The 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, which killed all seven crew members on board just 73 seconds into the flight, convinced Tracy Caldwell Dyson, then age 16, to become an astronaut.
As a teen passionate about science and close with her teachers, Dyson said she could relate to the high school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was on board the shuttle, and the buzzed-about launch piqued her interest in NASA. Her desire to become an astronaut only intensified following the explosion, which left her with the sense that a great deal was at stake for the agency.
“It felt like something was taken away from us and I didn’t want to see it destroyed,” she said of NASA’s space program. “I felt even more motivated to be a part of NASA and help rebuild it, even though I was only 16 at the time.”
Twenty-five years later, Dyson has been a NASA astronaut for more than a decade, logging nearly 200 days in space, including three spacewalks and six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She joined NASA after receiving a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California, Davis and a lengthy career as an electrician. Starting at age seven, Dyson worked with her father’s electrical contracting company doing “really simple stuff that little baby electricians do.” Then, in her twenties, she assisted him in bending conduit, installing sub panels and more for industrial and commercial clients.
Now, NASA’s future in space looks uncertain: Though American astronauts will continue to travel to the ISS, the agency recently launched its final space shuttle, marking the end of its 30-year shuttle program. NASA has no further shuttle launches planned. It scrapped its mission to return to the moon and has been instructed to encourage private sector space flight.
Dyson has not only been at the forefront of space exploration and forging new ground as one of a growing number of female NASA astronauts -- who still make up just 20 percent of the corps -- but she is also at the frontier of a new era for NASA, one in which the government agency will be increasingly reliant on private sector companies to shuttle its astronauts into space.
Though America will not, for the foreseeable future, bear witness to another NASA shuttle launch, Dyson remains optimistic that the agency’s past accomplishments and other endeavors will inspire future generations to pursue careers in space, as she once was.
“I hope that the next generations will remember everything that NASA has done, from its inception to now, even though the shuttle program is gone,” she said. “There’s still a lot out there to inspire people.”
In an exclusive interview for The Huffington Post’s Women in Tech series, Dyson shared her perspective on traveling to space, NASA’s future, the challenges of being a female astronaut, and more.
Do you get butterflies when you tell people you’re an astronaut?
Sometimes I get real tickled about it. It’s hard to keep a straight face when you’re doing something pretty routine, like filling out a form for something, and you have to list your occupation as “astronaut.” There are definitely moments when I’m sitting front row during some of the world’s most history-making events and it does kind of make me tingle.
How did going to space change you?
In the process of getting there, you learn a lot about your own limits because they get pushed quite a bit in the training. For example, there are days when we train for space walks in a pressurized suit that we wear underwater for no less than six hours. When you get out of that training experience, you pretty much feel like a truck hit you.
When you get into space, your breath is taken away by the enormity of what you’ve just accomplished and realizing how small you are compared to how many people came together to make that happen.
Being up in space 220 miles above the surface of the Earth and looking at the Earth passing by you at mach 25 is a humbling experience. And even more so when you have the opportunity to stare out the window for a while, and the sun sets, and you look out at the vastness of space. You get to fixate your eyes on the stars and you see them in a way you never see them on the Earth. You think about how long the human race has existed, all the way to the beginning of time, and how small a fraction actually get to see the Earth and the heavens from where you are -- that’s very humbling. That grips you, that stays with you for a lifetime.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an astronaut?
You have to stay pretty flexible as an astronaut, especially at NASA because it’s at the mercy of each administration that comes in. You have to be willing to go with the ebbs and flows of what each administration wants to do with the organization.
As an astronaut personally, every day of your training, and even when you’re up in space, things change rapidly. The nature of the business is that things change, so you’ve got to be ready to roll with the punches and not get too attached to any one idea or any one plan.
Are there any unique challenges that women face as astronauts?
The personal hygiene aspects of being a woman can be a challenge. Flight suits weren’t designed with us in mind -- when you have to go to the bathroom, the whole flight suit has to come off. That’s not cool. Also, the toilet on board the ISS was designed by the Russians and as they have very few women in their corps, it was created with men in mind. We’re called upon to have a lot of fortitude in these cases. You have to make it work somehow.
What’s the most important quality for an astronaut to have?
I think what serves people well is having a really strong breadth of experience. That’s why the average age of NASA astronauts is somewhere in the 30s. We don’t take kids right out of college. The responsibility we place on astronauts is high, and you need to have a high level of maturity when you get to this stage to be able to handle all the things that get placed in your care.
The folks selected might come in with an expertise in a particular field, but they’ve demonstrated they’re self-starters: they can take on tasks on their own and motivate themselves to see the tasks through.
Why do we need to send people to space?
Going into space and exploring space is a must for developing new technology. It’s hard to get there, it’s hard to live there, and it’s hard to build in that environment. Yet by doing so, we develop things we never thought we needed down here -- but which make our lives better -- because we need them out there.
Do you have confidence that private companies will be able to send people to space soon?
I do. We’ve got really smart people out there. But what we don’t have in these companies is a lot of experience --that’s what NASA has. If NASA is allowed to stay involved in this process and contribute our experience, I’m hopeful that we’ll have some safe space vehicles.
What can we do to increase the number of women in tech?
I think the more we normalize these tech fields and skills for women, the less intimidated or inhibited women would be to try them at a young age. I don’t know what goes on in every household, but it never occurred to me that there was anything out there I couldn’t try or couldn’t do. My parents had plenty of opportunities to say to me, “girls don’t normally do that." I rode motorcycles, I worked with my dad with tools, I enjoyed sports -- but my parents didn’t put any limitations on me.
With all due respect, with all the effort we put into highlighting women in tech fields, I look forward to the day when it’s not so noteworthy, when it’s just normal.
What is the trend in tech that you find most concerning?
What’s most concerning to me -- and also the most encouraging -- is the immediacy that we have now with technology. It’s nice that we can now communicate rapidly and stay in touch with people. But the downside to such immediacy is that we’re trying to put so much more into a day. Where does the work stop?
What development in tech do you find most exciting?
What has really excited me the most to date are all the efforts around recycling and reusing what used to be called trash. People are putting money into coming up with ways to reuse the things we throw away, turning it around into products that are useful or in some way better for the environment. This has been an exciting and hopeful change.
SOUND BYTES: Tracy Caldwell Dyson on...
Her indispensable gadget: Her alarm clock
Her favorite app: "I sure like Dictionary.com, but we have a lot of flight planning tools and applications so you can look up the weather, file flight plans and check all the things that you need to do before you’d hop on a plane."
Her "required reading:" The Bible