no question of being a man or a woman," she says, advising all aspiring astronauts to study maths, science and technology well in school. "There is no shortcut to hard work and if you want to be an astronaut, you have to like maths and science," she reveals.

When asked about her decision to retire from the NASA in 2007, she says, "I had a wonderful 20-year long career with the NASA. Now, I want to try something different, that's why I have ventured in the private sector. Out of the 53 space shuttles that I launched, I had the privilege to fly on a few too. My only regret is that I couldn't do a space walk."

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