The Long Haul
This past endless year of Covid, reminded me of other long waits in my life and the patience it took to get to the end of one thing to begin something better. I remember my many years at NASA and how long each step took to get into space.
I had wanted to be an Astronaut since childhood, but NASA didn’t take women. I had faith they would someday. What education, what specialty, what physical requirements would increase my chances of becoming an Astronaut? What were my alternatives? I had to make a lot of guesses and I knew that whatever I chose would take years to accomplish.
By the time NASA announced in 1977 that they would take a new group of Astronauts in 1978, I had finished four years of college, four years of medical school and three years of a surgical residency. It was time to apply. The application itself was daunting and I spent hours filling out the form the best I could. I waited patiently for a reply…along with 7800 other applicants.
I learned I was one of the lucky 220 who would be interviewed. I spoke to the Selection Committee for 90 minutes – one of the most important ninety minutes of my life. Again, I waited. After 5 months, I became an Astronaut Candidate. Little did I know I would not get to go to space for a long time.
AsCans, as we were called, would not be allowed to say we were “Astronauts” until we passed a two-year training period. That involved aircraft training and checkout, classroom, planetarium and SCUBA certification, space sciences and on-the-job training in Shuttle simulators. If we failed to learn all of this, we might not be promoted. My perseverance paid off. I passed that hurdle and in 1980 received my silver Astronaut pin becoming eligible for flight assignment.
In the meantime, I married fellow Astronaut, Robert “Hoot” Gibson and learned what “expecting” meant. Our first child Paul was born in 1982.
The first four Shuttle crews were test pilots. Subsequent crews included “Mission Specialists” who could be non-pilots. Everyone coveted those early flights. My first launch was on the sixteenth Shuttle flight on April 12, 1985. I had spent eight years getting to that point. Our second son, Dann, was born in 1989.
While awaiting my second flight, I broke my left foot in four places during a training accident. I was determined I’d be well enough to make the flight – and patiently wore a cast for six weeks.
My third flight was my longest – a 14-day life sciences mission to understand how humans adapted to weightlessness. It was difficult to be away from my family for that long.
After that flight successfully landed, I found I was once again “expecting”. After a long 9 months, Emilee was born in 1995.
All of us have life challenges that test our patience and perseverance. My amazing 19 years working for NASA taught me patience, endurance, long waits, and the value of perseverance. We’re all in this for the long haul. Hang on everybody!—Rhea
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