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Forging your journey with NASA Astronaut Susan Kilrain.

Susan Kilrain is a former US Navy officer, and a former NASA astronaut. Susan is the youngest person to pilot a Space Shuttle. She shares her journey with us.



Deep Space


Susan Kilrain is an American aerospace engineer, former United States Navy officer, and a former NASA astronaut. She is the youngest person to pilot a Space Shuttle. Susan recently released a children’s book called “An Unlikely Astronaut” to encourage future generations to follow their dreams.

You can connect with Susan on LinkedIn and learn more about her book online.

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No matter who you are, forging your own path in the space industry is difficult. And it was even more so just a few decades ago when women and minorities were grossly underrepresented. Imagine deciding to pursue a career as an astronaut at a time when not many women were being selected. Well, Susan Kilrain didn't let that deter her. [Music] Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks. I'm Maria Varmasus. Our guest today is the youngest person to pilot a space shuttle. Susan Kilrain is an American aerospace engineer, former United States Navy officer, and a former NASA astronaut. She recently released a children's book called An Unlikely Astronaut to encourage future generations to follow their dreams. Here is Susan's story. I am Susan Kilrain, I guess most notably, a former NASA astronaut. I flew in space as the pilot of the space shuttle Columbia twice back in 1997. Before that, I was a test pilot for the Navy. I got my private pilot's license when I was a teenager. I worked for Lockheed for a few years. And after my time at NASA, well, some of it during, I have four kids. One still living at home in high school. And I recently wrote a book. That's amazing. Susan, thank you so much for joining me today. And I want to get into all of that because I'm also a mom too. So I'm always especially in awe of women who have such incredible careers like yourself. I was reading a bit about you and about your incredible career leading up to your NASA career. I mean, because that certainly that was, it's just a part of your incredible journey. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and, you know, your ambitions to be an astronaut from like a young age? Yeah, certainly. I mean, we grew up with not a lot. Like many families back then, money was tight. My dad was in medical school when I was little. So money was really tight. My mom worked as a nurse. And we kind of, the four of us, my three brothers and I just really lived under the old rules of go outside and don't come back till the street lights come on and made our own fun. My dad used to take us to the local airport to watch the airplanes take off and land because it was free and it was a way of getting us out of the house and, you know, off my mom for a few hours. And that's where I fell in love with airplanes and the idea of someday becoming a pilot. And that's where it all sparked when I was a little kid. And it sounds like your family was also super supportive of your dream. Yeah. And that was the big thing. And that's the piece that I'm afraid a lot of kids miss sometimes, especially in some of the underserved communities is I was very fortunate. I didn't think my father would get on board with my idea of becoming an astronaut, but he just looked at me and said, you can be anything you want to be. And I wish every single child and adult really had that person in their lives that they respected that said to them that they could do whatever they wanted to do. Absolutely. And just having that person cheering you on can make such a such a difference in life. And one question I remember I had around the age that we're talking about is not really knowing what the path forward is, especially in my case, the career I was trying to pursue. I didn't know anyone who had that kind of career. So you were interested in learning how to become a pilot. Did you have someone that was sort of your role model there? Did you know how to figure out how to get to that point? You know, it's funny. I didn't really know how to role model for becoming a pilot, but I had been to the airport enough to see that people were learning how to fly there because that's where my dad used to take us. And in high school, there was a program that if you wrote a presentation and you won this kind of competition, they would give you a month off of school to go do what it is you wanted to do. And really I did it for the idea of having a whole month off of school. But I mean, who can blame you? Right? Right. And so I said that in that month, I would go get my private pilot's license, not fully understanding how difficult that would be to get your private pilot's license in one month because you had to have 40 hours of flight time and pass the initial written test and everything. Anyhow, I won that contest and they let me go do this thing. And I actually did it. I don't know how. I mean, sometimes I was flying two or three times a day, but it all worked out. I'll say in a month, I admittedly, I know people who are trying to get their private pilot's license. It takes them a lot longer than that. So that is a very impressive speed run for a pilot's license. Well, it helps if you have nothing else to do. Like, I had no school. I had no work. I only had all day to do this. That helped. And then also I got funding for it. So that helped. I feel like that's a great pro tip. Just take a month off. Just get off. That's awesome. What a great way to take advantage of an opportunity, though. That's smart. So that's just the big, I mean, truly this is the beginning. So I mean, you went to college after that point, sounds like. You pursued engineering. So what point did things shift to being interested in space as well? Well, I was already interested in space by then. That started right along with being a pilot. Because if you can fly an airplane, why can't you fly a spaceship? And I knew that. I mean, I'm not sure I knew that there were no women astronauts. And nobody really told me. I had seen a few of the men walk on the moon on the black and white TV. They would roll into the classroom. But it never really occurred to me that women were prohibited from doing things, even though I didn't have any women role models to look up to. It just never occurred to me. And so I set off to become an aerospace engineer so that I could become an astronaut. And after working as an engineer for really only about a week, I realized engineering wasn't for me. I'd gone to the trouble to get the bachelor's degree and the master's degree and realized I wasn't very excited about being an engineer. And as luck would have it, my boss knew Dix Gobi, who was an astronaut who later died in the Challenger disaster. But then he put us in touch. And that's when Dix Gobi said to me, I should join the military and become a test pilot. And I don't know why I didn't even. I guess I never even thought of the military up until that point. But that was just the best news I could hear, the best recommendation. So yeah, what happened next? So you joined the Navy at that point? First I tried to join the Air Force, but they said no, they wouldn't take me. As a woman pilot, they had, this is when I found out there were restrictions to women that they had fulfilled the quota for women pilots that year. And that was because of the combat exclusion policy that was in place. So women weren't allowed to fly in combat. And that really limited what women pilots could do. But then somebody else recommended I go try out the Navy. It never really even occurred to me that the Navy had airplanes back then. But sure enough, they did and they took me. I know. I was like, I just sort of fell into these people that guided me and advised me in such life changing ways. Yeah. That's so amazing that you had that support. And I just, it is such a wonderful through line for a lot of people like yourself who've been so focused on achieving something that you have all these people also who support you help driving you towards that. It's, I feel like you can't say that enough how important that is. And I also have to ask your level of focus on achieving what you're trying to get to. So at some point there's like on the shining beacon on the hill becoming an astronaut, which is an I'm sure as you knew then extraordinary difficult. How did you maintain that focus? Especially, I mean, we're talking about being a woman in engineering school and then going to the Navy. That's, that's hard. How did you do it? Yeah, I think that the most important part of all of that is if you're looking to make a long journey to an almost impossible goal. The important thing is to enjoy that journey. It would have been okay had I never become an astronaut because I loved being a test pilot. I loved being a pilot, a Navy pilot. I love flying the F-14 Tomcat and had NASA never selected me, it would have still been okay. I wouldn't have ever felt like I had wasted this entire journey for nothing. And that's the advice I have for anybody. Had I stuck it out as an engineer hoping to become an astronaut someday, I would have been really disappointed in myself because I didn't enjoy engineering. I'm not saying engineering is bad. Engineering is for lots of people and I highly recommend it. It just wasn't for me. And so it's important to forge your own path and really enjoy the journey in case that lofty goal never materializes. Yeah, that's such a smart point. And I know for many people who are very driven by a singular goal, sometimes after they achieve that goal, there's like this great sense of disappointment of like, I did all this for all those years. Now what? Was that true for you? Maybe it sounds like it wasn't because you enjoyed the journey so much along the way. I imagine that sort of buffers against that kind of effect afterwards. I think in general, most astronauts go to space and they don't have a let down. They have this great sense of accomplishment and this just awe of how beautiful our planet is. However, at some point you have to stop flying in space. And that can be difficult for astronauts that haven't figured out the what's next part of their lives or even had other dreams or goals. And I had dreams of becoming a mother, a wife, of having a family. I had dreams of doing other things after I flew in space, even though I could have stayed at NASA and flown in space again as a mother and a wife, which many astronauts have done. Ultimately it ended up not being what was right for me, but I had other things to do. So when I ended up hanging up my space suit for another life, I didn't feel let down or disappointed at all. I felt like I had other mountains to climb. We'll be right back after this quick break. That's fantastic. So motivating too. And my mind's in two different places. One, I want to hear a bit about your experience in space. I feel like I would, a huge missed opportunity if I didn't ask you about that. But I also am very curious about what happened next. So let's go into your experiences in space. I'm sure you've told people many times, but I never get sick of hearing it. If you're not sick of talking about it, I'd love to hear about what your experiences were like. Oh, well, it was amazing. Obviously, everybody, I don't know of anybody that says, "Oh, I wish I wouldn't have gone to space." Right? It was a trip of a lifetime, but you can see it in the movies. You can see it in photographs and you can hear people talk about it. But to actually go into space and look out the window for the first time and really marvel at our planet can only really be done in space. And so I hope at some point, everybody gets the opportunity to fly in space because it is a life-changing experience for most. For me, it gave me a greater appreciation to how thin and fragile our Earth's atmosphere is and that we as humans need to work together to protect it. And I'm sure you've heard that many times from astronauts, but it's so true. And it's not a feeling I will ever forget when I first got up into space. And on the one hand, I was unfortunate, and on the other hand, I was very fortunate. Our mission got cut short due to a failure and we had to come home after only a few days, which was devastating at the time, especially to the payload specialists, that that was their one and only chance to go in space and do their science. For a pilot, I still got to do all the things I mean, we launched, we flew around a little bit, we came back. That was mostly my job. But then on the upside, they flew our mission again three months later. So the payload specialists got to do all their science. I got two for the price of one and it was just lucky, I suppose, if you can consider any type of failure lucky. Yeah. No, that's what I mean. Yeah, that two for price of one is pretty fantastic. That's pretty great. It feels weird to ask if there is a favorite part of being in space because one I imagine the whole thing is yes. But I mean, there are so many different things going on. I mean, is there a moment of quiet that happens where you just kind of get to really look or are you just so busy the whole time? I mean, I just I wonder about. For me, it was my first flight. I'd only been at NASA two years at that point. My only responsibilities were piloting the responsibilities and there aren't very many of those on a science mission. The International Space Station wasn't built. So I had a lot of free time because I wasn't doing any science. I spent numbers of hours in the flight deck looking out the window, staring at Earth and photographing Earth. And I took part in the NASA's Earth Observation Program where they would send me up a target that they wanted me to photograph. And I would have to find it and photograph it for their continuous studies of Earth. And so, yeah, I had a lot of time to gaze out the window and just soak it all in. Oh, that's awesome. That's so great. It's like you got the best part right there. That's fantastic. I'm so glad for you. I also had the clean the toilets though. Not so great. With every up there is a down, truly. Oh my gosh, I'm sorry to hear that. So one thing you mentioned right before we got into your space experiences where it was about sort of the next mountains to climb about you wanting to become a wife and a mother. And as I said earlier for me, I'm just in awe of women who have multiple kids and how you manage it, especially with an incredible career. So something that I hear a lot, you can't have it all at the same time, but you can try to have it all in your life like different seasons. And I feel like you really embody that sort of different seasons of life when I hear your story. And really that comes through so clearly to me. Was that, I mean, the next step in your life after coming back down to earth, were you just like laser focused on that goal? Is that sort of what drove you next? I did want to start a family. We did get married not too long after the two missions landed. And I got pregnant fairly quickly after that. I thought I would, like other women astronauts, I would have a child, I would do maternity leave and I would put my name back in the hat and fly in space again. And that's not the way I felt afterwards. My husband was in the military. He was deployed all the time. And I asked not to fly in space right away. I worked in mission control as the Capcom. So I had plenty to do. It's not like they needed more pilots to fly in space. They needed people to do all the jobs that there are to do. So I asked not to fly right away. And then we got pregnant with our second. And I asked to go work at NASA headquarters so the family could all be together because my husband was assigned up there for a couple of years at the State Department. And then ultimately with our two children and my husband got assigned to Puerto Rico, I elected to go back to the regular Navy and leave NASA just to keep the family together. And then we went on to have two more kids and I retired from the Navy and life goes on. But everybody, that's one of the great things about it is everybody gets to make the decisions that are right for them and their family and their circumstances. And even in the small population of the astronaut office, you will see women that have done it every way there is to do it. Had kids flown in space, not had kids, not gotten married, gotten married, all of it. It's all represented in that tiny little segment of women. Yeah. I think that's so wonderful. And what a great example for young women who are coming up now just to see that the definition of one of the most challenging jobs there is, if not the most challenging job there is, and there are different ways to approach your personal life. And there are always hard choices that have to be made no matter what, no matter what path someone takes, but there is no one way. I think it's just really great to see the different examples. Everybody needs to make the decision that's right for them. And yeah, would I have loved to have flown in space again? Absolutely. But not at the expense of my family and my kids. I completely understand that. I completely get that. I'm going to change now that we have talked quite a bit about your life. I know also you've been working on a lot of stuff lately. So one of the many things you've been working on is a book. So I should say book or is it multiple books? Actually, do you have multiple books that you've worked on or is it? Yeah, there's only one that's published and one I am currently working on. Okay. So let's start with, I don't know how much you can tell me about the one you're working on, but the one that is currently published, let's talk about that one. So give me the elevator pitch for this book. An unlikely astronaut is a children's book ages like three to eight. And it's a picture book, amazing illustrations by a woman that lives in the UK. And it's just basically my story, but the whole message is if I can grow up and become an astronaut, kids can grow up to become whatever it is they want to be. And it just sort of goes through my story of how unlikely it was that a little girl in bare feet growing up in rural Georgia in the sixties would go on to some day pilot the space shuttle. That is a pretty amazing pass. Why a children's picture book? Why not middle grade or a novel? I love children's books. So I'm not saying that is a bad thing by anything. And also my kid is seven. So very much in the age range of this book. But yeah, I just out of curiosity, why a kid's book? One it was a COVID project. And I just sort of wrote it out and I had four kids. So you can imagine how many picture books I have bought and read to my kids. And I think that for me, the encouragement from my family started at that age. And so I was hoping to provide encouragement for other kids at that age. Of course, middle school kids need to be encouraged just as well, teens, even young adults. I mean, there's there's no end to how many people need to hear the message that you can become what it is you want to become. And I mean, I'm a firm believer of work hard, be the best you can be at it. Sometimes you will fail. I mean, I did, everybody does, but that's part of that journey. And either find another way around it or find something else you'd rather do or whatever. But you know, just encourage each other. I've been saying it a lot, but again, there's such a clear through line and so much of what you've said about that support from from others and building each other up and enjoying that journey, as you said, because I think for many people, especially who are very focused on a goal, sometimes that gets lost. It's important. So Susan, it's good. Before we move on, I just wanted to say that I couldn't have done the book by myself. Like everything else in life, you need support. So I need to shout out to Francis French, who helped me edit the book and Becky Hardy, who illustrated the book. And she's not an illustrator. She's a CPA. Oh, well, I love, I love her illustrations. That's wonderful. That's so great. Well, that I again, all that community support and working together in teams, I feel like that is that is really the key to success for so much. And you mentioned also that you have another book. Do you want to give us a hint on what that's about? Sure. This one's not for children. It's target audience really is for young women, professional women, women in male-dominated fields. And it's kind of the lessons I learned along the way, because at the time, although I wasn't the first woman to do anything, I was within the first group of women usually and, and or at least the first few. And I am disappointed, surprised, surprised and disappointed that it's still a struggle in many instances for women in male-dominated fields or other minorities, minority groups in fields that they're underrepresented in. And so it's just basically stories of my life and the things that I encountered and how I overcame different obstacles and roadblocks or did it. Sometimes I failed at it. I share that frustration. I went to engineering school for two years and left after two because I also realized engineering was not for me, but it amazes me that one year's on the ratios have not changed. Me being the only lady in the class kind of situation, like, that hasn't really changed. So it's lots more work to be done. It's amazing. It's amazing. But that your perspective is so valuable and, you know, that sadly there's a lot more work to be done, but hearing from folks who've been through it and have that live experience is so, so valuable. So I look forward to hearing more about that book as more details are shared with us. Well, Susan, I know you, you do a lot of public speaking. I imagine there's some words of wisdom you like to leave your audiences with as you're wrapping up. So I figure I'll give you the floor. Anything you want to let the audience know before we wrap up. Well, it's a repeat of what I said earlier. Basically pick your journey, forge your journey and enjoy your journey, whatever it may be and wherever it may lead you. That's it for T-minus Deep Space, brought to you by N2K Cyberwire. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. T-minus Deep Space is produced by Alice Carruth. Our associate producer is Liz Stokes. We are mixed by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester with original music by Elliot Peltzman. Our executive producer is Jennifer Iban. Our executive editor is Brandon Karp. Simone Petrella is our president. Peter Kilpie is our publisher. And I'm your host, Maria Varmasus. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time. [MUSIC PLAYING] , [MUSIC PLAYING] . [MUSIC PLAYING] [MUSIC PLAYING] [MUSIC]

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