Astronaut Dr. Anna Lee Fisher is an emblematic personality in the sphere of Science, one of the first female astronauts and the first mother to have gone to space. With a special sensitivity for planet Earth, in an interview with the Cyprus News Agency (CNA), she urges people to take care of what is our home.
Dr. Fisher was in Cyprus last week on the occasion of the 50th anniversary since the Apollo 11 mission to the moon where she addressed an event organized by the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation and the US Embassy in Cyprus.
It was a dream come true, I wanted to be an astronaut since I was 12 years old, she recalls. Living in Kentucky as her father was stationed there in the military, Fisher remembers listening to Alan Shepherd, the first American to go into space and how fascinated she was to hear him talk about mission control.
“And from that moment I said, I want to do that someday”. But of course, she adds, it did not seem like a realistic goal as all the pilots were male and women were not even allowed to serve in the military, back in those days.
“Certainly it didn’t seem realistic but the first seed was planted and so when it all worked out and it was announced in January 1978 that I was in the group of astronauts selected for the shuttle and announced the first group of women, it was everything that I had dreamed about.”
She graduated from San Pedro High School, San Pedro, California, 1967; received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Doctor of Medicine from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 1971 and 1976, respectively and a Master of Science in Chemistry from UCLA, 1987.
Fisher was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978. She had the novelty of her being one of the original six women selected by the organisation. In August 1979, she completed a one-year training and evaluation period, making her eligible for assignment as a mission specialist on space shuttle flight crews.
“At eight months pregnant, she was assigned mission specialist on STS-51A.”
At eight months pregnant, she was assigned mission specialist on STS-51A, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, on November 8, 1984. She was accompanied by mission commander Frederick (Rick) Hauck pilot David M. Walker, and fellow mission specialists, Joseph P. Allen and Dale H. Gardner.
Asked what was the reaction of people when it became known that a mother would be going to space, Fisher says “you know there were some people who were critical but most people I think understood. I am not implying it was easy, it was definitely difficult to be a new mom and also be training to be the first space mom, but that was my dream since I was 12”.
She did not shy from telling NASA her plans. “I remember I actually said to them, ‘oh, by the way, if it affects your decision, I want to have a family’ so I told them that before I was selected. I didn’t quite intend for it to come at that space of time but you know, if you want something badly enough, you just do whatever it takes to make it happen. You know, I was doing the two things I love most, being a mom and being an astronaut. It was definitely a hard year but I was committed to being an astronaut and I wanted to make sure I did an excellent job so that the women that came after me had the opportunity to be both an astronaut and moms. So I took that role really seriously”.
On the big day, she admits she had mixed emotions. “Oh, definitely, I mean the entire year before my trip, the whole time, in fact, we videoed so much the first year of Kristin’s life, she eventually became a broadcaster and I joked that it because you were on camera with me”. The videos were intended to be kept if anything had happened to her so that her 14-month-old daughter “would have all this video of us together”.
Before the launch in a telephone call with her husband and Kristin, the toddler said “l lo..” which was her way of saying I love you. When the engines ignited, Kristin said “Oh no Mama”, as Fisher’s husband recalled. “I think she had some appreciation that something unusual was happening. But it was definitely a moment of mixed emotions, excitement of finally keeping my dream of going to space, hoping everything was going to work out well and not only that but also it was a very difficult mission, the first time NASA had ever done anything like that, but it was the beginning of an adventure so once we got out on the pad, you push out all those thoughts out and you focus on the mission. I guess with my medical training and everything else, I learned to compartmentalize and to just kind of focus on whatever the immediate thing was I had to focus on and then later on when I had time to think about the emotional aspects of things”.
And once in space, she says, “we were so busy that you really didn’t have time to think about things. In orbit, there was a little bit of time. Shuttle flights were very tightly programmed because every minute was costing a lot of money so every minute counts. So we really didn’t have a lot of free time on the shuttle mission”.
“Every night after we said ‘goodnight’ to mission control and we finished up everything, we took one hour to just orbit the earth and look out of the window.”
However, after wrapping up the day’s work, “every night after we said ‘goodnight’ to mission control and we finished up everything, we took one hour to just orbit the earth and look out of the window”.
As windows were facing down to earth, she would get up where the commander sits and take her my seat next to the “window and go around the earth one time, that was the time when I had time to reflect on how I was doing, how beautiful this planet is, how you don’t see any borders from space and how very lucky we are to have this amazing planet that we have and we need to take care of it”.
During the mission, the crew deployed two satellites. As the first space salvage mission, the crew also retrieved the Palapa B-2 and Westar VI satellites for return to Earth. STS-51A completed 127 Earth orbits before landing at Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 1984. With the completion of her first flight, Fisher logged a total of 192 hours in space.
Asked what was the biggest challenge she faced, Fisher said one of the biggest challenges was trying to get a suit small enough to fit someone her size. As they did not have the option really of changing the suit to make it small enough, they eventually decided to fit in a medium or large in order to do a spacewalk.
“I think the biggest challenge is just how much you really need to know when you are going into space search. You need to know the vehicle, you need to know the system, you need to know what your particular task is. Your life and the life of your crewmates “depends on you doing your job and not doing it wrong and not making mistakes, I think that’s the biggest pressure”.
The crew retrieved two satellites, making it the first time that a mission had ever brought hardware back from space. “The satellites are the size of a small school bus so no one had ever actually handled hardware that large in space previously and to bring hardware back from space. Previously, Apollo astronauts were bringing rocks from their moonwalks but other than that no one had ever brought anything back so big and so it was just so exciting to be a part of”.
And, she said, that “kind of lay the groundwork for the International Space Station where it is probably the most complicated thing anything the humankind has ever done”.
Asked if it is easy for women to enter male-dominated professions while balancing family and home, she said back in the late 60s and 70s when she was getting her training “it was definitely more difficult for women to do that. I think a lot of men thought you would get training and then you might decide to have a family and not follow through your job. And I certainly felt that pressure when I had Kristin, I wanted to make sure that for the women that came behind me, that I performed my job well, even though I was a mother at the same time. Hopefully, I did that because a lot of women came after us”.
“I don’t think it is unique to want to be an astronaut.”
It’s always difficult and demanding, she says, “career and wanting to have a family. I don’t think it is unique to want to be an astronaut. Now we have women in the military, pilots deployed for a year at a time, training for the ISS you train for 2.5 or 3 years and you are gone for half that time, so it is definitely difficult”. As she told her daughter, “if you are doing something difficult and you enjoy it, I think it makes you a better mom. If you are happy at what you are doing, then you are also a happier, better Mom. There’s no right or wrong answer. A person has to find what works well for them”.
After her big Space trip, Fisher went on to take a seven-year of absence, where she had her second daughter, “and to me that was important. I wanted to be home when they were young. I would say going back after a seven-year absence, was the hardest thing I did but I am so glad I did and it probably took me a year to get back into anything because everything had changed but, do I regret that looking back? Not for a moment. I love my career and love having had the time home to raise my daughters and I think I was able to do both”.
When she returned to NASA, the International Space Station had just started. By that time, the shuttle programme was going strong. “When I first started, the shuttle hadn’t even flown”, she recalls. Working on the ISS, she said, she managed to bring the experience from the early days of the shuttle programme to the beginning of the ISS. “I think it turned out to be something I was really excited to be part of and very beneficial for NASA as well”, she adds.
“I personally think we should build a base on the moon.”
Asked what she believes should be the next step in research other than the exploration of Mars, Fisher replied, “I don’t think there should be, I think that is the next thing that we are going to do. But I think we are going to do it by way of flying to the moon. I personally think we should build a base on the moon which (US President Trump has announced he wants us to be back on the Moon by 2024. I am hopeful that we will be able to do that. I know NASA can do that, it’s just a matter of getting funding from Congress”.
In addition, she said, the ISS has “an amazing laboratory and they are doing hundreds of experiments every day and, hopefully, at the end of the programme, it’s currently funded until 2024, we will start talking about the ISS being handed over to private industry to be managed and it can do research”.
“I am hopeful that we will have a space station doing research and going to the moon at the same time, having two amazing programmes that we are working on and the benefits that will come back to earth as it was demonstrated in the past”, said Fisher.
At the same time, she says she gets to talk to young people all the time to see how exciting they are about space exploration. “Certainly, in the US, when the space programme started, a lot of people wanted to go to space as a result of that. I think we need to bring the excitement back, and we need it the way technology is changing, we need engineers and scientists to work in all the different areas of development that we have”.
“But when you look at the planet from space, you don’t see those borders.”
Invited to give her perspective of how the world changed since she saw Earth from space, Fisher said one when you look at a map, you always see borders between the countries. “But when you look at the planet from space, you don’t see those borders”. As we work together with our international partners, and all the crews on the ISS are always international, there’s always at least one US astronaut, always one cosmonaut and usually one or two more from other countries, “it’s truly an international effort” and hearing their comments when they come back is they are all excited to see their hometown from space, their country from space. “Pretty soon, the whole work is like your backyard and you are still conscious of the fact that you are from the US or from Russia or from wherever, but you also feel like you are a citizen of planet earth as well”.
“It will be a long time before we go beyond planet earth.”
She urged people to realize “at least in most of our lifetimes, that it will be a long time before we go beyond planet earth, even somewhere as close to planet Mars and so it is really special as you turn back and look at Earth and you realize how beautiful and precious it is and you see that beautiful atmosphere, and realize, we better really take good care of this planet, we all belong to this planet”.
One more thing that struck her “is that it makes all the conflicts here on Earth seem a little trivial and sad. You know, step back a bit, is it really that important what’s going on in the Middle East, in Crimea, North Korea, South Korea, China, the US? Is it really? We have this beautiful planet and if we are lucky maybe you will live a 100 years,.. and to think that we waste it, so many peoples’ lives are wasted you know, it’s sad and you wish people are hopeful that the Richard Bransons of the world and Elon Musks will come up with more ways to go into space. I am hopeful and many of my colleagues in the Association of Space Explorers are hopeful that more people will get to see that view and we over time people will start to have that perspective and hopefully we can get away from these conflicts”.