07/06/2011 11:47 am ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

America's First Woman Space-Walker Remembers Shuttle Rides

With the last shuttle launch scheduled for July 8, there is uncertainty about the future of America's manned space program. Until private industry develops a Shuttle replacement in a few years, the U.S. will be beholden to Russia, our space opponents, for rides to the International Space Station. The going price for a seat now is about $63 million.

Over the years I've interviewed my share of astronauts: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and shuttle -- even private citizens who flew to the ISS aboard the Soyuz. Most of them (off the record) will tell you they are disappointed with the rate of manned space progress since we last visited the moon in 1972. That said, they all agree that the Shuttle, the first reusable spacecraft able to land on wheels, is a marvelous machine.

To mark this final launch, I wanted to highlight some pieces of an interview I did a while back with Shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan. She was the first American woman to walk in space, outside Challenger in 1984. In 1986 that spacecraft exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing its crew of seven.

Undaunted, Sullivan flew again, not once but twice. In 1990, she flew on Discovery. Her last flight, coincidentally, was aboard Atlantis in 1992.

"I had to fly again," she said without hesitation. "We were all there because we believed this was important work for the country. If it was sufficiently unimportant that one painful moment was grounds to give it up, then we had made the wrong estimation."

Sullivan, now 59 and retired from NASA, was appointed assistant secretary of commerce and deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May.

JC: What do you remember about the Challenger disaster?
KS: I was in California testing components of the Hubble telescope. We'd been working all night, so I was actually on an airplane en route to a connection in Dallas. I called the office to check in and got the news. And, of course, went right to the space center because, who can go home at that point? You're stunned. Words don't come. And then you think what could have done it, what happened? There are long phases of being numb, and then you fall into the necessary activity patterns of looking after families and showing proper courtesies. And, finally, the world begins to move again a little bit, and you get into trying to figure out what really happened, and what are we going to do about it.

JC: Did you ever think, 'I'm not going back up'?
KS: No. My father was in aerospace and my brother is an aerospace nut. I grew up with families that know what airplane crashes and explosions are. This business consists of riding bombs. And if you do absolutely everything right, you can marshal the energy to do something astonishing like put yourself into orbit. If you do even a few things wrong, it's going to act like a bomb.

JC: What do you remember about your first space walk?
KS: Those are pretty intense experiences. There's nobody but you and the equipment--the only thing between you and hard vacuum--so you tend to pay close attention. The walk is really like swimming, reminiscent of the pool in which we trained. But the view's a whole bunch better. At one point I looked down, and there was Venezuela sliding by beneath my boots. It's almost schizophrenic. You feel outrageously normal, given the outrageously not-normal place you are. In fact, it's so normal that you're wearing gym shorts and sipping hot cocoa and listening to a rock band on your Walkman. The main thing you're thinking about is, will I miss some steps on the checklist, and will things go okay so I can get home for dinner Thursday? And yet you look through the window and what's outside doesn't fit normal at all.

JC: Describe what's outside.
KS: Just when you think you've picked the most beautiful sight, there's another. Like realizing when you see a continent-size mass of thunderstorms from above, there is never a moment there isn't an electrical discharge in that mass. It's the illusion of being at one place on the ground that makes you think lightning is intermittent. Or, on the day side, going over parts of the earth you know. I don't know where the myth came from that you only see the Great Wall of China. You can see airports, dams, baseball stadiums--even the spot we launched from.

JC: As the first American woman to walk in space, are you a role model for girls?
KS: I have a twin view. That would have been my first space walk if 10,000 people had done it before me. So, from that point of view, the little historical fact doesn't play any role. But when it's parents, teachers or young high school folks figuring their way through the world--if I'm identifiable as having something worth saying to help them figure out the road ahead--that's an extraordinary opportunity. So I enjoy that and try to do what I can.