By Burt Dicht, NSS Managing Director of Membership

Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew aboard the Challenger on June 18, 1983. During her six-day STS-7 mission, Ride worked to deploy two communications satellites and made a number of scientific observations and tests along with her four crew members. Ride’s pioneering flight ushered in a new era for America’s space program which saw the emergence of women not just as astronauts but in all areas of the US aerospace industry.

Sally Ride

Forty-years later, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) celebrated Ride’s  trailblazing mission by holding several Women in Space panels on June 15 and 16, 2023. The panels included former astronauts as well as engineering leaders from NASA, the U.S. Space Force and industry. I had the pleasure of attending the panel on Thursday, June 15.

40 years of women in space

Thursday’s panel featured former NASA astronauts Dr. Anna Fisher and Kathy Thornton; Caley Burke, from NASA’s Launch Services Program; Col. Erin R. Gulden, Senior Materiel Leader with the U.S. Space Force, Kelly DeFazio, KSC site director for the Lockheed Martin Spacecraft Orion; and Kimberlyn B. Carter, associate program manager, Exploration Ground Systems, NASA KSC. The session was moderated by Lisa Malone, former director of KSC public affairs.

Women in space panelFrom left: Lisa Malone, Dr. Anna Fisher and Kathy Thornton. Photo Credit: Burt Dicht.

Malone asked the panelists a series of questions relating to their careers and accomplishments. The questions were: 1) What were the major influences on your career path?, 2) What challenges/obstacles did you have to overcome?, and 3) What career highlight would you like to share? They closed with a final question on the advice they would offer the next generation.

Women in space panelFrom left: Caley Burke, Col Erin Gulden, Kelly DeFazio and Kimberlyn Carter. Photo Credit: Burt Dicht.

Fisher mentioned Alan Shepard’s flight as a major influence and a medical colleague who informed her that NASA was seeking astronauts to crew the space shuttles. (Fisher was selected as an astronaut in 1978, the first class of space shuttle astronauts that included six women.) Thornton credited a teacher with putting her on a STEM career path. The other panelists also cited an influential teacher or counselor that encouraged them or provided guidance.

They all spoke of challenges that might have derailed their career paths, but their focus and commitment to their goals helped them succeed. In addition, a major challenge was the work-life balance of career and family. They all credited spouses, their families and great bosses who helped them overcome those challenges. With such distinguished and accomplished careers, each of the panelists had a hard time selecting just one highlight. Kimberlyn Carter summed things up with a moving tribute to the NASA/Industry team that successfully launched Artemis I in November 2022. Being involved in that historic launch as NASA prepares to return to the Moon is something she will never forget.

The advice they offered the next generation provided a great career roadmap for anyone interested in a space career, or whatever career they might choose. Fisher urged those pursuing STEM fields to find something that not only interests them, but that they find fun. Thornton advocated persistence in pursuing your goals and not to be locked into anything. Burke urged everyone to create a career development plan and that connected well with Col Gulden’s advice to think long term . . . Where do you want to end up and then work backwards. Difassio advised to keep moving forward and challenging yourself and finally, Carter closed with making sure you all do your best work on whatever project you are involved with, both big and small.

The panel was fun, informative, and insightful. These amazing women and aerospace professionals paid tribute to Sally Ride’s legacy and provided an inspirational message to the next generation. We look forward to that next “One Small Step” being made by a woman.

Top image: From left, Caley Burke, Kathy Thornton, Burt Dicht, Anna Fisher and Kelly DeFazio.

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