This former NASA astronaut steered the space shuttle to safety after overcoming gender discrimination.

As a Navy pilot, NASA astronaut Susan Kilrain used years of flight experience to deal with the space emergency.

Kilrain, then known as Susan Still, flew the Space Shuttle Columbia safely back to Earth after the mission aborted in orbit on April 8, 1997. The unstable fuel cell forced the landing after only four days in space, which was only a fraction of 15 days. days specified in the mission manifest.

Despite showing her skills under pressure, Kilrain has faced discrimination on her way to space for decades. But those boos taught her how to “separate” and focus on safety and other critical things, she recalled in a recent interview. (will open in a new tab) at Space Camp 2101 in Saudi Arabia ahead of Women’s History Month this March.

“Maybe you had a bad day at home, or your dog died, or you had an emergency in orbit,” Kilrain said during an interview on stage during a conference that has been held at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology since February 2019. of the year. 5 to Feb. 9. “You keep this aspect – the risk, the danger – in the back of your head. You handle the situation the way you were taught.”

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Until recently, Saudi Arabia’s control over women has been extreme. Male family members such as fathers, brothers and husbands dictated women’s livelihood, clothing, or the ability to leave their place of residence before 2019, according to the New York Times. (will open in a new tab).

However, according to ABC Australia, women activists are still often sent to prison or executed, and migrant workers are known to face abuse. (will open in a new tab). Critics also say that Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that follows Islamic Sharia law, is making only superficial changes to its laws to attract tourists.

But while noting progress in women’s rights, Kilrain spoke at a conference in Saudi Arabia about how much has changed, even for American women, in a single generation. (The interview was short and did not discuss aspects of ethnicity or other genders.)

“People respect women engineers a lot more now than when I first started. [the Navy]”, – said Kilrain, who entered the service in 1985. She admitted that young women today have much more opportunities, but in her time she tried to ignore detractors. “The plane does not know the gender of the person sitting in the chair. .”

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NASA astronaut Susan Kilrain (then known as Susan Still) steps out of the cockpit of a T-38 aircraft prior to the final STS-83 countdown test in 1997. (Image credit: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (will open in a new tab)

Kilrain and her spacecraft crew were lucky. They were returning home due to flight rules; all three serviceable fuel cells were needed for power-generating shuttle flights, no matter what. Since the astronauts were not faced with an extremely urgent event such as a fire, they could choose the time of their arrival for maximum success.

NASA also repeated the entire mission later in 1997 with the same crew. The Columbia was repaired and the fuel cells worked flawlessly during STS-94, a 15-day mission in July 1997 dedicated to scientific experiments with the European Space Agency’s Spacelab module.

After retiring from the astronaut office in 2003, Kilrain continues to be active as an advocate for space and said she sees her role today in working to promote gender equality in society.

“People like me play an important role in mentoring young girls who go through traditionally male fields like engineering,” she said, “and also moving women … into the power structure of the organization, for example by making them leaders.”

Women’s History Month was officially recognized by the US Congress in 1987, but according to Britannica, it follows almost a century of other women’s events in March. (will open in a new tab). March 8 is also the International Women’s Day of the United Nations. (will open in a new tab).

Elizabeth Howell is co-author of Why Am I Taller? (will open in a new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), space medicine book. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or facebook (will open in a new tab).

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