Astronaut Anna Fisher speaks at Vail Women’s Foundation event | VailDaily.com

Astronaut Anna Fisher speaks at Vail Women’s Foundation event

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

Like many youngsters who saw Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space, Anna Fisher had dreamed of becoming an astronaut since the age of 12.

However, as she got older, the dream seemed to become less realistic.

"All the astronauts were pilots, and it never occurred to me to join the military at that time," said Fisher, who did go on to become an astronaut — the first mother in space, in fact.

However, she was undeterred and went on to become a chemist and a medical doctor, thinking she could be a doctor or a scientist on a space station someday. Then, she heard that NASA was accepting applications for the space program. The deadline was a month away, but both she and her fiance applied and less than two months later, she was interviewing for the job.

"I still remember the form," she laughed. "It was the same you fill out for any job as a civil servant, like if you want to work for the post office, except in the blank where you write the position you're applying for, I wrote missions specialist astronaut."

Fisher was a mission specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 8, 1984. As the first space salvage mission, the crew retrieved two satellites for return to earth. Discovery completed 127 Earth orbits before landing at Kennedy Space Center.

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Fisher, who still works for NASA, will speak to Vail audiences at the annual Women's Foundation of Colorado Luncheon on Wednesday, especially addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. We caught up with her before she made the trip to Vail to talk about space travel and the challenges of being a pioneering woman in her fields.

Vail Daily: Tell us about being a mission specialist. What was the significance of your space mission?

Anna Fisher: I got to go up in 1984, which was a really exciting flight. We were the first to go up and try to bring hardware back — two communication satellites the size of small school buses. We (NASA) had done some work on the moon, which has a bit of gravity, but that's a different thing from complete weightlessness, so we weren't sure exactly how it was going to work.

These satellites weren't designed to be retrieved. It was a complicated process, but we did bring them back. Afterward, we were pinching ourselves, thinking, 'Can you believe we really did this in this environment?' No one said it, but we all must have wondered inside beforehand if we could pull it off.

VD: Did being a mother and having a family affect your decision process to go on the mission?

AF: When I was assigned to my flight, it was two weeks before I delivered my daughter. I had made that commitment already when I applied to be an astronaut, and so many people wanted that spot. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to fly that flight.

VD: What were some of your most special moments from your time in space?

AF: My whole memory of my period is how intense it all was. It was special because we were so intimately involved in the design of the mission, which is unlike now, where someone else designs and plans everything and you go and execute it. For example, one of my crew members designed the hardware that eventually brought the satellite back.

There was also the beauty of looking at the earth — we took an hour every night after we'd completed our tasks and prepared for the next day to watch the earth go by. It's almost impossible to capture how beautiful it is. You could see meteors going by below you. It looks just like shooting stars you see on earth, except they're below you.

VD: In terms of being in a STEM field, what challenges have you faced as a woman?

AF: My fellow female colleagues will say this as well, but we all come from fields that required us to face challenges all along the way. I was a chemist, and there were almost no women in that program. Then I went to medical school and there were barely any women there.

Our class had about 16 women in a class of 150 people. NASA had already committed to accepting women before I arrived, so when you came, you actually felt welcome. I think some people probably wondered how we would do, but overall I felt they were rooting for our success. There was the pressure that I put on myself. Because I felt I was representing women who would come after me, I felt the pressure that failure wasn't an option.

VD: What encouragement do you have for other women and girls in terms of STEM careers?

AF: I'd like to say that a lot of the focus today is on how you look and dress, and I'd like to encourage young women that the most important thing is how you use your brain. STEM fields can be just as exciting as being an actress or a rock star, even more so, I think. I think the space program is just going to get more exciting. I'd encourage girls not to say, "That's beyond me." A lot of us didn't think we were smart enough to do this, either, and it's not that daunting once you get into it.

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

If you go …

Who: NASA astronaut Anna Fisher

What: Vail Valley Women’s Foundation of Colorado Luncheon

Where: Vail Marriott Mountain Resort

When: Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.

How much: Tickets start at $75. The event is nearly sold out — call Sarah Braun at 303-285-2976 to check availability.

More info: http://www.wfco.org/vailluncheon