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‘I was rejected by NASA initially’

After studying engineering at Florida Institute of Technology followed by a brief stint at IBM, Joan Higginbotham joined NASA, which awarded her an exceptional service medal. She shares her experiences with HT Horizons

education Updated: Jul 14, 2010 10:23 IST

When I went to space I was not afraid. Not many people know it, but mid way (to the earth’s orbit), you can talk to people on earth. It’s really exciting to talk to your family while you are in space. I spoke to my mom and she was like, “Oh my God! I can’t believe this! You are in space.”

People on earth can’t make a call directly to the space shuttle. The call goes via a space station on the ground.

Training before the journey
Before you undertake the journey, you are given a proper training. Every astronaut gets around 3,500-to-3,700 hours of training, spread over a year, or sometimes a year- and-a-half. There are simulation facilities here on the ground and you feel as if you are already in space.

There is a significant amount of training given to anyone who goes up in space. After training, when you go there, it’s not stressful. You just have to float while you are in space. Floating is not that difficult, but floating gracefully isn’t that easy (laughs).

Lessons learnt
When I was wearing my contact lenses on my first day in the space shuttle, it took me around 15 minutes (to put them on). The pressure is such that you can’t hold the lenses at the tip of your finger. It tends to slip every time you try popping it into your eye.

After returning home, I felt as if I was quite heavy. I was walking with heavy steps just like a baby elephant. But gradually, I became normal.

Working with NASA
After my engineering, I worked with IBM for a few months. You know, I was rejected when I first applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But when I applied on the second occasion, I got through. You can join NASA with any background — technical (electrical, biological sciences, aeronautical or computer science) or with a mathematics background. There are people from various disciplines, even finance and law. But to become an astronaut, you must be an American citizen.

(Having said that), NASA works with many contractors (such as Johnson Space Centre) where you can become an astronaut without being an American. There is huge cultural and national diversity there.

There are people from America, Russia, Sweden, Africa, and India going to space together.

Besides having a good academic record, one must also have good interpersonal skills to become an astronaut.

Joan Higginbotham worked in IBM for a short time. She later joined the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC), Florida as a payload electrical engineer. She has actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches while at KSC. She switched over to NASA in 1996 as an astronaut. She quit NASA four years ago.

As told to Vimal Chander Joshi