Black History

Passion for Math, Science Lead to Outer Space

During grade school in Chicago, Joan Higginbotham said says she always enjoyed math and science.

“I remember becoming fascinated with electronics and messing around with things at home,” Higginbotham said.

But she had no idea that her inquisitiveness would develop into achieving a college degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University, a career with NASA and even a ride into outer space aboard a space shuttle.

“I wanted to be very good at my job and for people to see me as very competent,” she said.

After college, she says she’d hoped to secure employment with IBM where she had interned for two summers. However, while IBM didn’t need more electrical engineers, NASA did.

“Unbeknownst to me, they got all our résumés and out of the blue one day a manager called me up and offered me a choice of two positions at Kennedy Space Center,” she recalled.

Higginbotham said she believed the job offer to be a prank — then she realized it was the real deal and quickly accepted a position as a payload electrical engineer in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division at the Center.

She says she had achieved her goal to become an electrical engineer adding that becoming an astronaut had never entered her mind.

“I was very content,” she said. “I kept on getting promotions and moving up the ladder. Then one day my manager suggested that I’d make a good astronaut.”

She eventually followed her manager’s advice and in August 1986, began training as an astronaut candidate. After over a decade of study, she joined six other crewmembers of the space shuttle Discovery, taking off on Dec. 9, 2006.

She used one word to describe the experience: indescribable.

“It was incredible,” she said. “It is just one of those things that you absolutely have to experience yourself. “I was sitting with Christer Fuglesang and another crewmember and when we took off we joined hands and raised them in joy and euphoria.”

During her 12 days in space, Higginbotham operated the robotic arm space shuttle, used to hold crew members while doing work in space and to move cargo, such as satellites.

“It was probably one of my tensest moments because you have this huge piece of equipment with this 70-foot-long arm worth billions of dollars,” she said. “You had a precious life at the end of the arm. So, you’re just tense the entire time and really focused on what you’re doing.”

After her career with NASA, Higginbotham switched gears and worked in the oil industry. Today she’s employed by the hardware chain store Lowe’s as director of supplier diversity where she ensures that more of Lowe’s suppliers are minority- and woman-owned.

Higginbotham, who has both become a role model and made history, says she only wanted to be a good person, contribute to society and make her parents proud of her.

“My family was my biggest inspiration,” she said. “I have an incredible mom, dad and siblings who were always supportive of me. As a black female astronaut, I hope my life shows other women of color they don’t need to be pigeonholed into a particular career and that they can pretty much do whatever they want.”

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