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America’s First Spacewalking Woman: Kathryn D. Sullivan

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Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan’s official astronaut portrait. (NASA)

Thirty years ago, on October 11, 1984, a female American astronaut stepped outside her spacecraft for the first time. Kathryn D. “Kathy” Sullivan had work to do in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle Challenger, a mobile workplace travelling 17,500 miles per hour about 140 miles above the Earth.

Sullivan was one of the six women (in a class of 35) selected in 1978 to be Space Shuttle astronauts, and she was the third woman tapped to fly.  An Earth scientist and PhD. geologist/oceanographer, mission specialist Sullivan was a good match for the STS-41G mission, which carried an Earth-observation payload and deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite. She was co-investigator for the Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR-B) remote sensing experiment and actively involved in research use of the Large Format Camera and other instruments mounted in the payload bay.

However, it was not these experiments that drew her outside for 3 ½ hours. She and crewmate David Leestma did a trial fluid transfer to demonstrate that it was feasible to refuel satellites in orbit, a key task for satellite servicing. They had trained for this task in the underwater neutral buoyancy simulators at NASA’s Marshall and Johnson Centers and also in engineering labs. In orbit, they used a mockup of the Landsat’s cluster of fuel valves and some custom-built tools to modify them for a refueling operation in space. The chosen fluid—hydrazine—is toxic, so it was essential to make proper refueling valve connections without leaks or spills. Although the two astronauts were protected by their pressurized extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits, no one wanted stray hydrazine in the vicinity to contaminate scientific instruments or to migrate back into the cabin with the EVA crews. The two also positioned a communication antenna for proper stowage and verified that the large SIR-B antenna was properly stowed for return.

Kathy Sullivan, the first U.S. woman to do an EVA, and Dave Leestma work on the orbital refueling experiment at the far end of the payload bay. (NASA)

Sally Ride made her second flight on Sullivan’s first; the STS 41G crew was the first with two women. (NASA)

Sullivan was the first woman to wear the Shuttle-era spacesuit, the 225-pound Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), to work in space. It was a ready-to-wear suit, not custom-made, with interchangeable arms, legs, and torso units in different sizes. These parts could be combined to fit anybody in the range from the 5th percentile female to 95th percentile male.  She said she found it pretty comfortable to wear and work in while in zero gravity, although the fit did not quite match where her knees and elbows actually were, making it somewhat harder to move her limbs.

The EVA gloves worn by Sullivan are in the Museum’s collection and soon will be displayed in a new exhibition, Outside the Spacecraft, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first spacewalks in 1965. It opens in January 2015. Also in the collection is the Society of Women Geographers pennant that Sullivan took on this mission to honor her profession, as well as one of her flight suit name tags.

Sullivan’s right-hand EVA glove from the STS-41G mission.

Sullivan’s Society of Women Geographers pennant from the STS-41G mission.


Sullivan flew twice more on the shuttle but did not go on other spacewalks. She was prepared for one on STS-31 in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope deployment mission flown on Discovery, in case anything went  amiss with the release of the telescope. When one of the solar arrays jammed, she and Bruce McCandless suited up and prepared the airlock to go outside and deploy the array manually. However, Mission Control resolved the problem via software, a good but probably disappointing solution for the two would-be rescuers who had trained for every foreseeable contingency. In 1992 on Atlantis, Sullivan was payload commander on STS-45, a nine-day “Mission to Planet Earth” called ATLAS-1 that focused on measuring atmospheric chemistry and dynamics.

After spending a total of 532 hours in space, Dr. Sullivan left NASA in 1993 to take a series of distinguished positions, first as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and now as administrator of NOAA since early 2013. In between NOAA stints, she spent ten years as president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio, and five years as the first director of the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy at Ohio State University. She is prominently involved in all aspects of environmental sciences research with a focus on global environmental intelligence and climate change.

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan today, Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA)


Valerie Neal is a Space History curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. See more from Valerie here

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5 thoughts on “America’s First Spacewalking Woman: Kathryn D. Sullivan

  1. Hello, my name is Denise Kelly, and I’ve heard stories as long as I can remember that Kathryn Sullivan is my cousin. My dad remembers playing with her when he was younger. His name is Dennis, his brothers name is Thomas, & their sisters name is Sharon. Our cousins, the Lynotts also remember Kathryn when she was younger. The reason I’m writing is my 10 year old daughter. She’s recently revealed to me that she likes science, & might like to be a scientist. I stand behind my daughter 100%, and will facilitate her learning wherever it takes her. Does she want to be an astronaut? Learn about that stuff? We don’t know. She’s JUST expressed this desire. But I want to expose my smart girl to everything & let her make her own decision. I’m hoping she can open communication with Kathryn & find out if this is what she wants. Please tell me how to open this communication. Thanks so much

    Denise Kelly

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday to the World's First Woman in Space - AirSpaceAirSpace

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