Seven Questions: Former COSI CEO Kathy Sullivan on Space Exploration

Chris Gaitten

This Friday marks the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch, which has fundamentally changed humans’ ability to view the cosmos. Playing a key role in that deployment, Kathy Sullivan was one of five crew members aboard the Discovery space shuttle that delivered the technological payload into Earth’s orbit. She had already made history six years earlier, in 1984, when she became the first American woman to complete a spacewalk.

Sullivan has had a remarkable career on many levels, later serving as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; director of Ohio State University’s Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy; and CEO of COSI. But she considers the telescope project to be her seminal work. “Without question, I am most proud to have been on Team Hubble,” she says.

On Friday at 2 p.m., she will commemorate the telescope’s three decades in operation with a virtual talk about her new book, “Handprints on Hubble,” through the Columbus Metropolitan Library; the event is free but registration is required here. In anticipation of her talk, we connected via email to discuss more about her career and the importance of scientific investment.

The public associates the Hubble mostly with these colorful, fantastic images of space, but from an expert’s perspective, what are the most important things we’ve learned because of it?

Entire books have been written about the scientific advances generated by Hubble, so I can only give a few teasers of its cool discoveries here: pinning down the age of the universe (13.75 billion years); peering back into the oldest galaxies; confirming the existence of supermassive black holes and discovering that black holes lurk at the center of every major galaxy; finding new moons of Pluto; measuring the atmosphere of an alien planet; discovering water plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa; understanding the seasons on other planets; creating the first 3D map of dark matter. And many, many more.

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What motivated you to write “Handprints on Hubble”?

Every account of the telescope’s history I had ever read left out an important chapter and overlooked some key people. The crux of the missing chapter is the foresight and inventiveness that went into making Hubble maintainable, both by design and in practice. Hubble was certainly an innovation in astronomical telescopes, but maintenance is the reason it is still alive today and regarded as one of the most productive observatories ever built. I worked alongside the engineers who made Hubble maintainable from 1985 to 1990. I wanted to give them their due and show how much innovation is actually involved in keeping such a complex machine going.

What first got you interested in space flight and being an astronaut?

I followed the early space program avidly as a young girl. The grand, exciting adventure of it all entranced me and made me long to have an adventurous life myself, but did not spark, “I want to be an astronaut.” I didn’t aim at that specific goal until I was finishing my [doctorate] in oceanography, and NASA opened the competition for the first class of space shuttle astronauts. My primary motivation then was the chance to see the Earth from space with my own eyes.

You were in the original space shuttle class at NASA at a time when women were first becoming participants in the space flight program. How have you seen women’s involvement in the field change in the decades since then? 

It has changed a lot, but much more slowly than I would have liked. Though the numbers are still small, more women are participating across the board—in engineering, science, flight operations and management, both within NASA and in the commercial sector. I’m particularly pleased to see women leading and succeeding in positions of power and influence, such as mission commander, flight director and senior executive.

Is there more that needs to be done to encourage young women to see this as a potential career path? 

Yes. It is a great career path, and we need the talents and energy of many more young people to drive the field forward. Girls interested in a space career face some unique headwinds, like old stereotypes about science being for boys and social pressures that say you can be popular or smart, but not both. We also have to overcome the common belief that science is an innate aptitude one either has or lacks, rather than a muscle anybody can exercise and develop. I wish parents would see basic science competence as a skill set that will be vital to their children’s success in a 21st century world, rather than an option they might or might not like. Then there are countless classroom barriers, among them my pet peeve that math and science classes, from middle school to first-year college, are all too often taught in mind-numbingly boring, rote ways.

I watched the Netflix documentary “One Strange Rock” about the experiences of former astronauts, and some of them talked about how seeing the world from outer space shifted their views of the planet and how interconnected we all are. Did your work in space exploration change your perspective of Earth?

Anyone who says they were unmoved or unchanged by seeing the Earth from that vantage point is lying. Earth science and geography had been the focus of my entire career, so I perhaps had a richer sense of the planet and our many interconnections before seeing it from space than many of my colleagues. The view from orbit illustrated and reinforced some things I already knew and, as all grand experiences will do, filled me with a host of new questions I had never known to ponder. Those eventually drove my career shift from NASA to NOAA (the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency).

People often talk about the spending associated with NASA, and as a percentage of the federal budget it has generally trended downward over the past three decades. At a time of crisis when budgets are likely to be increasingly tight, should we continue to invest in space exploration?

Yes, absolutely. For a fraction of a penny from each tax dollar, NASA’s work drives innovation and discovery, fosters new businesses and inspires future generations. We must not let the urgencies of the moment wipe out these important catalysts of our future.


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