Doctor, lawyer, teacher, fireman: there are jobs we grow up hearing about, and then there are jobs that maybe we didn’t even know existed. We’d like to take a minute and focus on the latter. To do so, we’re talking to some amazing women, with incredible careers, who are explaining what their lives are like working in jobs that we honestly didn’t even know were jobs. (Jobs that now we know are real, we totally, totally want.)
Hometown:I grew up outside of Philadelphia.
How many times I’ve been to space:Five.
What I’m doing now:Consulting for IMAX [on movies like A Beautiful Planet].
My early experience with science:In 1961, when I was 10 years old, we launched our first man to space in the United States. For the next nine years, as we did a space flight in Mercury and Gemini and Apollo, space captivated the nation. In school they would stop class and bring in a little black and white TV and we would watch; at night at home we could stay up late and watch people going to Moon. I was completely captivated. It never occurred to me that it was something I couldn’t do (unless I just wasn’t capable), because I was a girl. It never crossed my mind.
I was always fascinated by airplanes and when I was 15 years old I told my dad, “I want to learn to fly.” He said, “why?” which is a pretty legitimate question, and I said, amazingly, “I think my future is somewhere there.” And he, bless his heart, said, “Okay.” So we learned to fly together. Then I looked at astronauts and I thought, “Okay, flying will help [me get the job], but what else do I have to do? Let’s see: they’re men. That was out. They’re military pilots, and at the time that was not an option for me. They’re engineers. I thought: Okay, I’ll be an engineer.”
Come career day in my high school they said, “what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to be an engineer.” And my high school said, “You can’t. You’re a girl.” I’m one of those people who reacts the other way. When someone says I can’t, I say, “Yeah, watch me.” I applied to school, got an engineering degree and I thought, “NASA here I come.” That was in 1974, a low point for the aerospace industry, and people were getting laid off left and right. But I got hired by NASA as an engineer.
How I became an astronaut:In 1978 they put out their first call for space shuttle astronauts and 10,000 people applied, including me. I did not get interviewed or selected. In 1980 they made another call for shuttle pilots or shuttle astronauts, and I applied again and I got interviewed. But I didn’t get selected. I kept working and I was doing different engineering jobs involved with shuttle development and shuttle support. Then, in 1984 they made a third call for astronauts. 5,000 people applied, 125 were interviewed, and 17 were selected. I got selected in that round and I went to work in the astronaut office.
Being selected and going to space are not automatic. You go through a training, and you have to wait to be assigned to a flight. Before I flew we had the Challenger accident, so there was no flying for about three years. My first flight was in 1990. I was fortunate to fly in the decade where we flew five or six or seven times a year. I managed to fly five times in 11 years, so that was very fortunate.
What I did in space:My shortest flight was eight days, my longest was 14, and we go to orbit. My fourth flight we went to the Mir Space Station, which is the Russian space station that was orbiting before we built the International Space Station. My last flight, in 2001, we were a construction flight for the International Space Station.
What liftoff feels like:On the shuttle we flew solid rocket motors for the first stage, and then liquid engines in the middle stage. Solid rocket motors are very rough and so for the first 2.5 minutes on the shuttle, if you imagine yourself sitting on a chair on railroad tracks being rear-ended by a locomotive — that’s what it feels like. You’re also being pressed back in your seat by something twice your weight and all this shaking and rattling is happening. Then when the solid rocket motors come off, it’s like electric drive. You feel nothing. It’s as smooth as glass.
What it feels like to be in space:That is the hardest thing to explain to anybody because there is nothing on Earth you can compare it to. You can say it’s like being in water, but then take all the water away. It’s like one of those rides where you drop and you’re weightless, except it goes on for 11 days. It’s impossible to describe what it feels like. What’s even harder to describe is that it’s not just physical. You also realize you are off the planet. It is a unique and longed for feeling.
The coolest work experience I’ve ever had:One is floating, there’s nothing cooler than that. Another is seeing the Earth go by. It’s so astounding. You’ll hear every astronaut tell you: You don’t see borders [from space]. I remember, it was always cold on the shuttle, so I was always crammed in wherever I could find warmth like a cat in a window. I was crammed in a window one day, basking in the sunlight, and we were flying over the Middle East and the Sinai Peninsula. I remember thinking, people have been killing each other for millennia over that piece of Earth, and it’s just a piece of Earth. There’s seeing that, and then going into the night and seeing so many stars and thinking, “gosh, we are so insignificant.” So incredibly insignificant. It changes your perspective in a way, when you come back to Earth and think, “Really? This is a big deal?” Just move on.
The scariest work experience I’ve ever had:Being on the David Letterman show. I’m not kidding you. After my first flight, I was the first person to fly with really long hair, and so I let it out one day and there’s this picture of me with enormous hair. While I’m on orbit, here comes a call, “We want to interview the woman with the hair.” I didn’t even have a name! The woman with the hair. So NASA approved it, and I went to do that, and I was terrified. I mean terrified. They looked at me and said, “Really? You sat on a rocket and this scares you?” I said “I know what can happen to me on a rocket! This is a complete unknown.”
I guess the true scariest thing is being worried that I would make a mistake; being worried that I would do something wrong that would break the Station or hurt somebody. They say that the astronaut’s prayer is: “Please don’t let me screw up.” I was never in a situation that was terrifying.
Skills all astronauts need:The ability to get along with other people. Being an astronaut is sort of a hitting of the pause button on your ego — you need to attend to your surroundings and your surrounding people. One of the things you learn to do in the astronaut world, is keep an eye on everything. You need to be able to do your thing and help [another astronaut] do their thing, and treat them with equal importance. Not everybody can do that; get along with everybody who might not be of the same nationality, or the same religion, or the same sex, or the same whatever.
Also being adaptable. They used to say, “You can train for this all you want, and it’s just never going to work this way when you get on orbit. It just won’t.” And there you are — you’ve planned for it, you’ve trained for it, and it takes a left turn somewhere along the way. So being able to adapt is the biggest thing that you ought to be able to do. And multitask, multitask, multitask.
You can check out A Beautiful Planet, the movie Marsha most recently consulted on, here.