Astronaut, retired colonel Catherine Coleman to share insight on making change 

Carherine "Cady" Coleman

Just as our emotions give us invaluable information and impetus for responding to challenges and moving forward, so do the obstacles — societal and otherwise — that we encounter and the self-doubt they often foster.

Years of pioneering work and perseverance enabled NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady”  Coleman to attain extraordinary vantage points on and far beyond planet Earth.

Character and courage have compelled her to open doors for others facing professional roadblocks and insecurities, including by advocating for women, national and racial diversity, accessibility, and STEM/STEAM curriculum using a variety of communication channels. 

At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Chautauqua Women’s Club and the Contemporary Issues Forum, Coleman will deliver an address with the same title as her book, which Penguin Life launched on Tuesday: Sharing Space: An Astronaut’s Guide to Mission, Wonder, and Making Change.

Living and working in confined quarters in outer space for more than 180 days has given Coleman special insight into the various meanings of “space.” Her first and second spaceflights — Shuttle Transportation System Mission 73, which lasted for 17 days in 1995, and STS-93, lasting five days in 1999 — were aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

From December 2010 to May 2011, she spent nearly six months as the lead robotics and lead science officer for an extended duration mission — Soyuz TMA-20 / Expedition 26/27 — to the International Space Station.

While at the ISS, Coleman conversed over Skype with Oscar-winning actor Sandra Bullock about the latter’s starring role in the science fiction thriller “Gravity,” which came out in 2013. In this major motion picture, Bullock and George Clooney try to return to Earth following the destruction of their space shuttle in outer space.

On a brighter note, as a self-described “amateur flute player” and member of Bandella, a band comprised largely of astronauts that for decades has performed several times a year, Coleman brought with her to the ISS a flute from Ian Anderson of the British rock band Jethro Tull.

Together, she and Anderson “performed the first-ever space duet from the Space Station.”

She played while in orbit and was seen live via video link. He played in Russia as part of Jethro Tull’s show honoring the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s completion of one orbit of Earth on April 12, 1961 — the first successful crewed spaceflight. 

Among the other flutes that Coleman played during her tenure on the ISS was a pennywhistle from Paddy Moloney, a co-founder of the Irish band The Chieftains, and an old Irish flute from fellow band member Matt Molloy. For over 10 years, she continued to speak about space and perform several times annually with The Chieftains. 

Because there haven’t been many astronauts writing books, Coleman said she wanted to tell “cool stories” about what she has experienced.

“The reason I wrote this book is because I felt very privileged to have this job,” said Coleman, who is also a polymer chemist, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, pilot, scuba diver, amateur radio operator, wife and mother.

“It may be (my) personal experience, but it does belong to other people, too,” she said. “If you look back, or down, you’re representing everyone on Earth. It’s important to share space in so many different ways and at so many different levels.” 

According to another former NASA astronaut, Scott Kelly, what is unique about her memoir “is that it’s a celebration of the people she met along the way.” 

For Barbara Barrett, 25th Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, Sharing Space “offers a rare glimpse into the heart of a pioneer, and is a rousing call to action.” And for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is “a unique road map for leaders everywhere.”

Drawing upon her experiences at NASA, Coleman will talk on Saturday “about a wide range of topics, including innovative leadership, building inclusive teams, and why ‘mission’ matters if you want to achieve ambitious goals.”

Because teamwork has been essential throughout her career, she said she tends to tell a lot of team stories with lessons that are applicable to everyone, including communities, schools and families.

“We (at NASA) don’t get to choose our teams,” Coleman said. “It’s not possible to choose personal compatibility as a team is formulating. There’s no room for, ‘Will they like each other?’ … We have a greater mission.”

She continued: “There are things you can do to leverage your ability to talk about the elephant in the room. … I’ll talk about how to help people do the best they can. A lot has to do with the individual.”

The individual who initially sparked Coleman’s interest in exploration was her father, whom she said was a hardhat deep sea diver who modified the capsules deployed by the U.S. Navy’s SEALAB program.

During the 1960s, the Navy developed these underwater habitats — SEALAB I, II, and III — to learn more about deep sea diving and rescue, including the psychological and physiological strains of humans living in isolation for extended periods.

After graduating from high school in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1978, when she was 17, Coleman spent a year as an American Field Service exchange student at an upper secondary school in Asker, Akershus, Norway. Her AFS experience occurred during the school’s inaugural year while Norway was undergoing a major restructuring of its upper secondary educational system.

As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1979 to 1983, where she said only about 15% of the students were female, she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and rowed crew. During her senior year, Chautauquan Megan Smith joined the women’s team.

“ROTC changed my horizon; what I could look forward to and see,” Coleman said. “I knew that I would serve my country for a couple of years. I was studying chemistry, which was fascinating. I liked applied things — new materials for airplanes; new kinds of Kevlar. … I loved the science of materials and how you could use chemistry to provide things that people needed.”

At MIT, Coleman said she experienced a “pivotal moment” when astronaut and physicist Sally Ride — who joined NASA in 1978 and in 1983 became the first American woman to fly in space — spoke under the university’s Great Dome at the invitation of the women’s alumnae association.

“It wasn’t even what she said,” Coleman said. “I got a feeling for what she said. It was like a revelation to me, that maybe I could have that job. It was clear that she was going to be a life-long (learner).” 

Coleman continued: “(Ride) had a job that had adventure in it. She was opening that door for people. I feel like I’m that sort of person, too. I want to invite others in. … Sally Ride changed what I thought I could aim for.” 

Thinking that MIT must have some alumni astronauts whom she could perhaps contact, Coleman set about doing that “good homework.”

After graduating from MIT with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, and the ROTC with a commission as a second lieutenant, she spent five years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. According to Coleman, it is the best place in the world for polymer science and engineering — the chemistry of materials.

In 1991, two years after returning to the USAF for active duty as a research chemist and surface analysis consultant at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, she completed her dissertation, earning her Ph.D.

In 1992, NASA chose Coleman as a member of its elite Astronaut Corps.

And in 1995, she took her first Space Shuttle flight. STS-73 focused in part on her forte, materials science.

Within NASA’s Astronaut Office, Coleman would serve as chief of robotics, as well as the lead astronaut for the integration of supply ships provided by NASA’s commercial partners.

Before retiring as an Air Force colonel in November 2009, she “led open-innovation and public-private partnership efforts for NASA’s chief technologist.”

As a member of the ISS National Lab Education Advisory Group, Coleman has continued her affiliation with the International Space Station post-retirement.

Together with scientist and author Andrew Maynard, she has co-hosted Arizona State University’s podcast, “Mission: Interplanetary,” which confronts “the big questions that face humans as we become interplanetary species.” 

Coleman has also been serving as an adviser and zero-gravity coach for Mission: AstroAccess, a disability-focused non-profit organization striving to make outer space accessible. Its tagline is: “If we can make space accessible, we can make any space accessible.”

Communicating NASA’s mission to “lots of different people, especially women and minorities … is something I really believe in,” Coleman said about her current endeavors. “It empowers the next generation. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can be the next Sally Ride. But it’s important for women to know that they can have families.” 

Continuing on she said: “I wear my NASA jacket more than most because it’s one more chance to say, ‘This can be you.’ ” 

Additional channels for communicating NASA’s mission and sharing her expertise include as a research affiliate to MIT’s Media Lab.

“I’m helping them apply their research to space-related topics,” Coleman said, mentioning food in particular and how to feed more people. “It’s hard to grow things in space. I’m catalyzing research that’s applicable to both Earth and space. (The Media Lab) is very creative.”  

While contributing regularly to ABC News and co-hosting ABC’s special reports on space, Coleman has also been serving on the boards of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Two recent documentaries have featured Coleman and her family. In “The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station,” she is one of 10 astronauts and flight directors whose ISS experiences have been brought to life. And According to Coleman, “Space: The Longest Goodbye,” “explores the human side of spaceflight, going straight to the heart of what it means to be part of NASA’s exploration team.” The human side includes “the stress of living away from family and friends.”

Funded partly by PBS’ Independent Lens, Coleman said that this “Sundance-premiering documentary” is currently streaming now on PBS, AppleTV and Amazon Prime.

During her CIF address, Coleman will share some of her counterintuitive insights about adapting vs. changing, leveraging self-doubt and obstacles to surpass expectations, and shaping disparate teams so that they will not only survive but also thrive in high-performance situations and environments.

“There’s a spectrum between demanding that change be made right now because everyone can see that there’s (something) wrong, and (figuring out) how to make change together,” she said.

Tags : Air Force ColonelastronautCatherine “Cady”  ColemanChautauqua Women’s ClubContemporary Issues ForumSharing Space: An Astronaut’s Guide to Mission Wonder and Making Change

The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.

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