Analysis

Down to Earth

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan’s experience as one of the first female U.S. astronauts guides her now in leading the nation’s “environmental intelligence agency.”

Thirty years ago, as Kathryn Sullivan floated through space, she looked past her astronaut boots to see Venezuela drifting below her. Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space as part of the nation’s pioneer class of female astronauts, recalled a pretty “cool view.”

“The way we could see Earth was entirely different … entrancing,” she said during an Oct. 8 appearance at the Washington offices of The Pew Charitable Trusts. That perspective has guided her career as a scientist and explorer ever since, especially informing her views as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, confirmed by the Senate for that role in March after a year as acting administrator.

During a question-and-answer session with broadcaster and author Lynn Sherr, Sullivan marked the anniversary of her spacewalk nearly 30 years after that day, Oct. 11, 1984. She reminisced about the gender challenges she and five other female astronauts faced: “Imagine 1960s male engineers designing a feminine hygiene kit.” Described what it’s like to sit atop a rocket ship awaiting launch: “The vehicle is alive. You have a sense it’s ready to go and wants to leave.” And described her first glimpse of Earth, flying upside down minutes into her first orbit, seeing the Atlantic Ocean and white clouds over England: “It literally took my breath away.”

She made three space shuttle flights, logging 532 hours in space, and was inspired by those views—as well as her experience as a deep sea oceanographer—to devote herself to the study of the Earth. As NOAA administrator, she leads the nation’s “environmental intelligence agency,” collecting weather data and setting policies for oceans and fisheries.

Thanks to the innovations of the space age, NOAA’s weather forecasting is more precise, saving lives during hurricanes and other storms. Modern technology is also behind Sullivan’s priorities for NOAA in the coming years: that the National Weather Service continue to evolve; that investments grow for satellites, ocean buoys, ships, and planes that collect atmospheric data; and that the information gathered helps communities become more resilient in a changing environment. She includes fish habitats in those communities and wants to make them more resilient during an era of industrial fishing—also a longtime priority of Pew’s environmental agenda.

“You’re just trying to protect the whole planet,” Sherr told Sullivan. The NOAA administrator’s reply was quick: “Why not?”

NOAA Leader on Oceans, Atmosphere—and Making History in Space

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan and author Lynn Sherr

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